Smriti Mandhana IND W Test

“96 pe out ho kar kaun hi bhoolta hai yaar?”

Shafali Verma hadn’t.

On her Test debut, three years ago in Bristol, Verma was India’s teenaged T20I specialist taking the plunge. She would have been forgiven to do the most T20 things then. Like, seeking a glory shot to bring up the hundred and going hard at a lofted drive only to perish with a catch to mid-off. That would be the closest she’d get to an international hundred for the next three years, across formats. So, clearly, Verma had not forgotten the agony.

Cut to 2024, in only her fifth Test, Verma would have perhaps again been forgiven to stick to her T20 guns en route her record-breaking day out at the Chepauk. Women’s Tests are still a niche after all, with a participation base of a sum total of four countries. And three months away from a T20 World Cup, the India opener desperately needed runs under her belt. It didn’t matter what format exactly she managed to regain her mojo in, as long as she got there. Shown the door in the previous ODI assignment, she’d been taught she wasn’t exactly indispensable. Backed again through a lean patch and poor shot-selection in the next series, against South Africa in Bengaluru, Verma knew she was running out of time. So, true to her style, she switched to what she does best – sheer domination.

It wasn’t easy getting there though. The not-so-familiar red ball was swinging early, the red-soil surface was keeping low, there were obvious ghosts of the past (week), and a direct hit would have all but ended yet another shot at redemption at just 4. Verma began cautiously against the new-ball pair that managed to keep it tight at both ends, assured in her foot work and happy to lightly nudge away the occasional full-tosses as well. The luring deliveries outside off were all hard to resist, but the Indian opener was determined to play the long game.

After two and a half maidens on the trot, Masabata Klaas got one pitched up delivery to move away from her and beat her outside edge. On the very next ball after completely missing the driving opportunity, Verma creamed one through the covers with the full face of the bat, not using her brute force but the pace of the ball to her advantage instead. There was no looking back from there.

It obviously helped that Smriti Mandhana, coming into the game on the back of nearly 350 runs against the opposition in the ODIs, was only 22 yards away and timing everything to absolute perfection to break down South Africa’s confident start one off-side stroke at a time. Taking cue from the senior, and an occasional word of advice, Verma shed the circumspect approach and leaned into her T20 instincts to take charge.

A whopping 72% of her 205 runs came on her preferred on-side including 14 of her 23 boundaries. Verma plundered eight sixes – the most in a women’s Test innings – and all of them straight down the ground to long-on. Her take-down of spin, once the ball was old, ensured it was a perfect duet in motion alongside Mandhana, with whom she feasted to South Africa’s wayward bowing that followed as they forged the now highest opening partnership of 292 in all of women’s Tests. Offspinner Delmi Tucker, who sent down more than one-fourth of the 98 overs the South Africans toiled for in the field on the opening day in Chennai, was alone taken for 70 runs by the 20-year-old.

At the same time, her brazen approach did not lack the underlying layer of restraint that the traditional format demands. The balance was evident because at no point did she look to needlessly find ways to throw it away – something Verma has been guilty of more often than not, and most recently in the preceding ODIs. The temptation to go against the spin and slog-sweep – a shot that ended her promising start in the second one-dayer on 20 – didn’t make an appearance until after the century today. Batting on 97, she admittedly had her Bristol dismissal replaying in her mind but when left-armer Nonkululeko Mlaba dished out a hit-me legside freebie, it was duly flicked away to the fence with disdain. Later, the two full deliveries from Tucker were hammered down the ground for consecutive sixes to go from 187 to 199 but the third was only pushed along the ground to bring up the milestone, and a leaping celebration with it.

“Today in my 90s, that first knock totally flashed before my eyes. I could not have let that happen again. And I told myself that those four runs today are more crucial than ever,” Verma said after play on Day 1 in Chennai.

“I wasn’t able to convert my starts in the ODIs to a substantial score. My plan was to take my time at the start as there was movement early on and they were bowling well too in that period. So the idea was to back my strengths, but at the same time take some time, get a feel of the surface, and find a way to stick it out for a long period.”

With the 113-ball hundred – her first across formats – Verma had rewritten the record for the fastest one on the circuit by a fair distance. She converted it into a double at better than run-a-ball, which is a first in women’s cricket history. The standing ovation from the Chepauk crowd, Mandhana and head coach Amol Muzumdar’s ear-to-ear grins in the dugout, and the handshakes from even the opposition was enough validation. Even though India’s white-ball specialist, Verma looked absolutely at home in whites.