On June 24, 2017, Deepti Sharma made her World Cup debut at age 19, in India's tournament opener, her first game in England. She got a wicket off her very first ball - Natalie Sciver caught behind. It also happened to be the first wicket via the DRS in women's cricket. The left-hand batting allrounder would go on to finish the tournament with 216 runs, and as India's leading wicket-taker; skipper Mithali Raj called her one of India's future captains.
Two years on from that breakout performance, though, Deepti's primary skill, batting, is not quite where it ought to be. Fellow left-hander Smriti Mandhana took over the opening slot in the 2017 World Cup and made it her own. Since then, Deepti, the holder of India's highest individual score in ODIs, has been shunted up and down the order across formats, and has had to make do with limited, infrequent opportunities with the bat. But as she gears up to make her Kia Super League debut in the UK, one of only four Indians - Mandhana, Jemimah Rodrigues and Harmanpreet Kaur are also playing - in the tournament, she is hoping for a second wind.
"Some days," she says, "things would go fine and I'd click [in ODIs]". That happened in sweltering Nagpur last year. Elsewhere, as on a flat Potchefstroom track in February 2018, she finished with an inadequate 112-ball 79 as an opener; and a 49-ball 27 in Mumbai, from No. 6. In T20Is, since January 2018, she has batted in 15 of 24 completed matches - six times at Nos. 6 and 7, twice at Nos. 8 and 9, and seven times at Nos. 3, 4 and 5. "Irrespective of where you bat, how much you score, how quick or slow you score, or how many wickets you get, if India lose, it means you needed to do better on the day," she says.
The lack of clarity about one's role in the team can often cause young allrounders to devolve into bits-and-pieces players. But Deepti, who is currently second on the list of ODI allrounders, after only Ellyse Perry, says she has averted this by conscientiously raising the quality of her offspin.
"I back myself as an allrounder," she says, "and batting-wise, I have prepared myself to go in anywhere. If the team wants to use me as a floater or gives me a designated position, I am happy fulfilling any role they assign. The Indian team has entered a stage where each one of us has a lot to prove, and as an allrounder, I have a lot of work to do in every department because the competition has gone up."
"The younger Deepti would think that once you made it to the Indian team, you've achieved a lot. What she didn't realise back then is that to stay there is a different challenge"
The youngest Indian, male or female, to take a five-wicket haul in ODIs, Deepti is the second fastest (43 matches) and second youngest woman to the career double of 1000-plus runs and 50-plus wickets in the format. She is also among the more reliable fielders in the Indian side, alongside Harmanpreet, Rodrigues and Veda Krishnamurthy.
During the ODI series opener in New Zealand earlier this year, both those skills were on display. First, she handed India a momentum-changing breakthrough in the 14th over, her rocket arm catching Sophie Devine short. Later, in the 17th over, she set up Suzie Bates with a string of dot balls under overcast conditions, bowling her for her 50th ODI wicket.
Deepti says that a good run in overseas leagues can help recalibrate international careers. For an example, she only needs to look to Mandhana, who went through a lean patch during the World Cup, stringing together a series of single-digit scores after making 90 and 108 in the first two matches, but topped the batting charts when she came back to England for her maiden KSL stint.
"Smriti becoming the Player of the Tournament [in KSL], becoming the leading run-getter last year, showed that Indians can not only do well, but excel. The way her consistency improved after that brief lean patch, it's been very encouraging for all [of us in the Indian dressing room]. She's kept scoring runs and, as ever, kept her composure while batting, which I admire in her."
Deepti will also be Mandhana's team-mate in the KSL - both are set to play for last season's finalists, Western Storm. Earlier, after her World Cup performance, Deepti was briefly on the radar of WBBL teams, but an offer didn't materialise. So, during the Women's T20 Challenge in May this year, when Storm got in touch with Deepti via Mandhana, she was quick on the trigger. A second franchise, Lancashire Thunder, offered her a contract ten days later, but she didn't waver.
"I had a chat with Trevor Griffin [Western Storm head coach] on WhatsApp," says Deepti, "and since Smriti had played there last year, that's also a bit of an assurance, for I know there's someone I already know and have played with, who knows the group, the coach and the culture."
The three-team Women's T20 Challenge, held in Jaipur last May during the IPL, also brought learnings she hopes to use in the days leading up to the World T20 in February-March next year, and the World Cup in 2021.
"Sophie [Ecclestone, England spin-bowling allrounder] is only 19 or 20, but in the Women's T20 Challenge, I saw how sorted she was," says Deepti. Ecclestone bowled the penultimate over in the opener, where she gave away only two runs defending 21.
"You look at Sophie and you won't think she is ever under stress. Suzie Bates, too, gave off a similar impression, but in reality you know each one of them is under pressure because this is top-flight competitive cricket after all. Their approach to high-pressure situations is something I think we [the Indian team] have a lot to learn from."
