Since the high of the 2017 World Cup, India Women’s fortunes have swung like a sinusoidal wave. They had a successful tour of South Africa, winning both the One-Day International and Twenty20 International series. But they were then beaten 3-0 at home by Australia in the ODIs, and failed to make to the finals of the tri-nation T20I series, with England as the third team. However, they bounced back to win the ODI series against England 2-1.
In this period, one player whose graph has gone only upwards is Smriti Mandhana. The 21-year-old opener was India’s leading run-scorer in four of the five recently completed series, and only behind Mithali Raj in the T20Is against South Africa.
During her remarkable run, Mandhana had ten scores of 50 or more in 17 innings across formats. But the one knock which stood out was 86 off 109 deliveries against England in the first ODI in Nagpur. Chasing 208 on a turning track, India crossed the line with one wicket and five balls to spare.
In Mandhana’s own words, she had ‘never played so slowly in international cricket’. Her strike-rate of 78.89 during the innings was her lowest in a 50-plus innings since February 2016.
It was a revelation for Mandhana. “I never thought I would be able to bat on such a wicket and take the team to a winning position,” Mandhana tells Wisden India. “That was something like an eye-opener for me, that I have even this kind of game, because I never saw myself defending balls or playing on a bad wicket. That was an eye-opener, that I have this gear also in my batting. And if the wicket is not good for batting, I can go to this gear and take my time.”
“I never saw myself defending balls or playing on a bad wicket. That was an eye-opener, that I have this gear also in my batting.”
She struck five fours and four sixes but more importantly, ran 35 singles, two twos and a three. “I hit four sixes but I didn’t hit as many boundaries as I hit generally,” she continues. “I was concentrating on ones and twos, which is something really new in my game because I have a tendency to focus more on boundaries which sometimes is a bad thing.
“Changing my game depending on the wicket was something I wanted to do in my career. I am happy that I could do that but it will be better if I continue doing it and apply it till the winning runs are scored.”
The desire to take the team through – that was a recurring theme of our conversation. However, Mandhana maintains that it was not a conscious effort to drop anchor. It was the pitch which forced her to bat in that particular manner.
“I never take that pressure that I have to play this kind of role. It was just because of the way the wicket was behaving. The wicket wasn’t that great to bat on. It was turning square. I didn’t want to play a rash shot and get out. I just wanted to just stay on the wicket, make sure I am used to the wicket, and then think of what shots I can play.
“From the other end, two-three wickets had already fallen. That made me concentrate even harder. I badly wanted to take the team through but ended up getting out. That’s one thing which I keep telling myself — that I have to win at least one match for India.”
Good form means little to Mandhana if she cannot take the team home. “Individual success doesn’t make me as happy as a win does,” she says. “It will give you personal satisfaction for, say, 10-15 minutes but at the end, the result matters. I was really upset that I was not able to take the side to victory. I was getting out in the 50s and 60s. If I am in good form, I should make sure that I take the team through and see that we win the game. That’s something I have to learn. If I am striking the ball well, I should make sure that I take India to victory.”
Out of her eight knocks of 50 or more in ODI chases, only once has she been at the crease when the winning runs were hit. That was at the 2017 World Cup when she made an unbeaten 106, following which she had a slump in form. A 90 against England in India’s opening game of the tournament was followed by the aforementioned hundred, but in the next seven innings, she could manage just 36 runs.
“I had never been through that kind of a slump in my career earlier,” recalls Mandhana. But a change in the batting stance seems to have resolved the issue. “When I came back from the World Cup, Tushar (Arothe, India Women coach) sir told me to open up my batting stance. I had a very closed stance but during the World Cup, it was very risky for me to change anything. I had to change my stance regardless of me scoring or not scoring. But not scoring, I was open to change anything to benefit my game.
“I spoke to Tushar sir, my father, and my personal coach (Anant Tambwekar). Everyone wanted me to come into an open stance so that I am in a better position. That didn’t really take much time because I was able to adapt very quickly and in three-four days, I was able to adjust to the open stance.”
But what exactly was the issue? Mandhana thinks it was more related to the mindset, coupled with the pressure of expectations, which led her to play certain shots that otherwise she wouldn’t have.
“For me, the mental aspect is to play according to the merit of the ball, which I wasn’t doing during the World Cup. I was playing shots which I never played to those balls. The main change in the mental aspect was to just play according to the merit of the ball. If the first ball is there to be hit, I will hit. If the first ball is there to be defended and respected, I will respect that.”
