The Women’s T20 Challenge was off to the best possible start in Jaipur on Monday as Smriti Mandhana’s Trailblazers edged past Harmanpreet Kaur’s Supernovas in a thrilling encounter by just two runs. With plenty riding on this mini-tournament for the women’s game, the two teams produced a match to remember on a pitch not so conducive to slam-bang T20 cricket at the Sawai Man Singh Stadium.

Ultimately, Mandhana’s atypical, yet brilliant, innings proved to be the match-winning effort even as Kaur almost pulled off a heist at the end.

In a match of otherwise high quality, Trailblazers produced a fielding performance that could only be described as bizarre. There were catches dropped left, right and center while there were misfields that gifted Supernovas boundaries too. On the flip side, there was a run out from Shakera Selman off her own bowling, a superb catch from Sophie Ecclestone to dismiss her compatriot Nat Sciver and a solid performance behind the stumps from R Kalpana that culminated with a moment very similar to the one we saw in the Indian Premier League in the match between Chennai Super Kings and Royal Challengers Bangalore.

While Mandhana was rightly adjudged player of the match, the game-changer for Trailblazers was Eccelestone’s stunning 19th over where she conceded just two runs and dismissed Sophie Devine to leave Kaur needing 19 off the last over.

The 2018 ICC Emerging Player of the Year is one of the brightest young talents in the women’s game and Ecclestone showed why so in this match. Jhulan Goswami just about managed to prevent the Indian T20I captain from getting past the finish line.

The night, however, belonged to Mandhana.

Smriti Mandhana’s ‘different’ innings

As incredible as Mandhana’s form has been since the start of 2018, there has been one one area she wanted to improve, repeating in many interactions that she has to start batting deeper in the innings, irrespective of the format.

While that speaks volumes about her self-awareness, it was also an indication that she has been craving more responsibility – a sign of a top player in itself.

In fact, under the new India coach WV Raman, that has been one aspect she has been working on constantly: a target of batting at least till 30 overs in ODIs and 13 overs in T20Is.

“He’s giving me targets to bat a certain number of balls, because strike rate and those kinds of things never concern me, the only problem is the patience aspect. He is helping with that and giving me targets to bat through these many balls and that many overs and that is being great,” Mandhana had said earlier this year.

She went better against the Supernovas, getting out only in the 20th over.

Regular followers of her game will know the batting powerplay is when Mandhana is at her most dangerous. She loves playing the lofted shots as her game is all about timing, and the fielding restrictions suit her style perfectly.

Against Supernovas, however, it was a different story. After playing a gorgeous punch through off-side in the first over, Mandhana was struggling to come to terms with the nature of the Jaipur pitch. The grass covering had fooled most of the players and pundits into thinking there will be bounce and carry, while it turned out to be quite the opposite. Kaur had realised this quickly and did not give Mandhana any pace to work with early in the innings.

That resulted in the Indian opener trying to force the pace and mistiming the ball frequently. But once she realised this was not a pitch to go berserk on, she found her footing. She started to hold her shape longer at the crease, increasing the time she waited for the ball to reach her before playing a shot – a minor tweak that worked like a treat in the second half of the innings.

Mandhana was on 14 off 24 balls at one stage. She finished on 90 off 67 balls (scoring 76 runs off last 43 deliveries). And while the flow of her innings was uncharacteristic, the shots she played were full off her trademark elegance.

“This was a very different kind of innings for me. The way I started, I wasn’t timing the ball well, had to stick it out and then launch. I expected the wicket to be a lot better, that is why I was struggling in the first five-six overs. Then I had to adapt and play accordingly,” Mandhana said.

While one innings does not signal a definitive change, her knock in Jaipur will be one that satisfies her immensely. In her constant quest for self-improvement, this innings was a milestone crossed.