“Smriti Mandhana is just a very good player. The way she just came in (for the last match of the series and played well)...it seemed she was here from the get go.”  

It was high praise from player of the series and West Indies captain Stafanie Taylor at the end of the third One-Day International of the ICC Women’s Championship in Antigua on Wednesday. Taylor, incidentally, had batted almost the entire duration of her side’s innings earlier in the day and was doing a repair job for most of that.

It was a laboured effort on what was perhaps the best pitch to bat on in the series because she did not quite get her timing right early on while wickets kept falling at the other end. It was only during the last 15 overs she could really unleash her array of strokes. She, of all people, knew that this North Sound pitch was not a batting paradise: she spent the most time on it through the series.

But in came Smriti Mandhana, after missing the first two matches, and she made batting look easy. Three sixes, nine fours, 63 balls faced for 74 of the most elegant runs scored in this series. Back in the team, back in form, back among runs.

Mandhana and Jemimah Rodrigues added 141 runs for the opening wicket as India made short work of what could have been a tricky target of 195. Tricky, because the first two matches were won by the side batting first and the scores were in that ballpark. West Indies assistant coach Courtney Walsh had said on air during the first innings that a total close to 200 would be a fighting one on this pitch and it was thanks to Taylor’s brilliant innings that the hosts got even near that.

Mandhana came out and made it look like a walk in the park.

At ease while chasing

The hallmark of a great white-ball batsman in the modern game is how good he/she is while chasing: runs scored in the second innings under scoreboard pressure are just that tad bit more valuable and Mandhana is getting really good at that. Her average while chasing in ODIs in the last two years is 110.5, with nine successive fifty-plus scores.

The key to Mandhana’s success in ODIs has been the ability to put the bad balls away... and not spare too many good balls either. The Indian top order in her absence was a bit one-dimensional: Jemimah Rodrigues, Punam Raut and even Mithali Raj are all technically sound players, who can score at a good rate once they get set. But to find boundaries at will early on in innings is not their forte. They respect the good deliveries, they take their time.

Mandhana is a different breed. On Wednesday in Antigua, she showed again why so. Off the first 14 balls she faced, she had hit three boundaries...all three gorgeously timed. Like she was never away from the game. The innings only got better from there. While Harmanpreet Kaur is arguably the biggest hitter in the team, Mandhana’s ability to clear the ropes is not to be scoffed at. Kaur does it with her imperious bat-swing while Mandhana is more about using her foot and caressing the ball over the ropes.

She did that thrice in the innings on her comeback, the first two in one over immediately after Rodrigues had reached her fifty and the third to bring up her own landmark. And with that six from 49 to 55, Mandhana also became the fastest Indian to reach 2,000 ODI runs (in 51 innings) and third-fastest overall.

Impact player

In their first match reunited at the top of the order, Mandhana and Rodrigues finished the calendar year just as they began. A massive 100-plus partnership that set the tone for an impressive win. Then, it was a 190-run record effort against New Zealand in Napier. Now, it was a 141-run effort against West Indies in Antigua. The partnership was not just India’s highest in the last two series for the first wicket, it was also the quickest. Mandhana and Rodrigues scored their runs at 5.60 RPO (runs per over).

In Mandhana’s absence, this is how Priya Punia and Rodrigues fared together:

Second ODI vs WI: Partnership 78, RPO 3.68

First ODI vs WI: Partnership 5, RPO 1.88

Third ODI vs SA: Partnership 1, RPO 1.50

Second ODI vs SA: Partnership 34, RPO 4.08

First ODI vs SA: Partnership 83, RPO 4.01

The impact that Mandhana has on the scoring rate is immediately obvious. But what those numbers do not make evident is the ease with which Rodrigues was batting in Mandhana’s company. In the first ODI against South Africa, Priya Punia made her debut and won the player of the match award for her first international half century. She said after the match how her “senior partner” Rodrigues helped her settle down.

While that was great credit to the youngster’s maturity, Rodrigues just looked like a different player with Mandhana back as her opening partner. The drives and cuts were still classy, but they came with an air of authority and confidence knowing she has arguably the world’s best opener at the other end.

The scoreboards will say India won four out of the five ODIs that Smriti Mandhana missed due to her injury. But it wouldn’t tell you the impact that was missing at the top of the order. When fit and in form, there is no one else in this batting lineup who offers what Mandhana does and she proved it in some style in the series-decider against West Indies in Antigua.