Deepti Sharma learns from past missteps to inch India closer to glory

Deepti (L) was brilliant in the CWG semi-final against England
Deepti (L) was brilliant in the CWG semi-final against England

27th March 2022, Christchurch, the Indian women’s cricket team is engrossed in a do-or-die clash against South Africa when Deepti Sharma is entrusted with arguably the toughest gig on the field – bowling the final over, with South Africa only requiring 7 off 6 balls.

Deepti does well to hold her nerve for the first four balls, conceding as many runs and forcing South Africa to take risks. Mignon du Preez takes the bait and tries to launch the off-spinner over long-on on the penultimate delivery. The ball doesn’t make a good sound off the bat and swirls towards long on, where Harmanpreet Kaur accepts the offering gleefully.

India, unsurprisingly, break into raptures. With du Preez out of the way, they know they can defend 3 runs off the final ball, and can seal a place in the semi-final. Their celebrations, though, are cut short, just as quickly as they had begun.

Deepti has, to everyone’s dismay, overstepped. Du Preez and South Africa can’t believe their luck. Not only has their experienced batter gotten an unlikely reprieve, they now require 2 runs off 2 balls, with a Free Hit lined up as well.

In a moment, everything comes crashing down for Deepti. For a chunk of the over, it seemed that she would lap up all the accolades, pose for the cameras and revel in the glory of India reaching the semi-final. Now, she has to answer questions about how she could make such an elementary error, that too with history at India’s doorstep.

Cut to almost four months later. And possibly an even bigger stage. Cricket has finally been included in the Commonwealth Games, and the members of the Indian women’s cricket team have to carry a billion hopes. They’ve arrived in pretty decent shape, having outwitted Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka and they also find themselves in a relatively easier group.

Selfie of the day - courtesy @JemiRodrigues 😎🤳#TeamIndia #B2022

Deepti, much like it was at the Women’s World Cup at the start of the year, is one of India’s bowling lynchpins. She bowls the tough overs. She bowls when India need a wicket, and she never shirks away her responsibility. But in the semi-final, another do-or-die clash like the one against South Africa in March, India find themselves in a bit of trouble.

They have put up 164 on the board. On most occasions, that would be enough, considering the pressure that accompanies a semi-final. Against England, though, it’s not as straightforward. The hosts, for context, have won all of their games in the tournament so far. Their experienced players haven’t been as influential as they usually are but their youngsters have stood up to be counted.

One of those aka Sophia Dunkley races out of the traps. The first ball she faces is a high full toss. Yet, she manages to put it away. The Free Hit that follows is also dispatched to the boundary. An over later, she climbs into Meghna Singh, picking up a couple of boundaries in as many deliveries.

Deepti Sharma was brilliant under pressure against England

With India under the pump, Harmanpreet, rather expectedly, turns to Deepti. The off-spinner immediately exercises control, conceding only four singles off the first four balls. There is pressure on the batter to take a risk, and take her side closer to victory. The huge mow over the leg side seems very enticing, and a body blow at this stage could perhaps even push India over the edge.

Deepti takes a deep breath. She visualizes how she wants to hoodwink Dunkley, although she also knows that the English batter is the one calling the shots. Then, almost as if a current runs through her body, she realises she has been here before. A situation where the batter seems to hold all the aces after four balls and the fifth ball is vitally important.

The penultimate ball again brings about a wicket. Only this time, Deepti has ensured that it counts. So, a part of the ghost of Christchurch has been vanquished. Another crucial component, though, remains a bit of rectifying.

What a spectacular effort from the @BCCIWomen team to beat England and enter the finals of the Commonwealth Games. The temperament in the last few overs was outstanding. A medal assured and let's pray it's a Gold 🏅for our girls tomorrow. #IndvEng #CommonwealthGames2022

On that evening at Christchurch, India withered away an opportunity to reach the semi-final. They’ve already reached that stage but with so much history at stake, nothing but a final appearance would suffice.

After 16 overs, it feels England are on the brink of victory. They’ve just ransacked 15 runs off the 16th over, and have reduced the equation to 33 runs required off 4 overs. Deepti has one over left, meaning that she has to have maximum impact whenever she bowls.

At that stage, it would’ve been easy for Harmanpreet to hold Deepti back, hoping that if the game stretches that far, the latter can keep a lid on the run-scoring. But she doesn’t. She acknowledges the significance of the situation and hands Deepti the ball for the 17th over.

And what does Deepti do? Produce a three-run over that transfers all the pressure onto England. From coasting (relatively, of course) to victory, they now have to think about taking the attack to India again. In the blink of an eye, the dynamics have changed and that, more than anything else, proves why Deepti is such a special cricketer.

Not many have the ability to tilt the scales of a high-pressure encounter as swiftly as she can. She picks wickets. She knows how to keep the batters in check. But most tellingly, she learns from previous mistakes and ensures that those aren’t repeated.

A closer look at her career tells you she has been doing this gig ever since she shot to stardom. She bowled the final over of the 2017 Women’s World Cup final. She took up responsibility at the Women’s World Cup earlier in the year, and at a crucial juncture in the Commonwealth Games, she made sure she would transform India’s fortunes.

She hasn’t always been successful. But she never wants to not put herself into those circumstances either. These are very rare traits for a 24-year-old cricketer, male or female. And if anything, this exhibits how the all-rounder will be around to change the course of cricket matches, irrespective of what has happened in the past, or the form she is currently going through.

On this occasion, it has helped India inch closer to eternal sporting glory. That Deepti has learnt from previous missteps has only made that journey sweeter.

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Edited by Prasen Moudgal
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