The crunching drives from the lanky left-handed Smriti Mandhana’s bat in the ICC Women’s World Cup opener against England caught the nation’s imagination. She dismantled the host’s attack to stage a win for her side. She followed it up with 106 against the World T20 champions West Indies in the next game.
“Our win over England in the first game gave us the belief that we can beat any side,” admitted Indian women’s cricket team skipper Mithali Raj who led India into second finals in the event.
With an upright stance, piercing the bowlers through off-side, Mandhana’s first couple of knocks invited praise from former Indian men’s top cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag. The televised games made her an overnight star, and she began trending on Twitter. Sourav Ganguly’s fans started comparing the flair and grace of Mandhana to the Bengal maestro in his hey days. She obviously didn’t see the praise as she wasn’t on social media during that important tournament.
Most of her aggressive shots came from the back foot. “Yes, I played mostly on the back foot during the tournament, but I love to play on the front foot as well. May be the previous injury played a part, but it didn’t hamper my movement. I love the aggression of Matthew Hayden and the shot playing style of Kumar Sangakkara,” she revealed.
The 21-year-old Mumbai player celebrated her 21st birthday just five days before the historic final at Lord’s on July 23. Unfortunately, she couldn’t maintain her consistency and managed just 36 runs in the last seven innings compared to 196 in the first two innings. People started doubting her technique, but the Sangli girl knows how to break conventions from her childhood.
In fact, she wasn’t even a natural left hander and started doing so as she thought it was the only way to bat as her elder brother Shravan (who played U-19 for Maharashtra) was a left-handed batsman.
“My dad was a fast bowler and my brother a left-handed batsman which is why I thought that is how one has to bat even though I am right-handed. We both are very similar in style. He didn’t teach me though; I learnt batting on my own,” she said.
She was born in Mumbai but shifted base to Sangli which is not known as a cricketing centre. But she showed promise, and that took her places. She started making waves in Maharashtra cricket in her early teens and debuted for India at the age of 17 after the 2013 World Cup in India where the hosts failed to qualify for the Super Sixes. She made it into the Big Bash (T20 League in Australia) along with Harmanpreet Kaur, but a grave knee injury in January almost wiped off her first World Cup appearance dreams.
It meant she couldn’t play in the World Cup Qualifiers, which Raj said was a blessing in disguise for them as it allowed them three more games to prepare better.
Mandhana also missed the quadrennial tournament in South Africa, which served as preparation tournament to the World Cup and India eventually won it. She got fit in time to make it to the World Cup squad.
Mandhana admitted it was a frustrating time, but it allowed her to focus on herself and develop serious fitness regimes which earlier she wasn’t keen on.
“The first two days were frustrating. That time I felt my World Cup dream is gone. I felt something was wrong, but after that, I decided to be a different individual altogether and do things which I did not do before the injury. I was not keen on fitness before my injury, but now I am. I don’t miss my gym and running sessions. I am positively taking this in my stride,” Mandhana said.
Six months on, the happy girl, who is fast turning into the next big thing in Indian women’s cricket was making a statement in Derby. She couldn’t carry on her promise throughout the tournament in which India eventually fell short by nine runs against England in the final, but she doesn’t want to stop here.
“Even I was thinking what happened after those two knocks. It has been haunting me. When I was out of shape, I performed well. And this time I was in the right form and yet I was not performing. It was a pathetic shot selection. Except the last match, the bowler did not take my wicket; I gifted it. So more than the technique, I will work on my shot selection,” said a wiser Mandhana.
For now, her next challenge is to pass her first year of college. “I have been in the first year for the last three years,” she said before bursting out in laughter. Before we could doubt her academic credentials, she quickly chipped in “I have not failed, I just haven’t given my exams.”
Well, to that we say, all the best, girl. Rise and shine....