Shafali Verma was distraught.
She had just been dismissed on the third ball of India's run chase in the final of the Women's T20 World Cup on March 8, 2020. Even though she'd had a tournament any 16-year-old would have dreamt of, finishing as India's highest run-scorer, in that moment India's chances of beating Australia were all but gone and Shafali was inconsolable.
Soon after their loss, the world changed as the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Three years on, ahead of another Women's T20 World Cup final, albeit at the Under-19 level, so has Shafali.
She turns 19 on the eve of the final of this tournament, which she has in many ways been the face of. With 74 international caps, she is, by some distance, the player with the most experience and highest profile among all 16 teams, but her selection has been the subject of some debate. Did India really need to pick her? Could they not win without her?
At least one person agreed with the call to select Shafali as captain for this event: two-time World Cup winner and coach Julia Price. "It's great for her, for the competition and for women's cricket. It's good for her to be the senior player. She's getting to work on player management, captaincy, interactions, difficult decisions, potentially even selections - all the things that she might not have to do when she's with the senior team," Price said. "It's a different way of her seeing the game and experiencing the game."
Shafali herself confirmed that being captain has taken up more headspace than usual for her and showed her the importance of being a good team player, whether you're the leader or not. "You end up being a lot more involved in the match, your mind is constantly at work, you're always learning something or the other. I'm even learning things from the girls in this team," she said. "Everyone here listens. And for me as a captain it reminds me of how important it is to listen to your captain. At times once you're done with your job, either bat or ball, you tend to switch off, but it's so important to remain focused with what the plan of the day is. You've got to focus on so many things beyond yourself when you're the captain."
Specifically, she has also gained an understanding of team selection. India have made as many six changes from one game to the next and changed the balance of their bowling attack even after wins. "You now know why someone gets picked regularly or why someone is dropped. That's something I've learned being here because I'm sitting with the head coach [Nooshin Al Khadeer] daily and taking these calls and making playing XIs," Shafali said. "I've learned that if a player is unable to identify and perform a specific role set for them that could cost them a place in the side, even if they're batting or bowling isn't bad per se. So that's been an experience."
Leadership aside, Shafali's primary job at this event is still to score runs, perhaps more so than at senior level because "she's the strongest player in the team, she's the best player here and needs to step up and perform", as Price put it.
She did that in the first two games, where she scored 45 and 78 against South Africa and UAE respectively. Since then, she has only managed 34 runs in four innings, which has been a wake-up call. "Its important to realise that it's not like just because it's a Women's U-19 tournament that there is no thought to the bowling or that the quality is considerably low. Under-19 players for instance are much faster when they run than the senior teams. So there's a lot to learn from even playing at this level," she said. "It's not like there are only slow bowlers here. You have to still work really hard for your runs."
That lesson is something former Pakistan allrounder Marina Iqbal thinks will also stand Shafali in good stead ahead of the senior T20 World Cup that starts next month. "I saw the frustration on her in the game against Scotland when she got out early, whereas in the senior side, she feels a certain level of comfort even if she is dismissed early. She'll learn better here, with her kind of game, how to build an innings," Iqbal said. "She doesn't need to work much here on things like technique because she's already played at the highest level. Here you want her to go through this confidence and exposure and get her form back in international cricket."
Shafali is coming off a mixed run at senior level, where she has scored two fifties in her last nine T20I innings, after crossing 20 only four times in 18 innings before that, and has only bowled 11 times in her 51 T20Is. At the U-19 World Cup, she has bowled in all but one match and has had an impact in pressure situations. She made two important strikes against South Africa in the opening game after their openers got off to a flying start, and then produced figured of 1 for 7 off 4 overs in the semi-final against New Zealand.
She hopes this can translate to senior level too. "I never bowled much earlier and it makes such a difference when you bowl compared to when you're just in the field," she said. "Today I feel confident bowling. I have bowled when I was a kid, as my father insisted that I [have a working knowledge of] everything. Once I joined the senior team, I started bowling again, thanks to Harman di [Harmanpreet Kaur]. She showed the confidence in me to bowl at the international level. And that's a confidence that helps me in this tournament that, yes, I can take matters in my own hands in a game situation."
With Shafali in the driving seat, there's a level of expectation that India could achieve something incredible this weekend, something she has spent the last three years waiting for. Back in 2020, she didn't have a reference point for defeat in a World Cup final. This time, she may not need one.