Over 3.2: Mandhana smashes one over midwicket. Four.
Over 3.4: Mandhana cuts through the covers. Four.
Over 3.5: Mandhana punches off the back foot. Four.
Over 3.6: Mandhana flaunts her cover drive. Four

In hindsight, this over by Katherine Brunt to Smriti Mandhana set up the match. India were 31/0 after the fourth over, 59/0 by the end of Powerplay, and 281/3 at the end of the match with each of the top three scoring half-centuries and finished and hosts England falling 35 short in the Women’s World Cup opener.

And it all began with that 16-run over when the 20-year-old opener, returning to international cricket after more than six months, decided to go for her shots. And each of those shots was a delight to behold – a southpaw creaming drives through covers and clobbering over the ropes. Smriti Mandhana, for her 72-ball 90 with eleven boundaries and two huge sixes, deservingly won the Player of the Match.

However, till last month, Mandhana wasn’t sure if she would make it to England, let alone open for India at the World Cup. She was coming off a knee surgery and undergoing rehab at the National Cricket Academy. She had been away from the game for almost half a year since the painful ACL injury during a match in the Women’s Big Bash League in January. She had missed the World Cup Qualifiers and Quadrangular series where India had performed exceedingly well. Other players had stepped up in the opener’s role and set records.

But the selectors showed faith in her and handed her a debut World Cup berth. After all, this is not her first time in England; the then teenager’s steady 51 was instrumental in India’s famous Test win in 2014 and since then, her stock has only grown in international cricket. In 2016, Mandhana was the only Indian in ICC’s first ever ODI women’s team of the year. She was only the second Indian to be drafted in the WBBL, but that’s where the trials arrived. She had an ordinary outing for Brisbane Heat and then ruptured her ACL that put her chances for England 2017 in serious doubt.

Not many players would have made it to the squad let alone the playing XI, within six months. But Smriti Mandhana trained hard, underwent intense rehab and was back on her feet faster than most. She made it to England with very little match practice and in the warm games, scored 1 and 44 batting at No 3 and then opening. But more than her performance, her potential was enough to convince the Indian think tank that she should open with Punam Raut ahead of Deepti Sharma after England had put them into bat in overcast conditions – a decision that only the English will regret.

The opener’s intent and attacking approach at the top of the order stunned England, the same team that had bowled out India for a measly 103 less than two weeks back in the first unofficial practice match. With that 141-run victory, captain Heather Knight would have backed her bowlers to do the same and set up a simple chase for the hosts. But Mandhana had other plans; she didn’t allow Knight’s bowlers to settle down and kept taking the attack to them. For a pair that didn’t run a single till the ninth over, it was her hard-hitting that kept the scoreboard ticking. Raut was the perfect foil, punishing the bad balls and letting Mandhana do the damage – and damage she did.

After bearing the initial brunt of Mandhana’s assault, Brunt was replaced Nat Sciver and the southpaw welcomed her with by thwacking a six and scored 12 in her over. When the Batting Powerplay was taken as early as the 24th over, a huge 20 runs were scored off the first over. Continuous boundaries were plundered with strength, gaps were bisected with style as anything offering length was dispatched in that aesthetically pleasant left-hander style. It was the flamboyance tempered by flair – a big-hitting opener’s best weapon. England tried as many as seven bowlers to try and break that opening partnership but they put on a massive 144-run stand.

When the English bowlers seemed to be tightening the screws, India took the Powerplay early and regained the momentum. But it was in this Powerplay that Mandhana fell, just 10 short of what would have been a sensational World Cup debut century for the 20-year-old. It was Knight who got the breakthrough as Mandhana offered a direct catch to mid-wicket. It was an anti-climactic end to a thoroughly entertaining innings, but it set up the platform for India to go on and build a target that would have been England’s highest successful run chase to win. And it set up the tone for India’s campaign at the World Cup.

India’s starting trouble

India’s opening combination has always been a bit of a worry for the team, as captain Mithali Raj herself had admitted before leaving for England. “India has always struggled with the opening pair,” she had said. The last two series saw the openers do their bit and give us the right kind of a start, posting a total or chasing a huge total.” The last series in South Africa had seen openers Raut and Deepti Sharma share a world record 320-run opening stand, with Sharma scoring a massive 188.

Yet, opening, especially in foreign conditions, has never been India’s strength. But the last year or so has changed that. India has scored three hundred-plus opening stands in the last year, including the World Cup, and two more stands of 50 plus. Compare that with the last five years, and only more opening stand of 100-plus ad three-more of fifty-plus will be added to this list, which came back in 2013.

  To put it into perspective: In the last ten years, India had only five opening partnership cross hundred runs and three of them have come in 2017 itself. India has had 10 opening stands of over fifty in the last decade, and four of them have come since 2016.  

For any team to succeed in ODI cricket, an attacking mindset is a must at the top of the order. And India is slowly getting there, with not just one, but as many as three top-order batters in the current squad with the potential to go full throttle.

For now though, Smriti Mandhana is back and will come in to bat to start proceedings for India. And if the first match was any indication, the 20-year-old comeback hero is only getting started.