Smriti Mandhana is soft-spoken, unassuming and eloquent when talking about her cricket. In much the same way, the left-hander’s batting was also all about soft touches and eloquent strokes; pleasing to both the eye and the scoreboard.
But in the last few months, the Indian opener has added a new dimension to her batting, power and range that helps her hit big and get more runs, while still looking just as elegant. A slight tweak in stance and technique has provided rich dividends as was seen in her superlative performance in the Women’s Super League in England.
In the first of the India A matches against Australia A in October, the new facet was on display in person, as she scored 72 off 40 balls with 4 sixes that just she just seemed to carve out of thin air.
And this new dimension in Mandhana’s batting could prove to be among the biggest differentiator for India at the upcoming ICC Women’s World T20.
Mandhana occupies a curious place in the Indian batting line-up. At 22, she is young enough to be one of the more energetic ones on field and yet is a veteran at the big stage. And with her experience and exploits in T20 cricket, she is also the crux of India’s batting.
The captain Harmanpreet is the power hitter who can smash the ball over the ropes, the veteran Mithali Raj is the anchor who has can score big with her exquisite boundaries, but Mandhana is a mix of both. She is someone who can score big runs through boundaries and sneak vital runs with her deft touch.
India has a capable batting line-up with 18-year-old Jemimah Rodrigues who has made her place in India’s T20 team in under a year and Veda Krishnamurthy, who can turn any match with her scintillating batting. But to succeed in the West Indies, India’s will need Mandhana’s unique impact at the top of the order. The batting line-up is most likely to be Mandhana and Raj opening with Rodrigues in at 3 followed by captain Harmanpreet.
While spin bowling will play its part on the overall campaign, it is in batting that India will need an early impetus and the southpaw opener is best placed to provide that making her the fulcrum of India’s chances in the Caribbean.
Even at the 50-over World Cup in 2017, her early success in the first two matches gave India a comfortable start beating eventual champions England in the opener. Her subsequent slump – 36 runs in seven matches after 196 in only two – was among the reasons why India were firstly in a tough, do-or-die spot and then fell just nine runs short in the final.
Women’s Cricket Super League star
But the World Cup failure, in hindsight, may just prove to be a blessing. It forced her to add new element to her batting. Mandhana changed her grip and opened up her stance a little, which enabled her to hit through mid-wicket and long-on areas, opening up the field for more runs. She also practiced with TAP balls from Australia which helped her work on power hitting.
And the result was there for all to see as she stormed her way to the player of the series in the Women’s Cricket Super League in England taking her team Western Storm to the knockouts, impressing her childhood idol Kumar Sangakkara in the process. Such was her consistency that there were jovial calls of including her in the erratic men’s team during the Test series.
She top-scored with 421 runs from nine innings with an average of 60.14, a strike rate of 174.68, recorded the joint-fastest fifty in Women’s T20s and made a 61-ball 102. Internationally, in her 47 T20I matches so far, she has scored 868 runs at an average of 21.17 and a strike rate of 112.28.
With the quality of bowling she faced in England, the teams being made up of mostly international players, it is clear that Mandhana can hold her own in a tough field. However, that form can’t be the only indicator as she struggled in Sri Lanka in India’s last outing before the World T20, scoring just 11 runs in four innings.
But positives can be taken from the fact that India won that series comfortably, unlike at the Asia Cup where her struggles at the top of the order affected the rest of the team as India lost the trophy for the first time after shock losses to Bangladesh.
The Indian team under new coach Ramesh Powar is a more dynamic unit, with fitness and flexibility the top priority. This means that complacency will be guarded against as will the over-reliance on the top order.
But it also means that Mandhana will have the license to play her game right from the start, with support from the other end. The onus is now on the 22-year-old to take confidence from her T20 experience in England and put the World Cup behind to establish herself as India’s biggest weapon on this big world stage.