On September 24, the Indian women’s cricket team took the field against South Africa where a 15-year-old Shafali Verma opened for the home side etching her name in the record books becoming the youngest Indian player to represent the country in T20Is at 15 years 239 days.
By making her debut at such a young age, Shafali became the second youngest Indian to play international cricket. The distinction of becoming the youngest cricketer for India across all formats also goes to a woman — Gargi Banerji, who at the age of 14 years and 165 days played her first match back in 1978. Moreover, her debut was marked at the game’s grandest stage — in a World Cup match against England at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata. It was the second edition of the women’s World Cup.
Born in Kolkata in July 1963, Banerji had always been enthusiast about sports and grew up playing football, basketball and badminton at the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA). Women’s cricket had just made its inroads in Bengal, which further kindled her interest to give it a shot. To internalise the nitty-gritty of the gentleman’s game, she started training under the aegis of Late Kalyan Biswas and Late Kartik Bose. Her supportive family stood beside her and encouraged her throughout and, she got drafted into the Bengal side. As soon as she picked up her game, she started to nurse bigger dreams and made it to the Indian national team. However, before she could make her debut, she had to endure the grief of her father’s demise. Affected by monetary hardships, and no modern-day facilities in the sport, only passion kept Banerji going.
Banerji had shown promise playing in the national and zonal level domestic tournaments where she notched up a few centuries. Selectors were impressed by her form which eventually earned her a place at the squad for the World Cup in 1978 Banerji made her international debut even before turning 15. And six years down the line, she went on to play her first test match for India against Australia in 1984. She still holds vivid memory of this test match where she scored a half-century in the second innings.
She shared the dressing room with some of the biggest names of women’s cricket in that era, including Diana Eduljee, Shanta Rangaswamy, and Shubangi Kulkarni, who have captained the team on various occasions.
Eventually, she ended up representing the nation in 26 ODIs and 12 Tests. In the 12 tests, she amassed a total score of 614 runs, with the highest score of 75 and crossing the half-century threshold six times. In the ODIs, she scored 409 runs, with the highest score of 61. Banerji was picked for India’s first tour of England – in 1986 – where she scored 60 and 75 in the Blackpool Test. She was even a medium-pacer bowler and once in a test inning, she notched an extraordinary bowling figure of six for nine in Cuttack, against New Zealand.
Impressed by her batting, late Madhavrao Scindia offered her a job contract at the cricket field. She helped to raise the bar of women’s cricket in India by being associated with Indian cricket in various capacities. As the chairperson of Indian women’s cricket team selection committee (2011-2014), she gave chances to budding women cricketers. Gargi felt that the more number of matches the youngsters played, will help them understand the difference between domestic and international circuit. In April 2017, she was bestowed with the prestigious honorary life membership of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC).
While women’s cricket in India is making big strides with the likes of Smriti Mandhan, Jhulan Goswami, Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur becoming household names with their brilliant track records, players like Banerji were the ones who had sowed the seed and had set examples for the future generation.