Athletes strive to earn the respect of teammates, opponents and fans, but that is easier said than done. Your reputation only carries you so far, and you are as good as your last performance. Smriti Mandhana recognises that clearly.
No batter comes close to Mandhana’s tally of 933 international runs in women’s cricket in the period starting after the 2017 World Cup. She has scored at an average of 49.10 including nine fifties and one century in 21 innings. While she tops the chart in Twenty20 Internationals with 402 runs, she is third on the One-Day International list behind Lizelle Lee, who surpassed her during South Africa’s ongoing series in England, and Sophie Devine. Mandhana, however, knows all this will count for little when she travels to England to make her debut for Western Storm in the Kia Super League from July 22 to August 27.
“Cricket is played in the present. It is all about scoring runs. You earn respect by scoring runs, and I won’t be earning respect based on what I have done in previous tournaments,” Mandhana told Wisden India soon after Storm publicised her signing. “Only if I score runs there will people look up to me or respect me there as a team member. I don’t think it is any different that way. I have only one aim, which is to score runs there.”
Mandhana’s form got Trevor Griffin, the Western Storm coach, to contact her, and the relationship became formal once the BCCI issued the No Objection Certificate. It is not the first time Mandhana will be a part of an overseas league. She played for Brisbane Heat in the 2016-17 Women’s Big Bash League in Australia. It was not a particularly pleasant experience. She was made to bat in the middle-order, something she was not used to, and then twisted her knee while trying to field off her own bowling. She had to undergo a surgery for anterior cruciate ligament tear, and regained fitness just in time to be selected for the World Cup. Mandhana was just 20 years old then.
“In the Big Bash, that time staying alone was really hard for me. I was a baby. I was just 18 (20) years old. Now I think after two years, I can manage staying alone. I would not have that much of a problem,” she says of her learning from Australia. “Staying alone in Big Bash was a big learning for me – how to manage yourself and your cricket mentally. That will really help me be in a good space during my stint with Western Storm.”
The KSL experience is crucial in a World T20 year. One half of India’s first-wicket pair, she is expected to open the innings with New Zealand’s Rachel Priest, who was retained by Storm. Heather Knight, the England captain, Anya Shrubsole, who bowled her for a duck in the World Cup final, and Fran Wilson will also be among her teammates.
“Whenever I have watched Rachel bat, she goes after the bowling right from the first ball. That is a really difficult thing to go out there and just start whacking from the first ball. I would like to talk to her about it and ask how she does about it, how she gets all this strength from,” she laughs. “If she suggests something and I find it really helpful, then I will definitely implement that to my game. It is really important as a player to keep improving to perform better. I think before the World Cup, anything that helps me improve will be beneficial for me and the team.
“Facing Shrubsole in the nets would be really great for preparation because she is one of the best bowlers in the world right now. I would like to pick her brain on what she bowls when a batter is trying to go after her, and if she shares it with me, then I can keep it in my mind when I play against her, but that is too far ahead now,” she laughs again. “Heather Knight is a brilliant leader. From whatever I have seen of her, she leads the side really well. I would really keep talking to her about that aspect and how she goes about her fitness.”
Women’s cricket has evolved significantly in the last one year, and England have led the charge with their destructive and innovative batting. Wilson’s reverse sweep is one shot Mandhana is keen to add to her repertoire.
“England Women cricketers are really good with the reverse sweep. Wilson plays the shot really well,” Mandhana offers. “I have practiced the shot but have not had the confidence of playing it in a match. If I could develop that shot, then it will be a win-win situation for me as a batter.”
Even without the reverse sweep, there has been a marked improvement in Mandhana’s stroke play. She says the biggest change in her T20 game over the last few months has been the willingness to take calculated risks, fully aware that what was previously a good score is not even an average score in the current scenario.
“A year back, I was very hesitant to go over the top initially. I was scared of losing my wicket. But I am not that hesitant and now I know the fact that T20s are improving in women’s cricket. 170-180 scores are also not really enough,” she continues. “You really have to take kind of risk in the first six overs. I was not ready to take that risk one year back. I am not saying it will come off every time, but mentally now I am much better, knowing when I have to take a risk and when I should not.”
In that context, her batting in Malaysia in the recently concluded Women’s T20 Asia Cup, where India lost to Bangladesh in the final, was underwhelming. She crossed 30 just once in six innings, and got out for single-digit scores on three occasions.
Mandhana refuses to blame the slow pitches. Instead. she says she was not in the zone, something she aims to rediscover before leaving for England on July 16.
“Breaking the kind of consistency I had, I don’t like that. It is not a good feeling as a player. If you are scoring well and then you don’t score in one tournament, it really hurts you because after the World Cup, my only aim was to be consistent,” she says. “Definitely it did hurt me, the way I batted. Everything is a learning curve and I would like to learn from my mistakes. I have never ever blamed anything in my life. I think in Nagpur, (for three ODIs) against England, we didn’t have great pitches but even then I was middling the ball well. So, it was all about me not middling the ball well in Malaysia and not pitches. I was not in the batting zone I was in earlier. I have to rediscover that batting zone now. That is my aim in the one month I have.”
Mandhana has mixed memories of England. She scored a match-winning half-century on her Test debut there in 2014, and started the 2017 World Cup with scores of 90 and 106 not out before her form faded. She clearly has some unfinished business in the country.
“That was one-day format, and this is T20 format and you have completely different mindsets for the two. But yes, the bad patch I had in England in the World Cup has really pushed me to get my game better and work hard,” she said. “I definitely want that to come in my game. Ever since the World Cup, I am only after consistency.”
Runs in KSL are her currency to “earn respect”.