Watching Smriti Mandhana at her best is like watching poetry in motion. There is to her batting a lazy elegance that soothes the eye, warms the heart.
“She reminds me of Sourav Ganguly,” says W.V. Raman, coach of the Indian women’s team and someone who knows a thing or two about graceful left-handed batting.
Smriti is not just the most stylish batter in women’s cricket but one of the most feared as well — she sits atop the ICC’s ODI rankings.
“Becoming the world’s best batter was something that I always wanted,” says Smriti. “When I was little, my mother always used to ask me to persevere in whatever I did, and not to stop in the middle but to go on until reaching the top.”
She has reached there at the age of 22, with 1,951 runs at an average of 42.41 and a strike-rate of 83.51 from 50 ODIs.
Carry forward the legacy of Mithali Raj
Striking at close to 120 in T20Is, she is also sought after by franchises in the domestic leagues of Australia and England. She was the leading run-scorer and the ‘Player of the Tournament’ in the England and Wales Cricket Board’s Kia Super League last year. She will re-join Western Storm for the upcoming edition, which begins on August 6.
Smriti is poised to carry forward the legacy of Mithali Raj, a world-class performer whose example has served as an inspiration for two decades, especially at moments when the game’s survival faced challenges.
Women’s cricket in India has come a long way from the dark ages when players travelled unreserved on trains and, on occasion, on bullock carts. Mithali and other brave women like Jhulan Goswami have made the path easier for their successors.
The inflection point, on the field, came against defending champion Australia in the World Cup semifinal in 2017 in England. An astonishing 171 not out off 115 balls by Harmanpreet Kaur — an innings regarded by many as one of the finest ever — not just took India to the final but also caught the imagination of a nation.
The turnouts at the Women’s T20 Challenge, dubbed the ‘mini-IPL’, in Jaipur recently (increasing from roughly 4,000 on the first day to about 15,000 for the final) were an encouraging sign of the game’s growing popularity. But it can do with increased corporate interest. Smriti’s ability to draw new fans can help with that. There is something about her batting: after watching it for the first time, you are keen to find out when India plays next.
“She could become the nation’s sweetheart,” says former-India-all-rounder-turned-commentator Reema Malhotra. Smriti could do for cricket what Sania Mirza did for tennis and Saina Nehwal for badminton — they put their sports in the limelight with their campaigns on court and in ad spots.
That will represent a remarkable achievement for someone who began her cricketing journey in Sangli, Maharashtra, not one of the game’s big centres. Smriti’s first inspiration was her brother Shravan. He was a promising batsman who played for the Maharashtra junior team. It was through him that Rahul Dravid presented Smriti with one of his bats.
She used that bat on international debut, against Bangladesh at Vadodara in 2013; she scored 39 off 36 balls, opening the innings in the final T20I. Some six months later, the bat helped her make much bigger news: Smriti hit a stunning 224 off 150 balls for Maharashtra against Gujarat in a West Zone Under-19 one-day game.
“Yes, that knock made people aware of Smriti’s talent, but I was convinced she was special right from the time her father brought me to her,” says her first coach Anant Tambvekar. “She was the first girl to train under me. A girl playing cricket in a conservative Maharashtra town like Sangli was very unusual. In a society where fair skin matters a lot in the marriage market, people were surprised a girl would want to spend so much time under the sun.”
Smriti didn’t mind that at all — the sun, or what people thought. “She was just happy to work for six hours every day,” recalls Tambvekar. “She would train for four hours in the morning and return to the ground in the evening, after school, for another two. It was her timing that impressed me most. I am not at all surprised by the kind of success she has achieved.”
Neither is Reema. “I had heard about this new kid and wanted to see her bat,” says the former international from Delhi. “While I was in Guwahati, playing for Assam as a professional, I heard she was in the city for an Under-19 tournament. So I went to the ground to see her bat.”
Smriti didn’t disappoint her.
“She scored 150-odd and it was a brilliant innings,” Reema reminisces. “She played those lovely Ganguly-like drives and lofts as well as cuts, straight drives, every shot in the book, in fact. I could sense that she liked to play long innings.”
Smriti has been working on making her stay at the wicket even longer. “That is one of the reasons why I have been more consistent over the last year or two,” she says. “I have worked on my shot selection and I have decided that I need not look good always when I bat. Even struggling is okay, if you struggle your way to a good score.”
The spectator won’t be bored, though, even when her batting goes through such periods. The strike-rate may come down a bit, but she still peppers her innings with those gorgeous strokes.
“Smriti is the best batter in women’s cricket now,” said Scott Styris, the former New Zealand all-rounder who is now an expert commentator. “The difference between her and the second-best is the size of Mumbai.”
So, you would do well to switch on the television when Smriti arrives at the wicket the next time. You are unlikely to forget it in a hurry.