Nowhere is the age-old tension between aesthetics and utility as evident as in modern sports. What resonates with our senses might not always be useful. In this specific milieu comes Smriti Mandhana, who is nobody’s idea of a philosopher — in fact, she doesn’t like books — but her cricket offers some critical insights on how beauty doesn’t always need to be sacrificed on the altar of utility.
No Indian batters have scored more runs across limited-overs formats than Mandhana in the last five years. She bats in her own noiseless channel, completely detached from the consequences, never letting the pressure dynamic creep into her game. Scoring runs is all that matters, and she has been doing that with impeccable consistency for years now.
Born in Sangli, a city around 400 km from Mumbai, Mandhana’s early exposure to the game came through her cricket-freak father and elder brother, Shravan. Instinctively adopting their left-handed batting stances, Mandhana rose through the ranks at a rapid pace, playing her first game for the state’s U-19 team at 11, and then making her senior debut for Maharashtra at just 15. Being a child prodigy destined for greatness meant living under constant scrutiny, but Mandhana remained detached from the chatter. She says that she never thought of herself that way.
“I always lived in the present. Even as a kid, I was always very focused on what I needed to be doing on daily basis to get better. I don’t really remember any extra baggage. I just wanted to enjoy myself out there and give my best for India,” says Mandhana, who has always loved the extra responsibility that expectations from fans add to her shoulders.
While the journey from her hometown to the doors of Indian cricket was as smooth as it gets, international cricket proved to be a wholly different challenge. There were glimpses of her brilliance — few and far between — but the appetite for big innings that made her a domestic superstar wasn’t to be found here. There were only three half-centuries in her first 15 ODI innings, and she had to play 21 matches to add to her maiden T20I fifty.
“I always hated defending. I loved playing drives and lofted shots but I wasn’t getting as many attacking balls on an international level” she says. Mandhana had to tweak her batting and “learn more shots to survive at the top level”, where her naturally aggressive batting style was bottlenecked by a variety of talented and diverse bowlers.
After a long and arduous wait of three years, she finally managed to notch her first international century against Australia in Hobart. Against a fearsome attack, comprising Ellyse Perry and Megan Schutt, Mandhana stood tall and struck 11 boundaries en route to a 109-ball 102. The 26-year-old recalls how relieved she was after completing the century. “I felt like I actually belong at this level. As a batter you always dream of removing your helmet after a century,” she quips, adding the fact that proving herself against Australia in their own backyard was the icing on the cake.
Mandhana has now struck five centuries, and there’s no reason why she wouldn’t surpass Mithali Raj’s record of most ODI centuries by an Indian batter. She is also among the handful of women cricketers who boasts a Test century to her name — a feat she achieved in a one-off Test match against Australia in 2021 where she was recognised with a Player of the Match award. Simply put, there are not many players in the world capable of meeting the demands of different formats with ease and nonchalance which Mandhana does. While the mindset changes as per the format, she explains, the method remains the same, that is to “watch the ball and play accordingly. The same ball that I will play through the ground in ODI but in T20I I’ll try to play a lofted shot. It’s all about pristine timing,” asserts Mandhana. “If the wicket is good, I play my natural game or else I just try to stay there and get my team off to a great start.”
This aspect of her game was on display during the second T20I of the five-match series against the mighty Australians last year in December. She lit up a raucous, jam-packed DY Patil Sports Academy with a sensational match-winning performance, showing great intent from the word go to set the tone for a daunting chase. Mandhana’s stroke-filled 79 was a purist’s delight, for the innings was adorned with audacious sweeps, crisp drives, and eye-pleasing pick-up shots over deep mid-wicket.
“I love attacking cricket but never rely on power-hitting,” tells Mandhana, adding that running across the wickets has never been her strength. “But now, I have learned to play as per the team’s requirements and conditions. I have to work a lot on my mindset. Now if I’m not in great touch then the trick I’ve learned is to rotate the strike and get the team through that phase.”
Mandhana’s form fizzled out as the series progressed, and India failed to win any of the next three matches, thus ending the year on a rather sombre note. On a personal level, however, it was a terrific year for Mandhana as an all-format cricketer.
