Growing up in Maharashtra's Sangli city, Smriti Mandhana’s childhood mostly revolved around toys and playing in the locality. These days, she toys with bowling attacks and the world is her playground.
The India cricketer's elder brother, Shravan, once a budding player, was a prolific run-scorer at the district level. Shravan’s name would appear in local newspapers regularly. Sangli could actually sense the rise of a cricketing sensation. When the local press splashed the news of Shravan’s selection in the Maharashtra U-16 squad for the Vijay Merchant Trophy in 2008, Smriti was delighted.
By then, she had started knowing a thing or two about cricket and had fallen in love with Kumar Sangakkara’s batting. However, back then, Smriti did not even dream of becoming a cricketer; forget playing for India.
But a pair of gloves changed the world for her.
Struggling to make it to the big leagues, Shravan, who now runs his own business and looks after Smriti’s cricket academy, gave up his sporting aspirations, but gifted his pair of gloves to Smriti, encouraging her to take the game seriously.
A right-hander otherwise, Smriti became a southpaw to fit into Shravan’s — a left-handed batsman — gloves. The switch came less than a decade ago.
From being a shy rookie who would be very quiet during the Maharashtra camps, Smriti is now one of the sought-after Indian women cricketers. If her heroics with the national team are not enough, she has currently set the stage on fire in England.
Playing in the Kia Women’s T20 Super League for Western Storm, India’s star batswoman, on Friday, hammered a 60-ball century to help her side beat Lancashire Thunder. It, however, hasn’t been just about one match. So far, she has amassed 282 runs in five matches in the tournament, taking the cricketing world by storm.
Shravan believes Smriti's willingness to work hard has helped her. “She is someone who wants to excel in every aspect of the game, and for that, she will go the distance. That’s how she has evolved her game and that’s the secret of her success.”
Before leaving for England, Smriti knew what she had to do in the tournament. The team’s head coach, Trevor Griffin, made it clear her job would be to score as many runs as possible in the first six overs.
“In T20, a good start doesn’t mean that you score 30 runs in six overs. It is about accelerating the run rate, and that was the clear instruction given by the coach. She worked accordingly,” Shravan tells Sportstar .
“She practised a lot on how to send ball outside the boundary. Whenever she was home, her personal coach and I would simulate match situations and start planning,” says Shravan, adding that sometimes such planning works, sometimes it doesn't. “Luckily, it clicked this time. We had done match simulation on how she would bat with different field placings. That seems to have worked."
Having seen her from close quarters, India international Anuja Patil, who has been Smriti’s captain in the Maharashtra side, believes hard work and calmness are the two factors that have paid rich dividends for Smriti. “In T20 cricket, she has been really good. After returning from a major injury last year, Smriti has been able to bounce back. That’s the result of hard work,” says Anuja.
While people who know her are praising her poise, there was a time when Smriti would obsess over failures. “When she was young, one poor outing would lower Smriti’s morale. She would keep on thinking about what went wrong. But now, she has been able to get rid of that nature, and look at the results,” says Anuja.
Another revelation has been Smriti’s transformation towards becoming a complete cricketer. Anuja remembers days from not so long ago when she would yell at Smriti for being sloppy on the field. “Playing for Maharashtra, Smriti did not want to field. While she was extremely happy batting, it was tough to make her concentrate on the field,” she says. “Looks like my screaming has had good impact. Look at her now,” she adds cheekily. Indeed, Smriti is now one of the best fielders in the Indian team. Having featured in 41 ODIs, 42 T20s and a couple of Tests, Smriti has been able to cement her place in the team.
Her team-mate, V. R. Vanitha, feels Smriti has managed to do so because of her "terrific" work ethics.“When she first played for India (in 2013), she was not aggressive while batting. But with experience, she has been able to carve out a niche. She’s evolved immensely,” Vanitha, also an India international, says. Vanitha lets on that the 22-year-old is not as "quiet" as she looks.
“Trust me, she’s quite shararati (mischievous). She appears very calm and quiet, but in the dressing room, she is very cheerful,” says Vanitha. “But even when she is in a lighter mood, she thinks about the game. Falling back on basics, in tough times, has actually helped her immensely,” she adds.
Last year, when the India women’s team travelled to England for the World Cup, not many had high hopes. It was Smriti who ensured the side got noticed. Slamming consecutive knocks of 90 against England and 106 against the West Indies, the young gun put India in the driver’s seat.
The momentum helped the team reach the finals. For Smriti too, there hasn’t been any looking back since. On available evidence, summers and England are the Sangli girl’s favourites.
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