Not surprisingly, Sushma Verma is a difficult woman to sit down for a chat with. The Under-19 women’s team captain went on to make heads turn at in the ICC Women’s World Cup this year; her 34-run stand helped cinch a crucial victory over Pakistan less than a month ago. The team unfortunately lost in the finals, but if you were to see the outpouring of warmth they received, you’d think otherwise.
The hero’s welcome the team walked into upon their return at the airport is in sharp contrast to their quiet departure. “When we left from Mumbai, no one recognised us. It was expected that we’d go through the motions, participate like we do each year and then return. No one expected that we’d reach the finals, perhaps not even us,” she smiles.
Having Akshay Kumar cheering on the team in the stadium, and the social media love from their celebrity fanbase (including a certain Prime Minister Narendra Modi), helped take the sting out of their unfortunate defeat in the finals. “For a while, we almost forgot that we’d lost,” she laughs.
The 24-year-old has since had a dressing room named after her at the Gumma Stadium in Shimla, and been offered the post of Deputy Superintendent of Police in her home town by Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh. Her exploits on the field have also earned her the attention of sports magnate, Puma, who added her to their roster last September.
So ultimately, all wasn’t lost, but Sushma sobers up when she remembers her journey from the small town of Shimla to putting the Indian women’s cricket team on the world map. “Himachal Pradesh, unfortunately, doesn’t have exposure for any type of sport. The problem that held parents back then was the lack of knowledge. While a majority of them weren’t aware that their girls would like to explore cricket professionally, the remaining weren’t sure how to attain professional coaching,” the wicketkeeper rues.
Their recent success on the pitch has helped open up the dialogue about encouraging girls to pursue sports, but it was the economics of the game that used to worry her. “When I started playing, a good cricket bat cost Rs 7,000, which was a huge amount for us back then. But now I can see kids coming out in full gear from day 1 itself, and I think 15-year-old me would have been happy to see that,” she says.
Sushma has come a long way since, and earned a spot on the radar of the men’s cricket team two years ago. “We happened to share the same pitch with the men’s team in Australia, and they started taking us seriously when they saw us playing. This year, the tweets from the cricket fraternity started pouring in from the first game of the World Cup itself. It is heartening to know that it’s not just us who watches the boys play. The tables have finally turned,” she says, smiling slowly as if only daring to believe.