India’s Smriti Mandhana finally made a mark on the Women’s Big Bash League when she scored an attractive 40 off 33 balls for Brisbane Heat against Hobart Hurricanes last week under lights at the Blundstone Arena.
Even though her first real contribution to the team total was overshadowed by the Hurricanes’ Haley Matthews (5 for 19) and Georgia Redmayne (64* off 50), it was an important innings for Mandhana. More than the runs she scored that January 9, it was the way she scored them.
For most batters, you can tell when they are in form just by how they play a particular shot. For Mandhana, it is the pull. Her knock on Monday featured quite a few of her favoured pull shots whenever the bowlers made the mistake of dragging their length even marginally back. The shot appeared with the regularity and certainty of the spikes on a heart rate monitor. For the most part, it was executed successfully; on one occasion she got some help from the light tower that blinded a fielder and prevented what should have been a regulation catch.
The pull shots were reminiscent of the kind of shots she played on her last visit to Hobart. A little under a year ago, Mandhana got off the mark in the second One-Day International against Australia with a pull shot off the fourth ball she faced. Holly Ferling, now her team mate at Heat, was the bowler, and she was treated to two more as Mandhana peppered the square-leg boundary. She would get four boundaries from that shot on that day, as she brought up her maiden hundred. In the next ODI, at the same ground, Mandhana scored a half-century, to help India register a consolation win.
After that game, as the Indian team bid farewell to the staff at Blundstone Arena, Mandhana was asked to present them a gift on behalf of the Indian team. They in turn, gave her a bigger one: They told her that her name would be up on the honours board.
“It was nice to hear at the time. But I soon forgot about it,” Mandhana told Wisden India.
It was probably because India lost that game, despite putting in their best batting performance of the tour. Even when the Indian team’s local manager sent her a photo of her name painted there, the significance didn’t really sink in. But significant it was: In the 43 ODIs the two teams have played since 1978, the hundred was the only century by an Indian player on Australian soil. It was also only the second century ever by an Indian woman against Australia in ODIs.
But it was different when Mandhana walked back into Blundstone Arena last weekend. When she was escorted by the staff to the honours board and saw it for herself, she finally felt that sense of achievement. “To see my name on the board, along with the names of (David) Warner and (Steven) Smith, it was awesome. It really made me feel more proud of that knock.”
Mandhana has struggled to get big runs in the WBBL, her tally now only 87 from 11 matches. At the same time, half those runs have come from boundaries and a good score under her belt should come as a relief. She even seems to have warmed up to the middle order now, despite having spent almost her whole life at the top.
“I had gone away from my basics a little bit, so I just tried to get back to doing what I know works for me. And it’s feeling good now,” she said.
One of only two Indian women in the WBBL, she will need to make the most of every available opportunity. She may only get four more chances, though, as Brisbane Heat have only four more league games remaining. Post that, things are uncertain.
Heat, currently in fourth, are facing stiff competition for a spot in the semi-finals. They face the bottom pair of Melbourne Renegades and Sydney Strikers next. Heat have been unpredictable all season: they have won one and lost one against every opposition so far.
There is also uncertainty over Mandhana’s own availability should Heat make the knockouts. With India scheduled to play the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier in Sri Lanka from February 7, the team will be assembling for a training camp at Alur in the last week of January. Should BCCI recall Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur, as media reports have suggested – the WBBL team representatives though say there has been no official communication from the board so far – the next four matches become more crucial for her.
Not only would runs from her bat be good for her personally, but there is more riding on her success. Harmanpreet’s contributions so far – including in that first WBBL game she played, which was televised in India, when her six over cover left both the bowler and the world gaping – have been a wonderful exhibition of the value that Indian players can add to the tournament, and a good finish for Mandhana could cement the case. That in turn will water the pitch for more Indians to feature in the competition next year.
With Heat’s game against the beleaguered Strikers on January 20 set to be televised on Australian Free-To-Air Network Ten, and her team looking to book a spot in the semis, there can be no better opportunity for Mandhana to showcase her considerable skill. The pull shot is there, the ball is making a good sound off the bat.