When in 2016 the Board of Control for Cricket in India gave the green light for female players to feature in the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia, it broke protocol. The men, after all, don’t feature in any of the big foreign T20 leagues. It was a bold move, one whose dividends may not be seen immediately.
For the two India Women players involved, though, there were some immediate takeaways. Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana leave Australian shores having experienced the land in a way few of their countrymen have.
Harmanpreet, who has lived in Mumbai, could not help being reminded of that city while in Sydney, playing for Sydney Thunder. “Though it is a lot cleaner,” she added with a wry smile.
Harmanpreet Kaur: “Everything is more individual oriented. Every player knows what they have to do before a game or training. This will be the way forward, because it means we have to think about our own games.”
Apart from the cleanliness, she enjoyed living in a place with a strong sporting culture, specifically a cricket culture. “The cricket environment is the best thing about Australia. The ground facilities, the wickets, the good outfields. These are the things I’m enjoying most.”
Harmanpreet made the best possible use of the good batting wickets and the quick outfields, notching up nearly 300 runs in her 13 matches. In the last round of league matches, she put in her best performance of the season, smashing 64 not out off just 37 balls with six sixes and one four. At one point, she had hit three sixes in four balls, bringing her team back in a difficult chase, ultimately falling short though.
It was the kind of batting rarely seen from her, whether in domestic or international cricket; a measure of the confidence the 27-year-old has in her game at the moment. No doubt she would have been bolstered by facing up to the world’s top bowlers in this competition.
She was all praise for the bowlers’ aggression. “Even though there is an extra fielder inside here, and if they concede a couple of fours, they don’t let their shoulders drop,” she observed. “They get even more determined to bowl well. With our girls, if they had one less fielder, they would be a bit defensive already.”
Another lesson she is taking back home is the importance given to individual preparation within a team environment. “Everything is more individual oriented. Every player knows what they have to do before a game or training. This will be the way forward, because it means we have to think about our own games,” she said. “Here we are left on our own, to do our own things. We just have to give results. Everything is up to us. That is something that needs to happen back home also.”
About a thousand kilometres north, her India team-mate Smriti Mandhana was adding to her own repertoire. Mandhana, the left-hander, struggled in Australia, mustering only 89 runs in the ten innings she played for Brisbane Heat, eventual semifinalists. For the most part, she was hitting the ball well, but was also over attacking, over eager to hit over the top.
“I was going away from my basics a bit,” she admitted.
Making things worse, just as she was starting to translate shots into runs, she injured her left knee, tearing a ligament. It ruled her out of the tournament with two league matches to go, and meant she would miss India’s ICC World Cup Qualifier campaign in February in Colombo.
Yet, she was determined to focus on the learnings. “Batting in the middle order has been the biggest change,” she said. Usually an opener, she found herself batting anywhere from No.3 to No.6. She had to move out of her comfort zone, and adjust accordingly. “Even though the results have not gone as I hoped, I have enjoyed it.”
The two have also spent almost two months on the road. “Staying alone also teaches you a lot about yourself.”
Smriti Mandhana: “Skill-wise we are just as good. We just need to work hard on the fitness aspect, and hold on to the self belief, then we can compete against the best.”
Mandhana’s biggest observations of the Australian set-up have been about the similarities rather than the differences. “The fitness and fielding emphasis is definitely better, but there are more similarities than we think. They are also cricketers; they also have the same challenges as we do.” She seems to have gained an insight into the mentality required to succeed in foreign conditions: Believe you are as good as, if not better than, the opponent.
“Skill wise we are just as good. We just need to work hard on the fitness aspect, and hold on to the self belief, then we can compete against the best.”
The World Cup in June 2017, to which India are expected to qualify, will provide a good opportunity to gauge the effects of this Australian sojourn on the two Indians. They might find facing the likes of Anya Shrubsole and Lea Tahuhu easier, having played against them in this tournament. They might be able to better soak in the pressure of a chase that has gone down to the wire. They will be the trailblazers who inspire their colleagues back home.