According to Mandhana, there is at least one more aspect of her batting that needs work. Although she is scoring 50s, 60s, and even 80s, she hasn’t been able to covert those into hundreds. One reason for that, she points out, is lapses in concentration during the middle overs of an innings.
“I spoke to my coach and Tushar sir about how I can improve that part of my game. I think the main reason is loss of concentration around the 14th-15th over in a T20 game, or 25th to 30th in a 50-over match.
“During practice, I generally bat for a long period. I bat for three hours, four hours. But during that time, we don’t do much running (between the wickets). We just concentrate on batting. This time I have decided that whenever I bat – even if for two hours – I will include running twos and threes after every two-three balls (to simulate match conditions). All these things have been planned, let’s see how it works out.”
Mandhana believes this approach will help her prepare for the World T20 as well, which is just over six months away.
“Running between the wickets while batting practice – I think that really works well with the T20 format because when you are playing a T20 match, you have to run a lot. You have to take quick singles, quick doubles. And when you are on strike, you should have that much strength even after two quick doubles that you can play the lofted shot and it actually goes for a six.
“Also, the focus will be on fielding as well because in T20s, fielding is as important as batting. Especially, taking catches near the boundary line, saving boundaries… If you can save two boundaries for your team, that really helps a lot.”
“Individual success doesn’t make me as happy as a win does. It will give you personal satisfaction for, say, 10-15 minutes but at the end, the result matters.””
Mandhana is among the few who look as much at ease in a T20I as in an ODI. In the shortest format, her strike rate of 116 is the best in the current Indian side.
Does she approach a T20I differently from an ODI? “Do you think so?” she quips.
For her, it’s the situation – and not the format – which dictates how she bats. “It’s all about the reading the situation and what the team needs at that time,” she expands. “Sometimes in T20s also, I can have a strike rate of 90 if wickets have fallen and the team demands me to play a bit slow. In ODIs, I could have a strike rate of 150 if we are chasing 330 or 340. The mindset keeps changing according to the situation and the wicket. I think it’s the wicket and the situation that demands me to play accordingly and not the format.”
Speaking about her role as the vice-captain of the T20I side, Mandhana says she doesn’t feel any added pressure. Playing for the country gives her the ultimate responsibility and all she wants to do is to take the team to victory.
“Whenever you play for India, it gives you a kind of responsibility. Regardless of whether you are captain or vice-captain, you have to take the responsibility and make sure you see the team through. I see it that way only. In ODIs also, I have the same responsibility as I have in T20s. Being the vice-captain doesn’t make me more responsible. But of course, in planning and all, I put my hand up.”
However, Mandhana feels that as a team, India need to play a more aggressive brand of cricket, especially in the shortest format of the game, and can learn a thing or two from England and Australia in that regard.
“T20 is a really fast game, you have to be on your toes always,” she emphasises. “You have to play a different brand of cricket. Like England and Australia have been playing for the last two-three years. We showed glimpses of that in England during the World Cup and in South Africa recently but as a team, we have to be consistent on that part. The way they (England and Australia) field and bat. They are always on their toes, always aggressive. Not that we are not. We are but in patches. I think we, as a team, can be more consistent in that aspect.”
With every passing day, the expectations from Mandhana are increasing. But having learnt her lesson the hard way, she now prefers to keep it simple.
“I don’t really think so much about all this stuff. My job is to go out there and bat. If I think about all the expectations, it’s really hard. I made that mistake at the World Cup and I really don’t want to do it again. My job is to watch the ball and play accordingly. That’s what I aim for.”
One player from whom Mandhana can learn about dealing with expectations is Raj, her ODI skipper. Mandhana agrees that Raj’s presence at the other end makes her job much easier. The Mandhana-Raj pair has strung together three century stands in ODIs and two in T20Is. When they bat together, Raj keeps providing her inputs from time to time.
“Whenever she is there, you get your runs very easily because people concentrate more on her. It’s always good to bat with Mithu di because you know there is someone who will bat through and you can go for your shots. She will give her inputs about the wicket, about the bowlers. Coming from Mithali di, that is a really good experience for us youngsters.
“As we bat through, we discuss the run rate, who has to attack and all that stuff. I just take her inputs and play accordingly. If she says to stick around and play for a bit, I would do that. If she says now it’s time we both go for our shots, or you go for your shots, I do that.”
Not merely the passing of tips, but also the passing of the baton to a worthy successor.