Whenever I bat, it’s a fresh start: Smriti Mandhana
Smriti Mandhana may only be 23, but she says she feels older. But naturally—the southpaw’s fellow opener in India’s T20I team is 15-year-old Shafali Verma, and at No 3 comes Jemimah Rodrigues, 19. Mandhana is the only non-teen in the team’s top three.
“It’s funny, because earlier, I used to have questions about how you coped with the seniors in the team, and now I get questions about how you’re guiding these juniors,” Mandhana said in a chat with HT after the launch of Power shoes, of which she is the brand ambassador.
As India gear up for the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup in Australia starting next month—the team leave for Australia on Thursday—Mandhana, who is the vice-captain, believes these fearless youngsters will hold the key to the team doing better than its semi-final showing in the 2018 edition.
“The kind of characters that these youngsters are, I don’t think they have any baggage. Especially Shafali; she is that typical Haryana girl. She won’t think too much: if the first ball is to be hit, she will hit it in the stands. She won’t think, ‘What if I get out?’ And that’s a really positive sign, especially in T20s because that’s what is needed. You need to be fearless in T20 cricket.
“And Jemi (Jemimah) plays the anchor role to give that much-needed balance to our batting order,” Mandhana said.
In November last year, Mandhana and Verma combined to record India’s highest partnership in a women’s T20I, notching up 143 in the first T20I against the West Indies at Gros Islet. Verma’s explosive entry into the Indian team barely a couple of months before that match made Mandhana—a hard-hitting batswoman herself—delve into whether she needed to alter her style of play as the senior.
“I had thought about it, actually, whether I should change my game a little or not. But then six overs, 70 runs, no one would mind, right?” she said.
“So then I decided not to change the way I play, especially in the powerplay. After six overs, we might decide that one has to stay and one has to go for it. But I don’t think that she will stay, so I’ll have to do that,” Mandhana added with a chuckle.
Adaptability isn’t an issue for the Sangli-based girl. Mandhana finished 2019 as India’s leading run-scorer in both ODIs (423 runs in seven matches @70.50) and T20Is (405 runs in 14 matches @31.15), proving her worth as the women team’s most treasured player.
Does she feel a sense of responsibility of carrying a bulk of the team’s batting workload?
“I don’t think like that,” Mandhana said. “Whenever I go out to bat, my only responsibility is to look at the scoreboard and think what India needs from me at this moment. I don’t think that I’ve scored these many runs or I’ve achieved these things, because I believe it is something that doesn’t help me. Whenever I go out to bat, it’s a fresh start. I like to keep it very simple. And anyway, my memory is not that good.”
She approaches the T20 Worlds with a simple yet profound shift in perspective that allows her to be stress-free: “I’m not preparing for the World Cup; I’m preparing for the Australian wickets. And that’s all I have been focusing on for the last 10 days. Physically, mentally and form-wise, I think I’m in a good space.”
Mandhana is one of the few Indian players to have plied her trade in women’s T20 leagues around the world and is familiar with Australian conditions, where she plays for the Women’s Big Bash League team Brisbane Heats.
“It’s definitely made me a better T20 player, because when you go there and see all the other girls hit so big, you feel like, ‘Okay you need to work a lot on yourself’,” Mandhana said.
“As a young player, when I saw those girls hitting that far, I came back and spoke to my coaches and my father that I need to get there too. It was a good self-realisation for me,” she added.
Mandhana says the team can’t wait to start their campaign in Australia.
“In the last one year, we’ve only been planning towards the World Cup, and what can be done from the team’s perspective. So, finally that we are leaving, it’s quite exciting. If all the 15 players give their best, I think we will end up winning the World Cup.”
Mandhana and her successor in the batting line up, Rodrigues, share a raucous relationship off the field (they often post videos on social media together under #WrongSisters), and a prolific one on it (they’ve scored 404 runs in 14 T20I innings together).
“I was her first room-mate when she came into the Indian team in 2018. Since then, our relationship began growing and we started talking about cricket a lot. We also started understanding each other’s batting really well, which is a good sign because then we can tell each other where we are going wrong and what we are doing well.
“But she is a completely different personality when she bats. The amount she talks off the field—and it’s so much—she doesn’t even say one word while batting,” Mandhana said, her grin intact.
‘Unfair to demand same pay as men’
Smriti Mandhana said it was unfair to expect the BCCI to pay women cricketers on the same scale as their male counterparts.
“We need to understand that the revenue which we get is through men’s cricket. The day women’s cricket starts getting revenue, I will be the first person to say that we need the same thing. But right now, we can’t say that,” Mandhana said.
“I don’t think any of the team-mates are thinking about this gap because the only focus right now is to win matches for India, get the crowds in, get the revenue. That is the thing which we are aiming for and if that happens, all other things are going to fall in place.”