Deepti pulled off an impressive bowling performance herself in the tournament, in her side Trailblazers' second game. She was handed the ball in the 18th over, with the opposition, Velocity, just two shy of victory. Deepti bowled three batsmen, including her ODI captain Raj, in five deliveries, capping off a sequence where Velocity lost five wickets for no runs. Deepti's figures in that match read 4 for 14.
"In T20s, I try to bowl slightly flatter, but not without variations," says Deepti. "I make it a point to use the crease, the box, more than in ODIs, and I practise all of that both with the new ball and for the slog overs. Bowling wicket to wicket may seem simple but it helps me get in a few dot balls here and there."
"Irrespective of where you bat, how much you score, how quick or slow you score, or how many wickets you get, if India lose, it means you needed to do better on the day"
As far as batting goes, Deepti says she has altered her approach this past domestic season, playing for Bengal, and later while training under her elder brother Sumit during a visit to her home town Agra.
"I tried to adopt a slightly more aggressive approach," she says, "because if at any point the team wants me to perform a role in that mould, I should be able to do that. My strength is playing in the V, but I've been trying to get more confident in other scoring areas too, with the slog sweep, the lofted strokes."
That helped during the New Zealand tour earlier this year, but the series as a whole was a mixed bag for her. Deepti's standout performance came in the third and final ODI, where she made 52 - but in a losing cause: India collapsed and folded for 149. In the three T20Is that followed, she made 5, 6 and an unbeaten 21. There were, however, takeaways from the tour.
"First, working under [WV] Raman sir," for whom it was the first assignment as India's head coach. "He keeps encouraging me, and pretty much everyone - it helps my confidence. Second, relearning the importance of watching the ball at the point of release because there's a lot of wind in New Zealand, so it gets more challenging there. It's a simple thing we are taught in our early days of formal training with the bat, but a reminder about how vital it is can have a big impact on our batting."
When it comes to her bowling, one aspect in particular has attracted attention.
"Soon after [R] Ashwin's mankading incident [the Jos Buttler dismissal in the IPL], many people started saying maybe I would also do this someday," says Deepti with a chuckle about her tendency to stop in her delivery stride or pull out of her action altogether. "It's a way to upset the batsman's rhythm, and I think it works for me. I started doing it out of sheer whim, and then it became a habit. Everyone in the Indian team knows Deepti does this, so they just let me be, but no opposition batsman has ever told me anything about it."
Which side of the debate does she come down on?
"If I have to mankad, I'll give the non-striker a warning first, because even though it's within the laws, I don't think it's in the spirit of the game."
Now in the fifth year of her international career, Deepti says captaining her former domestic sides UP and Central Zone, and India Green last year, and playing and living in a new city, Kolkata, as a professional for Bengal since the 2017-18 season, have helped broaden her perspective on playing for the national team.
"The younger Deepti would think that once you make it to the Indian team, haan, bahut kuch kar liya [you've achieved a lot]. What she didn't realise back then is yahan pe baney rehna bhi ek alag challenge hai. Women's team hai toh kya hua? [To stay stuck in is a different challenge, so what if it's the women's team?] A cricket team is a cricket team, and each one of us has to prove our worth."
A hectic international schedule awaits her - India will host South Africa in September, then fly to the West Indies the following month. A tri-series in Australia in January 2020 will precede the World T20, and she could also be in contention for a place in the A side that will tour Australia in December this year. There are plenty of opportunities, but a steady stream of rookie talents making their way into the Indian team means there is that much more competition for each of those slots.
Deepti says she is aware of the challenges facing her and is gearing up to tackle them head-on. "Meri jo aggression hain na, woh thodi shaant type ki aggression hain [My aggression is a quiet aggression]," she says. "I mean, my personality is such you'll see that aggression reflect in my desire to get better in all three departments. I am not someone who will show aggression in any other way. I am quiet and shy by nature."
She says the uptick in interest in the India women's cricket team following the 2017 World Cup has brought in some new pressures. "After the tournament, we got greater financial security and recognition. Earlier, I used to be really shy even to say yes to selfie requests, and although it doesn't come naturally to me even now, I'm learning to tackle these [requests]," she says.
On the cusp of turning 22, some things haven't changed for her, though. The hair still remains close-cropped. Social media posts are still only part of "being an athlete managed by a player-management company". And she continues to be as soft-spoken: every third syllable she utters still makes a listener lean in to catch it.
Most of all, by Deepti's own admission, she continues to be every bit the Suresh Raina fan, who during India's World Cup opener tweeted that Deepti was one of his favourite players.
"It's still that Raina inside-out six that I want to nail," says Deepti. "It never was perfect, and still requires a lot of work. I'll keep at it until I get it right."