Smriti Mandhana‘s breakout season at Kia Super League promises exciting future for women‘s cricket in India

Before Virat Kohli’s India turned the table around with an emphatic win in the third Test against England in Trent Bridge on Wednesday, there were disappointments in Birmingham and Lord’s. Seeing the Indian openers struggle, there were a few tweets suggesting Smriti Mandhana, who was having a ball for Western Storm in the Kia Women’s Super League (KSL), as an alternative option. For many followers of women’s cricket, those tweets took the mind back to a newspaper headline from 1970s that called for the inclusion of Shantha Rangaswamy, the then India women‘s captain, in the men’s team.

While Mandhana’s performances for India against South Africa, Australia and England earlier this year were brilliant, she took her game to the next level at the KSL. Her 421 runs at 60.14 from ten league games took Storm to the final on 27 August.

Mandhana is back in India, getting ready to be the chief guest at the audio launch of Kanaa, a Tamil movie.

She won’t be there to help Storm defend the title because of the Indian team’s camp before their tour of Sri Lanka. Whether Storm succeed without her or not, the summer will always be remembered for Mandhana’s strokeplay.

The league’s highest run-getter by some distance, it is the manner in which she scored those runs that was impressive. No batswoman across all editions of Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) in Australia and KSL is anywhere close to Mandhana’s strike-rate of 174.68.

Mandhana was quite one-dimensional in her batting in early years. Her shots had the flair, but it was always easy to restrict her by closing out her scoring areas. What one saw at KSL was an authoritative player equally at ease scoring runs on both sides of the wicket and against all kind of deliveries. These two clips on — 19-ball 52 not out in a six-over game against Loughborough Lightning which is now the joint fastest half-century in Women’s T20, and 61-ball 102 against Lancashire Thunder — give a sense of her command in the middle.

From an Indian perspective, it were the lofted shots that capture the shift. She has, so far, hit only 16 sixes in 42 T20Is for India. In a space of three weeks at KSL, she hit 21 sixes. Only Sophie Devine (19 sixes) is in her vicinity. Also, not to forget the 45 fours. Her India boundary count for over five years is 102. One of India’s issues during the Women’s T20 Asia Cup in Malaysia, where they lost the final against Bangladesh, was the inability to capitalise the field restrictions in the Powerplay overs. The pitches were slow, but the defensive mindset was quite stifling .

Now, by hitting 66 of the 241 balls she faced from some of the best bowlers in the business either to the fence or over it, Mandhana has developed crucial muscle memory ahead of the World T20 in the Windies in November.

Mandhana is not the first Indian to make an impact in an overseas league. Harmanpreet Kaur’s attractive shots for Sydney Thunder in the 2016-17 WBBL were quite a rage. She also helped Lancashire win two games this season. There is, however, a difference between making a splash and owning the pool.

By dominating every challenge that has come her way, Mandhana has not only given a glimpse of how far the bar could be pushed, but also showed the potential to instill a lot of belief among youngsters in India. The Women’s Challenger Twenty20 trophy, which got over in Alur on the outskirts of Bangalore on 22 August, was not a particularly good batting outing, with India Blue’s 131 for 7 in a four-run win against India Red in the final being the highest score.

Seeing one of their own bat on a different plane, rest of the young Indian batters could draw crucial lessons from it. Mandhana’s attitude alone could sow seeds for emergence of more hitters in the domestic circuit in the coming years.

A part of the credit for what Mandhana went on to achieve in England goes to Anurag Thakur, the former BCCI president. During his tenure, he opened a previously locked door by allowing women cricketers to play in WBBL and KSL. Kaur started the trend that has been followed by Mandhana, who has also played for Brisbane Heat, and Veda Krishnamurthy (Hobart Hurricanes). Definitely, there will be more Indians playing in these leagues in the future.

That Mandhana was asked by BCCI to return after the league stage has divided opinions. It is akin to England men cricketers not being available for playoffs in the Indian Premier League (IPL) because of the start of their home season. In an interaction with while in England, Mandhana said that KSL experience would help her in the Caribbean because she has spent time with some of the best players and also shared the dressing room with Stafanie Taylor, the Windies captain.

The team management felt that it was important for Mandhana (and Kaur) to be there for the preparatory camp so that they could share their knowledge from the multicultural dressing rooms of the KSL, which would then allow other players to boost their respective games. The call has its merits considering that the last time India went to the Caribbean was in early 2012 under Anjum Chopra’s captaincy. Only Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami, Ekta Bisht, Veda and Kaur have remained from that team.

On the other hand, imagine the situational intelligence Mandhana would have stood to gain from potentially two knock-out games and the benefits of it for the Indian team going into the World T20. Yes, a gap of nine days between the last league game and the final is a bit too much to fit in, but there surely could have been a way around it.

One of the reasons why Mandhana could express herself completely for Storm was the strong support she had around her. The lightness she carried around herself during that interaction with Harsha Bhogle, Sourav Ganguly and Graeme Swann for Sony ESPN during the Lord’s Test, indicated that she was having fun even though she made her dislike for jacket potato public.

Kumar Sangakkara, her childhood idol who was the commentator at one of the Storm matches, told Mandhana to continue with her good touch and not over-complicate things by thinking too much. The big question is, can Mandhana bat for India with the same freedom as she did for Storm, considering there will be a lot more riding on her? That is the next challenge in the rising career of the Sangli girl.

Updated Date: Aug 23, 2018 01:57 PM

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