She topped the run-scoring charts among Indian batters in T20I, and amassed close to 700 runs in ODI at an average of just a shade under 50. Having already bagged the ICC Women’s Cricketer of the Year award in both 2018 and 2021, she was also in the race to win the accolade for an unprecedented third time this year, while being nominated for the ICC Women’s T20I Cricketer of the Year. Mandhana took her attacking game to the next level without comprising her consistency, becoming the second Indian batter, after Harmanpreet Kaur, to breach the 2500-run mark in T20I. With a 23-ball 50 against England in the Commonwealth semi-finals, she also broke her own record for scoring the fastest half-century by an Indian.
Mandhana must be satisfied with how the year panned out for her, though some crushing defeats and an empty trophy cabinet might dull her individual achievements. In the Commonwealth Games 2022, India had to settle for a silver medal after they failed to topple Australia in the final. But the most agonising defeat of the year came up in Christchurch, in what was a must-win encounter for India in order to progress to the semi-finals of Women’s ODI World Cup. Mandhana compiled 72 to lay the foundation for a competitive total that was breached by South Africa on the last ball of the game. The entire nation sank in despair.
“Definitely, the match was a heartbreak,” recollects the vice-captain, explaining how they could have got over the line had luck favoured them just a bit more. But as a professional cricketer, she doesn’t want to linger over one bad result. “There’s always a new dawn,” says Mandhana. “The feeling stays but then I start focusing on what needs to be done, what can I do better as a player and what can we do better as a team.”
With time on her side, Mandhana will potentially have multiple shots to clinch the elusive World Cup title, and may even be leading the Indian team a few years from now, considering the current limited-overs captain Harmanpreet Kaur is almost seven years older than her. This veteran status in Indian cricket at a relatively young age of 26 might be a bit disconcerting, but one should not forget Mandhana’s early start to her international career — after all, she made her international debut at the tender age of 16.
“There will be days when I wouldn’t get the team over the line, but on my day, I’m going to win the match for my team,” says the Indian left-handed batter, whose form will be crucial for Team India as the T20I World Cup gets underway in February. Mandhana knows that acceptance goes a long way for a player to succeed in the shortest format of the game. “It is very hard to be consistent in T20I because the game expects us to play a very aggressive role, and when you bat aggressively, it’s difficult to maintain the strike rate and not get out. Not every day you’re going to achieve that, and as a player, you need to accept that,” opines Mandhana. She highlights the importance of not getting bogged down by bad days, something she has learned with time.
Outside the field, Mandhana cuts across as a colourful raconteur with a screen presence so natural that it might feel like she is talking directly to us instead of the interviewer, neither economical nor wasteful with words. This comes through in her thoughts on the rising tide of women’s cricket in the country, which is finally crossing an important threshold with this year’s Women’s Premier League — something that Mandhana feels optimistic about.
For a long time, the BCCI — the wealthiest cricket board in the world — had been apprehensive about a women’s IPL. But the continuous success of the Indian women’s team, despite operating on a shoestring budget when compared to men’s cricket, must have forced them to ward off their complacency. Last year they announced to pay equal match fees for women and men cricketers. “It’s an amazing move by the BCCI to have pay parity in match fees, and I think this is just the beginning of equal pay,” says Mandhana on the organisation’s recent ambition to level the playing field. “The BCCI demonstrated to the whole of India that we simply need to begin and go from there.”
With her base price set at INR 50L, the star batter is likely to spark an intense bidding war among the competing franchises, though rumours say that the Mumbai-based team will be going to any length to acquire her services in the auction. One never knows how things play out in an auction, but one could say with absolute certainty that Mandhana will be one of the five captains in the league.
“Yes definitely, it’s great to see that the tournament is finally starting and it will give a lot more girls chances to showcase their talent at the highest levels. More and more girls will get opportunities and I am sure that this move will go a long way in enhancing the cricketing landscape,” says Mandhana.
This is indeed a great beginning to address the prevalent wage disparity. However, a lot of ground needs to be covered in this regard. The disparity in match fees has been bridged but the BCCI also pays an annual retainership contract to its players, and this is where the stark inequality between men and women cricketers still exists. While male cricketers pooled in the top bracket, also known as A+ Grade, earn INR 7 crore on an annual basis, the women in the elite category get INR 50 lakh.
“Although we aren’t completely there yet, we are off to a great start,” admits Mandhana. “The demand for it was universal among women cricketers. Now it’s upon us to start performing and the crowds come in numbers. That’s a great move, and it will help us go forward in the future,” she concludes.
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