The Women’s T20 Challenge final in Sharjah was not the first time Smriti Mandhana looked like she was batting on a different pitch. The left-handed opener has made a habit of making batting look easy, even when the conditions are not favourable, and has often shouldered the bulk of India’s scoring in international cricket. With her clean strikes on the off-side and ability to find the gaps, she knows how to take the pitch out of the equation and play with a fluency that is a delight to watch.
It’s exactly what the captain did for the Trailblazers in the title clash on Monday. Her 68 off 49 balls was the highest score of the day on a track that was slow and hard to bat on. Her early blast proved to be the clincher as Trailblazers’ strong bowling lineup restricted Supernovas for a 16-run win.
Supernovas, who had beaten Trailblazers in the one-off match in 2018 and then won the three-team exhibition tournament in 2019, were unable to defend their title and the tournament had a new champion.
And it all came down to a memorable innings from Mandhana, backed by stellar bowling from the lethal lineup of Trailblazers that included veteran Jhulan Goswami and world No 1 Sophie Ecclestone. The evening was also studded by the athletic fielding effort from Thailand’s Nattakan Chantam that went viral on social media.
The numbers give a good indication of just how tough batting was. Even a player of the caliber of Deandra Dottin struggled to get bat on ball and played an uncharacteristic scratchy innings. But her opening partner Mandhana had no such issues as she got under the ball and was able to time her strokes to virtual perfection. Her strike rate was 138.77, which is admirable because the next best in the match (at least 5 balls faced) was 105.55 and she was the only player to hit to clear the ropes in Sharjah. Her glances through square and three straight sixes were glorious in execution. No other batter could hit more than two fours while Mandhana found the ropes five times.
It was soothing to watch the Indian star in full flow after more than half a year and it was even more special given she won the trophy after it.
There are a few cricketers who, as the cliche goes, rarely score ugly runs. Mandhana will be among those in the game currently.
But, at the end of the day, there was a bittersweet quality to the knock.
The four-match, six-day long Women’s T20 Challenge had ended and now comes the wait. The wait to play cricket again, the wait for a chance to watch Mandhana bat in her element again.
But as familiar as it was to see Mandhana play a masterful innings, it felt different. Mainly because, as she mentioned at the toss, Mandhana and Co do not know when they will get their next chance to do what they love again.
Even before the match started, the two captains — Mandhana and Indian skipper Harmanpreet Kaur — made it a point to highlight the position women’s cricket in India is at the moment. There were some pointed statements in a somewhat awkward interview:
Anjum Chopra: Any pressure to win three out of three?
Harmanpreet: To be very honest, we are not feeling any pressure because after this game we don’t know when we are going to play next. I just told my players to just go out there and enjoy, we don’t know the next time we will get an opportunity to play
Anjum: When does Harmanpreet and the team want to play?
Harmanpreet: See we always want to play and we hope that we keep getting more matches because as players we don’t want to sit at home and watch others playing on the TV, we want to keep playing.
Anjum: How do you keep the intensity going considering there are fewer matches?
Smriti: We don’t really need to say to players because we all know, as Harman said, we don’t know when we are going to get to play next. So that’s a motivation in itself, put on a good show so that people watch it and think we want to watch more of this
These are among the two best cricketers in the world and played in the final at the T20 World Cup in March. But here they were, not knowing when they will get a chance to play cricket again, repeating the sentiments after the match as well.
Viewed from one perspective, the very fact that they got the chance to play the six-day T20 tournament in UAE amid the pandemic is an opportunity. Many of the cricketers present during the tournament echoed those sentiments.
But seen from another, it is bare minimum. Sample this: even the quarantine period was longer than the actual event. Agreed, the coronavirus pandemic has hit sport, especially women’s sport, hard. But it’s not as if the Indian team has not had a chance to play cricket.
In July, an invitational tour to England was cancelled because of the logistics of assembling a team amid the pandemic. Reports and the players’ statements suggest that the proposed tour of Sri Lanka to be held later this year is also in doubt. The ODI World Cup to be held in 2021 is also rescheduled so there is good chance that it will be a while before international cricket happens for the Indian team.
Meanwhile, England, West Indies, Australia and New Zealand have played full series since the restart and most of the top players are part of the ongoing Women’s Big Bash League in Australia. As Harmanpreet Kaur said, it’s not easy or fun to watch your peers on TV from home.
In the long term, BCCI president Sourav Ganguly has said that they are planning to have a full-fledged women’s IPL in a couple of years and the players will hope that comes true.
For now, the hope is that the Indian team will soon have a chance to be back on field, at the international or even domestic level. For now, we can watch the highlight reel of Smriti Mandhana’s batting masterclass from a memorable day for her in Sharjah. For now, we can relive Radha Yadav’s superb five-for and Harmanpreet Kaur’s battling knock through injury to try and take her side home.
Because, for now, that’s all we have.