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The rise of Smriti Mandhana

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Smriti_Mandhana_Cricket_IndiaDuring the Women’s World T20 Cup in Windies last November, the heart-warming image of a young girl, wearing the number 18 India jersey awaiting the next move by her cricketing idol, took social media by storm. The cricketer in question here is not Virat Kohli - the more famous number 18 - but Smriti Mandhana, who recently won the ICC Women’s Cricketer of the Year award.

The young 22-year old gained popularity when she struck a match-winning 90 and a hundred in successive games in the 2017 World Cup, but anyone following Indian Women’s Cricket knew that Mandhana had always been destined for great things. Her tryst with cricket began as a 5-year old, when she saw Mithali Raj batting. Though she initially took to the sport because of her brother’s passion, it soon engulfed her as well.

With Anant Tambwekar’s help, the young girl grew into a thorough student of the game, meticulously working to correct every flaw in her game for days on end. It is this trait that eventually helped the youngster make a strong comeback to cricket last year, after she faced a slump in the months succeeding the World Cup.

 

After starting the tourney in 2017 with a bang, Mandhana had managed to score only 26 runs in the next seven innings. Her inability to play the ball towards mid-on was no secret. Once the national team returned back to India, she spent her off-season correcting these flaws instead of getting consumed in the newfound fame that was suddenly bestowed on the women cricketers.

 

After perfecting her game and playing with an open stance, which allowed her the freedom to play her shots to the leg-side, results were seen almost immediately. Smriti made her mark in the Kia Women’s Super League in England, where she scored 421 runs at an average of 60.14 for Western Storm. Her consistent showings led her side to the finals of the event, though she missed the summit clash due to her international commitments. The Indian opener’s dazzling strokeplay and consistency became the talk of the town.

With a strike-rate of 174.68 – the highest strike-rate in either the KSL or the Women’s Big Bash League – Mandhana impressed with her authoritative approach and her ability to score runs all over the park. The player smashed 21 sixes, playing a number of lofted shots, and her reassuring batting continued even in the World T20.

Against Australia, in the world event, Mandhana raced away to a fine 83 off only 55 deliveries. Her instinct to always attack square of the wicket brought back flashes of Adam Gilchrist and Sourav Ganguly. Looking most comfortable on the off-side like many left-handers, Mandhana hit sixes down the ground with such effortless ease that it was difficult not to gape in wonder. Even against physically tougher rivals, she showed off her power by flexing her muscles to hit three sixes in the game, enough to take the game away from the Aussies.

In 5 games, Mandhana scored 178 runs and was the only Indian batter who looked comfortable on a two-paced wicket against England in the semis. She carried forward her form into the series against New Zealand, scoring 196 runs in 3 ODIs at an astounding average of 98 and then followed it up with 180 runs with a strike-rate of 146.34 at 60 in the three T20Is. What stood out, though, was how Mandhana remained unperturbed by the sheer pace and swing that seemed to affect her fellow teammates.

 

This trait of looking the quicks in the eye had been drilled in by her coach Tambwekar, who had forced his protégée to play against boys who were seven years older than her. On tracks that were rolled to perfection, Tambwekar asked the boys to bowl as fast as they could and not reduce their intensity just because they were bowling to a girl. This allowed Smriti to learn the art of leaving and facing quick deliveries, which is what seems to hold her in good stead when India tours abroad. Her ability to transfer weight to the back-foot allows her to take advantage of the pace, and her technical accuracy makes her one of the most pleasing cricketers to watch.

 

By playing short balls with perfect timing due to her excellent back-foot play, Mandhana has learnt to tackle challenges instead of being inhibited by them. However, what stands out is her silent confidence and the calmness that she brings with her while opening the innings. Be it while playing for Western Storm, Brisbane Heat Women or for Team India, Mandhana has batted with maturity; always playing to her strengths and looking to improve on her flaws constantly.

In an age where Jhulan Goswami and Mithali Raj are in the dusk of their careers, women’s cricket in the nation needs heroes who can take their efforts forward. Consistently rising to the occasion, Smriti Mandhana is well on course to be the next superstar in Indian cricket.



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