Mandhana keeps going from strength to strength for India © Getty
Over the past 15 months, Smriti Mandhana’s passport has been stamped in (nearly) all cricket-playing countries. In turn, she has stacked up enough numbers and records to make each of the trips memorable. She’s not rested her kit bat for more than a week at a stretch since the start of 2018 – not that Mandhana is complaining, with the kind of year and a half she’s had. The rewards still continue to pour in, on and off the field.
When she last checked the ICC rankings, Mandhana was still fourth on the list and, thought to herself, a long way away from topping it yet. The ODI Player of the Year was “probably on the cards” but to top it off with the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Award for the ICC Women’s Cricketer of the Year was the stuff of dreams. Mandhana admits she didn’t have a good grasp of what Forbes 30 Under 30 meant when she first heard her name was in the Class of 2019. And now the 22-year-old finds herself at the helm of a transitioning Indian T20I team in the injury-forced absence of regular captain Harmanpreet Kaur.
India’s 15-month preparation window from the now infamous 2018 ICC World T20 semifinal exit to the next showpiece event in Australia began with a 3-0 whitewash at the hands of New Zealand, and England promises to be an even tougher nut to crack. But, at the moment, cracking the winning formula and not throwing away starts remain the top-most priority of the team and its stand-in captain. Time and again Mandhana has stressed the need for individuals to step up and finish games for India. Time and again she’s been critical of her own self for not being that player despite the purple patch she’s in.
“See, if you watched the (New Zealand) series or just switched on the TV, 80% of the times you would have felt India are in a winning position. We couldn’t seal it, but that is a positive takeaway for us as a team that we’ve been in winning positions in foreign conditions. But, yes, definitely, it’s a big concern for us a team that we still have to work on finishing off games,” Mandhana tells Cricbuzz.
“As an individual and as a team, I think, those close matches are really hurting us. There have been far too many times that we get close but end up on the wrong side of the result. But we have to figure out players who could fit in well and could take in pressure of T20 and give a performance that the team needs in those [close] scenarios. As an individual everyone can work hard and we [leadership group] need to identify who those individuals can be. And for those who are set, it’s our responsibility to take the team through and not get out when the team needs you to bat deep.
“That last bit applies especially to me,” Mandhana adds with her trademark, self-depreciating laugh.
After a brief resurgence in the format, starting with the 4-0 series sweep in Sri Lanka last year, India have now lost all four T20I games on the bounce. What’s worse is all four losses have followed a set pattern – a promising start featuring Mandhana and Jemimah Rodrigues, and then squandering the advantage through a middle order capitulation once the opposition got past that successful partnership. In their defence, it’s not the strongest of middle orders that they boast of, with many youngsters thrown in the mix and the team trying to find out who fits where the best before the 2020 World T20. Even with the impending home series against England, the Indian squad features three probable debutants.
With Harmanpreet missing out and veteran Mithali Raj likely to bridge that gap in the middle order, a possible comeback for Veda Krishnamurthy and fresh faces to try out – it is likely that the permutations and combinations in the Indian playing XI will continue till they zero in on the World T20 squad. Limited number of games at hand aren’t helping the cause either but, Mandhana stresses, defeats in the process are not excusable as part of this trial and error deal.
“Definitely not. You definitely get bothered about the defeats because as a team, as sports persons, we all hate losing. Even if we are experimenting – actually, experimenting isn’t right phrase for it – even if we’re handing out opportunities to new players, you still want to win the match as a team. So, the losses cannot be excused because you’re trying out new players. Everyone wants to win a series. And that’s what we wanted to do – the primary focus was trying to win the series. And, if in that process we could figure out two or three players who can do well in those tough situations in a year from now at the T20 World Cup, it’s a bonus. But our main goal remains winning the series, always.”
And has the team management been able to ascertain those two or three individuals? “It’s a process. Everyone needs a certain amount of time to get settled in in the international circuit,” Mandhana says. “Because if you look at it, domestic and international [cricket] has a wide gap in the standard and you can’t expect someone to just come in and start performing from ball one. Jemimah is maybe an exception but you can’t expect everyone to be a Jemimah too, to just come in and start clearing the fences and winning us matches straightaway. So, you know, we have to be careful as a unit to see what [role?] will help the individual and will also serve the team’s cause too.”
Does that bring much more responsibility and, in turn, put more pressure on Mandhana – one of the handful in-form players, a veteran of six years in this set-up and now the also captain of the team?
“Why do you have to think so much and complicate batting, yaar?” It’s as simple!
“I don’t like to over think, honestly. Whenever I dreamt of playing for India, I had it in my mind that if I am representing India in international cricket I need to win matches for my country. And that has not changed ever since. And that’s the only thing I have at the back of my mind when I take the field,” the Red Bull athlete says. “Go out there, play according to the merit of the ball and if at the end of the day you feel, ‘okay, I gave 100% that I could have’ then I can sleep peacefully. If you feel you’ve not given your 100%, then ya, that is something which should bother you.”
Form, awards and recognition are not adding any pressure to Mandhana’s game. In fact if anything, it’s only taking it off.