Currently, Smriti Mandhana is ranked first in the ICC women’s ODI batting rankings. In T20I rankings, she comes in third. And when one does watch her bat, there is little that doubt of her class. She can play shots all around the wicket and has the gift of timing that sets her apart from the other batters.
The stylish left-handed opener won the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Award for the ICC Women’s Cricketer of the Year  and was also named as the ICC Women’s ODI Player of the Year . Her influence is growing not only in the India team but also on the game in general.
But rather than be swayed by the praise and the accolades, Mandhana still remains focussed on her ultimate goal: winning the World Cup for India.
The 22-year-old Mandhana, who is also a Red Bull athlete, sat down with a group of journalists for a free-wheeling chat about all things cricket. Excerpts from the conversation:
How did it feel to be given the player of the year award?
It felt good. When I was a kid, I remember reading in the newspaper that Jhulan di had won an ICC award. I remember feeling so proud that an Indian had won that award. And to be the second Indian to win it makes me feel very proud. I’m not someone who gets too excited but for the first 15-20 minutes, I felt great. I expected one award but not two. It has surely motivated me. I’d played continuously for a long period at that time so was a bit fatigued mentally, but those awards made me realise that I need to keep going and work harder.
You’ve been declared the best batter in the world. Do you feel you’re the best? Also, is it important for you to be at the top? Do you think of it like that?
No, I don’t think I’m the best in the world. All I think about is how to win matches for India. Everything else is part and parcel of it. My only approach while batting is to do what the teams needs of me. Such accolades come and go, you never know what’s going to happen, but India’s victories are going to stay with me forever. So that’s what I concentrate on.
What do you think the BCCI can do in terms of structuring the women’s IPL?
I think they are doing a great job. The BCCI has a definite roadmap of how to go about it. I don’t think it’ll be right to compare the women’s IPL with the Big Bash or any other league because the expectations from Indian cricketers are much more than anyone else in the world. But we’re in the right direction. We had two teams last year and three this year in the Women’s T20 Challenge. There were big crowds as well. So these are big positives and I think we should be focusing on them.
You have achieved so much – ICC awards, Wisden award, Indian captaincy, Big Bash contract, and more – what are your thoughts on your journey so far?
We still haven’t won the World Cup. Our team is really focused on bringing that trophy home. I’ll feel I’ve done something good if we win the World Cup. Individual awards pale in comparison to it. As a woman, this is the best time to be a cricketer. Till two years ago, there was no television coverage for women’s cricket, we didn’t have good contracts, but the 2017 World Cup was a game-changer. I can see a lot of positives now and more girls are starting to play the game. A women’s IPL will be a great plus, of course.
There’s so much happening in women’s cricket in India at the moment and you’re the poster-girl for it. How does that make you feel?
I don’t think of it like that, because then there’ll be more pressure on me. My job is to win matches for India or whichever team I play for. So I simply focus on the things I need to do as a cricketer. We have plenty of legends who have changed the face of women’s cricket. We wouldn’t have reached this level if these greats hadn’t done what they did. We have Mithali di, Jhulu di, Harry di, Neetu ma’am, Diana ma’am, Shubhangi ma’am, and many more. So it isn’t just about the 2017 World Cup, it’s about the efforts that all these players have put it. They have done all the hard work and we are reaping the rewards. I’d like to put it that way.
Apart from the technical aspect of the game, how do you prepare yourself mentally? What do you do in your off-season?
Well, we haven’t got an off-season for a long time. We did get a brief one before the Women’s T20 Challenge, but we haven’t got a proper one in a long time. We used to get off-seasons previously, but the last two years have been crazy. It’s been a full calendar for women’s cricket. I really like to keep things simple. I used to have routines but they never worked. As far as mental conditioning goes, I just do ten minutes of meditation to keep myself calm because I keep thinking I should hit the ball here and there. Other than that, I think of my batting for just half an hour after getting out. I think about the mistakes I made and how they can be rectified, and then I move on. Because if I keep thinking of the things I did wrong, I’ll repeat them in the next match. So I just try and avoid those thoughts. I simply think about my dismissal for half an hour after the match, practice for about three hours to get better, and then move on.
Who did you look up to when you were starting out?
Mithali di, of course. I remember playing my first domestic match against her team and I wasn’t able to concentrate at all. I kept looking at her and how she bats. When I was 11 or 12, Mithali di was someone we all looked up to. Honestly, though, I didn’t watch much cricket when I was growing up. Be it men’s or women’s. I started following the game after I was 13 or 14. So Mithali di and Jhulu di were people I admired. Now I hear stories about Diana ma’am, Neetu ma’am, Shubhangi ma’am, and how they have done amazing things for India. My respect has grown for them tenfold.
What is the one thing that you’ve learned from your seniors that stands out for you?
The way in which Jhulu di made us youngsters feel comfortable. I remember she was my first roommate and I was so nervous. I was just a 17-year-old kid but she made me feel so comfortable. Within a day, I stopped feeling like I’m sharing a room with Jhulan Goswami. That is one thing she has taught us, to make youngsters feel comfortable, and I’m grateful to her for that.
How was the experience of sharing the dressing room with the overseas stars in this Women’s T20 Challenge?
It’s amazing to play with them. You get to exchange cricketing knowledge as well as cultural things. We all got along well. Especially, with Sophie Ecclestone and Suzie Bates. We went out for dinners quite a few times. We didn’t qualify for the final and had nothing to do for two days so we were like tourists guides for them around Jaipur, since we know how to speak Hindi. Even Shakera Selman and Stafanie Taylor are very sweet. I’d played with Stafanie in the Super League in England. I was talking to Suzie, who has led the New Zealand team for ten years, and told her to let me know where I’m going wrong in terms of captaincy. I love the way she uplifted our team atmosphere.
You’ve played under both Mithali and Harmanpreet, what differences to do see in their captaincy styles?
I’m no one to judge a Mithali Raj or a Harmanpreet Kaur because I haven’t achieved what they have as players. I’m too small a player to judge their captaincy styles.
Are you satisfied with the rate at which women’s cricket is growing in India?
Yes, definitely. If you look at the success of the short women’s IPL that we just had, there were 15,000 spectators during matches despite limited advertising. That made me feel proud to be a cricketer. These are baby steps and I think it’s better this way. Also, winning one World Cup might change things drastically.
How was the experience of playing the Super League in England?
It’s difficult to go to another country to play in such a league because there many cultural differences. One gets very comfortable in their own country’s setup. So it takes a few days to adjust after going to a foreign country and playing with strangers. You have to make a conscious effort of making yourself a better person and approachable. This is one thing I learned over there. When I opened up in a few days and started talking to the girls, the funnier side to me came out and that reflected in my game as well. Because I was confident after making new friends and managing to adjust. I realized that the environment and coaching staff is great so it’s time to start doing what I’ve come here to do. When you go abroad to play like that, there’s a lot you see and learn. There are plenty of fitter people than you and that hits you hard. So there are these little things that teach you and make you a better athlete.