Deepti Sharma (L) and Poonam Raut have been phenomenal for India Women © Getty Images
Deepti Sharma (L) and Poonam Raut have been phenomenal for India Women © Getty Images

On Monday, May 15, India Women defeated Ireland Women by 249 runs in their second league encounter in the Women’s Quadrangular tournament at Potchefstroom. The foundation of India’s largest victory in ODIs was laid by their opening batters Deepti Sharma and Poonam Raut, who stitched together a world record partnership worth 320 runs. The pair beat the previous record of 268 set by Sarah Taylor and Caroline Atkins in 2008.

Raut (109) and Sharma both scored their maiden centuries, with the latter’s 188 becoming the second highest individual score in ODIs, behind Belinda Clark’s unbeaten 229. Sharma also set a new record for the most number of fours hit in an innings, 27, beating Rachel Priest’s best of 23.

For many years, both players have been known in the domestic circuit for their ability to play the long innings. On several occasions, in both age-group and senior level tournaments, Raut and Sharma have managed to bat through 50 overs, scoring big runs for their respective teams. While their ability to bat for long periods was never in question, the skill to score at a decent pace needed to be developed.

Over the last 12-18 months both have expanded their game and brought in shots that allow them to up the ante when required. Sharma’s newfound ability to clear the straight field at will and play both the paddle and conventional sweep, has made her a spinner’s nightmare. Raut, on the other hand, uses the scoop and slog-sweep to good effect and is not afraid to go over the top against the pace bowlers as well.

What they did admirably against Ireland was to score at a good rate. Raut set the tone early in the innings, allowing her younger partner to settle down and play herself in, while Sharma picked up the pace later in the innings.

Raut and Sharma complement each other well as a pair. Apart from being right and left-handers respectively, they run well, score in different areas, are quick learners and are — more recently — willing to take the attack to the bowlers. With Smriti Mandhana coming back into the mix for the World Cup, India now have the enviable problem of plenty at the top of the order with Raut, Deepti and Mona Meshram all in good form.

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Deepti Sharma’s name was being whispered around the domestic circuit in 2013. She was doing well at the Under-19 level. She had made her way into the Uttar Pradesh senior team as well, at a mere 16.

We first caught a glimpse of her in November that year, the day before Hyderabad was due to face UP in a one-day match that November. For five minutes I watched her bat in the nets, and it seemed like every other ball that was angled across her was squaring her up. As a bowling unit we had our plans in place — the ’keeper and slips had to be ready.

Sharma showed no nerve when she walked out to bat at the top of the order for UP next day. Granted, her team was chasing a low total, 126 to be precise, but she was only 16 and playing at Senior level. She calmly took her guard, looked around at the field and prepared to face the bowling.

Two balls angled across her. Sharma was beaten both times. In went an extra slip. Sharma stared down the wicket, muttered something under her breath and settled back into her stance.

Next ball, pitched up slightly, pushed ever wider, nicked to second slip; she was put down. An angry rant from the bowler followed, but Sharma paid no mind. She simply walked towards square-leg, looked up to the sky, said a short prayer, and took her guard again.

From then on, any ball outside the line of the stumps was left alone, and everything within her range was dealt with. There was a fierce focus about her — the will to push through difficulties and succeed at any cost. Her half-century anchored the chase and guided UP to a comfortable win.

While the crashing cover-drives and quick feet against the spinners caught the eye, it was the discipline Sharma showed that really stood out. She learned quickly and left the ball with great precision. There was a steely determination in her eyes, the kind that drives the very best.

A year later Sharma was making her ODI debut for the country, and it was that determination that shone through.

South Africa were cruising to victory when Sharma came in to bowl and put the brakes on the scoring. Her routine was simple: amble in, pitch the ball on a good length and force the batters to do something different. The result — 10 overs for 35 runs and 2 wickets. South Africa went on to win the game, but it was much tighter than expected.

After being shunted up and down the order for the first few matches, Sharma has settled into her role in the Indian team nicely. She has not only provided stability with the bat at the top of the order, but her bowling has brought a great deal of variety and balance into the attack.

One hundred, 4 fifties and 27 wickets into her ODI career, Sharma remains grounded and keen to work hard. That look in the eyes is still as fierce as it was all those years ago. As she has done so often with the bat for UP, Central Zone and now for India, her aim is to play for as long as she can — lamba khelna hai.

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Talk to Poonam Raut about batting and she can go on for hours. She will explain to you the intricacies of the different kinds of techniques players have; how a batter’s set-up at the crease can determine which areas of the ground she is likely to target; and how she tackles different kinds of bowlers.

She will talk about how she approaches an innings while batting first or chasing and what she has worked on to allow herself to keep growing as a batter. When she speaks of scoring rates it is almost like a physics class — power, momentum, strength and angles. In a short space of time, she will convince you that there is nothing in this world better than batting, and in that time you will realise how intelligent, calculative and calm she is when it comes to that part of her game.

If you let her, Raut will bat for the entire day. It is one of her greatest strengths and probably one of the reasons why she is involved in India’s highest partnerships in all three formats of the game — 275 with MD Thirushkamini in a Test against South Africa, 130 with the same partner in a T20I against Bangladesh and now the 320-run stand with Sharma.

All through her Under-19 and the early part of her senior career for Mumbai, Raut, as one of the team’s best batters, was expected to bat through the innings and score a bulk of the runs while the others batted around her.

It was the move to Railways that allowed her to expand her game quickly: “Playing for your state, you have an added responsibility of getting most of the runs as one of the main batters,” explains Raut. “In Railways, it is pretty much an Indian team line-up, so the onus is on maintaining a good strike rate and scoring quickly. You can take more chances because you know you have more batters to come. It is about understanding and catering to the needs of the team.”

When Raut played for Mumbai, she smashed her cuts and straight-drives with as much authority as she does now, but there was never any unorthodox or ‘risky’ play. The Raut of Railways, however, has learnt to play with freedom and an attitude that allows her to dominate at all times.

That she has made such an emphatic comeback into the Indian team is testament to her resilience and perseverance. She has looked within, enhanced her game and through sheer weight of runs forced her way back into the squad.

That aim achieved, Raut will be focused solely on her next innings. The first step is to win the Quadrangular series; then comes the World Cup and as she says “a chance to raise the profile of the women’s game in India.”