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Smriti Mandhana is here to stay

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Smriti_Mandhana_India_CricketThe back-foot Ace

Hasan Ali, Fakhar Zaman and now Smriti Mandhana: What is with this recent trend of players in their early 20’s snatching the spotlight from more experienced names in global ICC tournaments?

The curtain raiser of the showpiece event of Women’s cricket could not have started in more spectacular fashion and we have the powerful 20 year-old left-handed opener to thank for this. Her whirlwind 90 from 72 deliveries laid the foundation for an imposing 281-3, which proved too large a target for the English hosts to chase down.

She signaled her intent with the very first-ball of her innings, making the usually incisive veteran Katherine Brunt look more like Katherine Blunt. She caught the English fast bowler off-guard with a pull behind square on the leg-side and she did not stop there. Her back-foot game expanded with textbook drives that regularly pierced the covers, aerial pull shots that deflated the morale of any disillusioned challenger she encountered, and even some lofted drives over mid-off that disregarded the principle of transferring weight onto the front foot.

The beginning

Mandhana’s blazing start to the tournament will not come as a surprise to those who have followed her ever since she made her India debut at the age of 16. Big things were predicted for the girl from Sangli, as she piled on the runs at domestic and age group levels, even scoring a double century in List-A cricket – a significant and highly commendable achievement for someone so young.

She is also the second Indian after Harmanpreet Kaur-- and the youngest overseas professional -- to be signed up by a BBL franchise, plying her trade for the Brisbane Heat. Brisbane’s scouts saw tremendous potential in the young southpaw after witnessing her maiden ODI century against Australia in early 2016.

Overcoming the odds

Unfortunately, Mandhana had a modest tournament finishing with 89 runs at an average of 11.13. Things went further south when she injured her ACL in January, towards the end of the 2016/2017 WBBL season. There was every chance that she would miss out on selection for the pinnacle of the women’s game, either through injury or through a lack of match practice.

However, this did not stop the resolute youngster as she trained tirelessly at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore, undergoing physiotherapy before hitting the nets as soon as she received a clean bill of health. She settled any issues surrounding match fitness with scores of 77 and 44 against West Indies and Sri Lanka respectively in the warm-ups prior to her player of the match performance against England.

A bright future awaits Smriti

India are up against the West Indies in their second group fixture on Thursday and Mandhana will be eager to propel India to the semi-finals with another strong showing. Despite an underwhelming WBBL, her time down under has given her the opportunity to work on her fitness in a country that pioneered women’s franchise cricket and the subsequent professionalization of the sport.

She showed that she is getting physically stronger with two of her four career maximums coming in the tournament opener. In mid-summer English conditions, where canny medium pacers are negated by clear skies and flatter pitches, Mandhana’s ability to go after the bowling could once again give India a formidable cushion, similar to the one that allowed Poonam Raut to bide her time before getting into her stride.

In addition, a right-left batting combination is always useful in one-day cricket, especially if we talk of openers. If both Mandhana and Raut can launch together, they could make any bowling attack look ordinary, much like Azhar Ali and Fakhar Zaman did in the knockout stages of the ICC Champions Trophy.

Speaking on the topic of Mandhana’s potential, former head coach of the India Women’s team Purnima Rao had this to say: "It is not the usual full-of-animation kind of aggression, but a quiet and latent one. When she puts her mind to something, she'll want to give it all, come what may…She may stutter, she may fall, but she'll keep going against all odds."

Rao could not be more right. The young Mandhana is unwavering in her commitment, getting stronger by the day, and you better believe that she will serve her team and her country for years to come. She may even heal a nation still reeling from an unforgettably painful Champions Trophy final. No pressure, Smriti.

 

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Jay Dansinghani is a freelance writer, researcher, and author based in Hong Kong. Jay got into deep...

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