To be honest, I’ve never followed women’s cricket from close quarters. There have been those odd World Cup matches over the years that I have watched simply to support the ‘Women in Blue,’ but besides that most women’s cricket matches don’t interest me at all.
They always seemed to be lagging behind men’s cricket by a decade or two. However, the progress that women’s cricket has made in the past three or four years hasn’t escaped my eyes either. It has been slowly but steadily catching up with men’s cricket and has suddenly become more popular with the advent of the Women’s Big Bash League.
With increased popularity of women’s cricket, more players have started coming into the limelight. And one of the players who’s been highly spoken about in the last one year has been 20-year-old Indian opener, Smriti Mandhana.
She’s played a handful number of ODIs till date – 23 to be precise. However, I hadn’t even watched her play in a single one of her 22 matches till the beginning of the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017.
I didn’t follow her during the Women’s Big Bash league, but her name was on the lips of almost every passionate Indian cricket fan. That made me decide to follow each one of India’s matches during the ongoing Women’s World Cup.
The first match was scheduled to be on a super Saturday, that too, against the hosts England. England women won the toss and chose to bowl first.
Good for me! At least I didn’t have to wait long to see Mandhana bat. Half an hour after the toss, and there she was walking out to set the Indian innings rolling along with her opening partner Poonam Raut.
A lot of things kept coming into my mind as she strode towards the pitch. She was making a comeback from an injury, that too, straight away into her first ever World Cup match. Would she be able to perform well? Would she be able to live up to the expectations? Would she be the same player the world had been talking about for the last six months?
It was the first delivery of the second over, India were 3/0 and Katherine Brunt was charging in from round the wicket to Mandhana. A hint of in-swing on the delivery angled towards middle and leg, and Mandhana hoisted it over the square leg boundary for a one-bounce four.
Suddenly, the image of a much more familiar player flashed in front of my eyes. That shot reminded me of one of my childhood heroes Adam Gilchrist as it used to be one of his trademark shots. I was in awe but convinced myself that it was just one shot, and settled down to see what more Mandhana had in store.
Up against Brunt again, what Smriti did in the fourth over of the innings gave me goosebumps. And made me nostalgic. It made me revisit my childhood once again. And most importantly, I saw the reflections of two childhood heroes in the way Mandhana batted.
It was the second ball of the fourth over and Mandhana dispatched Brunt to the mid-wicket boundary for a four with a sublimely-timed pull that was reminiscent of Gilchrist once again.
Suddenly those two shots made me realise why the world had been so much in awe of this player all this while. And she surprised me even more when she took Brunt for a hat-trick of boundaries through the off-side which again brought back memories of another childhood hero – Sourav Ganguly. An upper cut, a back-foot glide and a back-foot cover drive followed off three successive deliveries and Mandhana had left me spellbound.
The 20-year old had given me the joy of being able to both watch and remember my childhood heroes at the same time. The class, elegance and grace with which she played all those shots throughout her innings made me feel blessed to have been able to watch her play.
Rahul Dravid had once said:
On the off-side, first there is God, then there is Ganguly.
In all these years, I have watched so many left-handers bat. Yet, none of the players have appeared worthy enough to have the same sentence repeated for them again. However, Mandhana changed my notion and made me think that she certainly deserves a place after Ganguly in that sentence, if not the same.
She brought up her 50 in the 16th over of the innings with a beautifully-timed lofted drive over mid-off. It was another gracious shot and she had scored her sixth ODI fifty and also the first in her maiden World Cup appearance. She continued to bat in the same way resembling a calm ocean coming up with vicious waves at regular intervals.
Both the sixes that she hit over mid-wicket were reminiscent of Ganguly’s trademark shot. Moreover, she kept sprinting at a strike-rate of over 100 throughout his innings while her partner Raut jogged along with a strike-rate in the mid-sixties.
Her innings was what helped India in setting up the platform for a big total of 281/3. She kept playing according to the merit of the deliveries throughout her innings. However, the only time she tried to enforce a shot, she was out caught at short mid-wicket. Thus, she was dismissed after a fabulous knock of 90 off just 72 deliveries that included 11 fours and 2 humungous sixes.
One mistake cost her a maiden World Cup century on a day when she did almost everything with perfection. However, no one can deny the class and enigma of the innings she had played on Saturday. No one can deny the immense joy and inspiration that she had given to all those budding women cricketers all around India.
Most importantly, no one can deny the interest she has help develop in Women’s cricket among masses that have always been skewed towards watching men’s cricket.
(This article first appeared on The Quint on June 25, 2017)