Verma takes a short cut to India women's team

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Shafali Verma's journey to become part of the India women's cricket team began with a haircut.

Growing up in Haryana, a state well known for its male bias and skewed sex ratio, the 10-year-old Verma enrolled in the Shree Ram Narain Cricket Academy but was banned from playing in the male-only tournaments as organisers said she might get hurt.

Frustrated but undeterred, she had a plan.

"It was her idea," her father Sanjeev told Reuters from the northern city of Rohtak. "She said, 'What if I crop my hair? I don't think anyone would notice I'm a girl.'"

Thankfully for Verma, and Indian cricket, nobody did.

"Nobody noticed her among the boys and she got important match experience," said Sanjeev. "It was an important decision we made. Her career could have been nipped in the bud."

That career has now blossomed, with the 16-year-old Verma earning a place in the national side for this month's Twenty20 World Cup in Australia.

Awarded a central contract by the Indian board earlier this month, Shafali was then signed up by the same sports marketing company which represents the country's top badminton player PV Sindhu and male cricketer Ravindra Jadeja.

Her father, who runs a small jewellery shop, has been a stubborn supporter of his daughter's cricket dream but gave her a deadline to realise it.

"I'd told her, 'The first 19 years of your life are yours - chase your dream. If you can't make it big by 19, you'll follow what I say'."

Verma is well on her way to "making it big" and her father is building a gym for her on the first floor of their modest house in Rohtak.

With women wrestlers from Haryana wining medals at the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, Sanjeev said a wind of change was blowing through the conservative state.

"The success of Sakshi Malik and the Phogat sisters inspired many girls," he said. "Shafali had no girl to play with in the locality. Now there are nearly 30 girls in that academy alone."

Fellow 16-year-old Richa Ghosh's story is not too dissimilar.

Her passion for cricket clashing with cultural expectations, Ghosh lacked opportunities to play in Siliguri, a bustling town nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas.

"For some reason, parents were not very keen to let their daughters play cricket," her father Manabendra told Reuters. "So Richa had no other option but to play with boys at a local club."

Convinced of her potential, Manabendra took his daughter to Kolkata and even before reaching her teens she had made the state's under-19 team, eventually earning a place in the senior side which also had former India captain Jhulan Goswami.

"She never chickened out of any contest, even when playing against boys," said Manabendra, who also umpired club matches.

"It has made her fearless. She has grown better as a player because of this."

Ghosh has also claimed a place in India's World Cup squad. Manabendra hopes her rise will encourage more girls to take up the sport back home.

"Girls are now being allowed in cricket camps, along with the boys. I hope many more girls follow in Richa's footsteps."

India will begin their World Cup campaign in the February 21 tournament opener against defending champions Australia in Sydney.

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