Sharma’s wicket in the last over of the opening session triggered a second collapse for India in as many innings, as they plummeted from 171 for 2 to 199 for 7. The cream of the batting gone – captain Mithali Raj and her deputy Harmanpreet Kaur, the Nos. 5 and 6, fell for 4 and 8 respectively – the visitors were staring at being bowled out for a lead inadequate to avert a maiden defeat in Tests in England.
The slip in concentration, or so it appeared, was arguably the only error from debutant Sharma in a painstakingly built, gritty maiden Test half-century that bought India crucial time following on, facing a 156-run deficit. The 241 balls across the two innings Sharma faced were the most by an Indian debutant in women’s Tests. Without her solid 29 not out at No. 7 in the first innings, India may have had a bigger follow-on tally to wipe out, not least exposing their openers sooner for a second outing, in overcast conditions.
“Deepti was one of the better players from the first innings who was in form, and who was already settled there [being not out in first innings],” Raj said of the rationale behind promoting Deepti to No. 3 in the second innings. “And she did play her role [very well].”
Part of the quintet of Indian debutants in the Test – their first appearance in the format since November 2014 – Sharma, a white-ball regular with over a 100 caps and a title-winning stint at the now-defunct KSL T20 league in the UK, was one of the architects of India’s hard-earned draw in Bristol.
“When I had batted in the first innings, I picked up confidence,” Sharma, 23, said at the post-match press conference. “All I focused on at the time was playing close to the body. When I was sent at one-down [in the second innings], I walked in with a different kind of a confidence to approach the day, session by session and according to the messages I was receiving [from the dressing room].
“Test match is about patience. You have to play with that one quality – in batting as well as bowling. I have received a lot of messages from my family. Tomorrow [Sunday] is also Father’s Day, and my daddy has also sent me congratulatory messages.”
“It’s been a special experience for me, this Test match, and my team members have also supported me, as has [Shiv Sunder] Das sir (the batting coach) with my batting at the nets. Ramesh [Powar] sir (the head coach) helped me with my bowling, so I was able to perform well in both departments.”
At the virtual media interaction after the match, both Sharma and Rana, whose unbeaten 80 at No. 8 left the England attack deflated in the thrilling closing session of the match, spoke of the tactical dynamics of that phase, most of which was caught by the stump mic.
“The England players were quipping something or the other after every ball, every over,” Sharma said. “So I made sure I didn’t heed any of that. They were deliberately coming close to us, trying to distract us. So as partners we were communicating after every ball so that we stay focused on the game.”
Making her first appearance for India after five years, Rana, who became the first Indian – male or female – to take a four-four and score a fifty on Test debut, said she too zoned out all noise during her 104-run ninth-wicket stand with wicketkeeper Taniya Bhatia.
“We just told each other that England were trying to say and do a lot of things to distract us, so were not paying any attention to that,” Rana said. “Taniya and I kept talking to each other after every ball, from a distance or up close. We kept motivating each other and said that we have to get this done.”
One of the success stories of the match, Rana’s performance earned her praise from her Railways and India captain.
“Sneh Rana is sure coming back after five years but that girl has clearly had good couple of domestic seasons,” Raj said of Rana’s vital contributions in the lower order, including a 41-run stand with Shikha Pandey that lasted nearly 16 overs. “I’m sure she walked in with loads of confidence. She played very, very sensibly, along with Taniya and Shikha Pandey. That partnership was very, very crucial for us, after losing Harman and Punam Raut at that stage.
“So, I’m mightily impressed with all the debutants because right from Shafali to Deepti, Sneh, Pooja Vastrakar and Taniya Bhatia, they’ve all really done well.
“See, we need to understand that they don’t have the experience and you can’t really bombard them with too many inputs about how to play in these situations and all you can do is give them a lot of confidence that they need to believe in their ability.”
The draw ensured India’s streak of five unbeaten Tests was intact. The overall gains, Raj said, were far more.
“Psychologically, I think, it’s a big boost [managing a draw after the fightback and splitting the points],” Raj said. “It definitely will put England on the back foot, clearly because they now know that even though the main batters have not performed, there’s this lower-middle order who stood up. So, the Indian batting line-up goes deep now. It’s not just the top order, the lower-middle order can also turn in match-winning partnerships.
“This draw will also help the Indians because they take a lot of confidence from here that there are not just one- or two match-winners but they themselves, if they put their mind to it, can be the match-winners for India. In any format. I think that’s a great way to start the series. From a situation at tea, where we were literally looking at a defeat – to come to a draw, that clearly shows that the girls are not ready to give up. They are ready to fight [till the last]. That is something we were trying to build in our team environment. We’ll take this forward from here so that the team grows from strength to strength, in not just one format but each time we take the field.”
With India due to play six limited-overs matches on this tour, starting June 27, and with a tour of Australia scheduled for September-October, the escape scripted by the Indians on Sunday, Raj hoped, would hold them in good stead in the near future.
“The biggest learning from this for India is that there are other players who can step up and deliver for the team what was required after the collapse in the first innings… These girls have shown that even with the lack of practice with the red ball or in the longer format, they can stand up and perform for India, and that confidence is what we will be carrying into the next game.
“I know it’s a pink-ball Test [in Australia]… But the mental space that these young girls will be in after today’s performance will have a very positive impact moving into [our preparation] for the pink-ball Test.”
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha