She times the ball as well as any other left-hander in the game. And she speaks as well as she times the ball. Just before embarking on the South African voyage that could be a landmark moment in her career, Smriti Mandhana was unveiled as the brand ambassador of Herbalife Nutrition. The India vice-captain and opener, who hails from Sangli, a town in western Maharashtra, sits down for a chat with Sportstar to talk about the year that passed, the year ahead, and lots more.
How would you sum up 2022 for Indian women’s cricket and for yourself?
It’s been a very good year for Indian cricket as well as for me. We had a lot of tours outside India. For women’s cricket in particular, having an outing like we did during the Commonwealth Games was special. To be a part of a multi-sport event in itself was special. I think after that, there were a lot of takeaways and positives from the England series. Definitely, it’s been a very good year for women’s cricket.
Considering you played ODIs in three countries in 2022 — New Zealand, Sri Lanka and England — how challenging was it to acclimatise oneself to and excel in different conditions?
We didn’t have the kind of start we wanted to have in one-dayers. The one-day World Cup in New Zealand wasn’t the ideal start to the year, but there were definitely a lot of takeaways, we keep learning and improving. Then we had a very young team for the Sri Lanka tour; it was a different approach. Then the England one-dayers were amazing. Jhulu di’s (Jhulan Goswami’s) send-off and also winning the series 3-0 in their backyard was amazing. Just to be a part of it was a very good experience.
With Jhulan and Mithali Raj having retired in 2022, you and Harmanpreet Kaur are the flag-bearers of Indian women’s cricket. How do you look at the challenges ahead?
Firstly, what Jhulu di and Mithali di have done for women’s cricket over the last couple of decades has been inspiring for the whole fraternity, even budding cricketers. It’s not that we are the flag-bearers. I don’t think one or two individuals can be flag-bearers. The whole team is the flag-bearer. [Our performance as a team is] going to inspire aspiring cricketers, so I am not going to say we (Harman and I) are going to do the bulk of it. And we have an amazing bunch [of players]. Each of the 15 members in the squad is a match-winner. Our job is to go out there and try and win matches and motivate young girls to take up the sport.
You are one of the very few cricketers who have been made conscious about what you eat since your childhood. What is the overall level of awareness about nutritional aspects among women cricketers?
In the last four-five years, it’s grown a lot. Cricket used to be thought of a sport of skill but now, with a hectic schedule, nutrition has become vital for fitness. Even for me, after ACL (injury rehab in 2017), I am more aware of my nutrition – how much protein intake I should have, how much hydration levels I must have. I now know the importance of understanding my body better and planning accordingly, besides gymming and physical conditioning. If we have to compete at the highest level to be the top team in the world, we have to look after ourselves, and nutrition is one of the most important parts of it.
Speaking about the World Cup, it’s been a so-near-yet-so-far case with the Indian women’s team. Does it actually play on your mind?
We have done well. So if we don’t focus on the negatives but also see the positives, we see that there has been a major improvement in our performances in the last four-five years. And for me it’s going to be a blank mind whenever we participate in the World Cup or any series. I don’t think about what has happened. I just try and win that particular match, that particular tournament for India. I don’t think anyone goes to a World Cup thinking about what is going to happen in the semifinals or the final. For us, every league match is important, then the semis and then the final.
I don’t think it generally plays a lot on our minds. I think it’s more for the outside world, they see how they see it. For us, it’s just about going out there and trying to win the World Cup for India. That’s the best we can think.
Obviously, conditions at the World Cup will be different, but how beneficial was it to play the series at home against Australia, that, too, in front of full houses?
I think they have got used to full houses. The whole team is quite used to playing in front of full houses and big crowds. But the Australia series was definitely a good preparation for us ahead of the World Cup. We had a lot of takeaways. The whole series was really competitive. The cricket both the teams played and the atmosphere – we played in India after two years – was amazing. Australia is the strongest team in women’s cricket, so after playing them, we realised a lot of things about ourselves. It’s definitely going to help us in the coming World Cup.
A lot is made of change in support staff close to a World Cup. But the support staff you are working with now is not new. Has that made any difference?
I think it’s the BCCI’s decision. For us, whoever comes will try and do the best for women’s cricket. So that’s not a question for us. For us, doing well as a team is more important, so let’s focus on doing well on the ground.
You are among the senior players in the team. With the Women’s Premier League coming up, the younger girls are bound to discuss the Women’s Premier League in South Africa. How do you ensure that their focus remains on the World Cup despite it clashing with the league’s build-up?
They all are sorted. Seventeen-eighteen-year-old girls are not naive any longer. They are really smart. They know how to prioritise. Definitely, there is excitement. Why should they have the additional burden of playing the Women’s IPL? It’s extremely exciting. It’s going to increase the popularity of women’s cricket, and I am sure everyone is capable of handling whatever happens in Women’s IPL. We don’t really discuss that. Our focus is to do well for India. I don’t think all these things matter to any of the girls. They just want women’s cricket to improve. For us, it’s the larger picture. More than playing for India, it is to get women’s cricket forward. That’s our only focus as a team.
You and Devika Vaidya go back a long way. How pleased are you with her comeback?
I am really happy for her. We have played U-19 cricket and everything together a lot. Really, really happy to see her coming back, especially after the last three or four years that she has had. I am really happy with the way she has performed in the series between India and Australia. It’s really heartening to see.
You have stressed about how ACL injury in 2017 changed your outlook towards the game and towards life. Besides the injury, is there a particular incident that you want to attribute for your turnaround?
Of course. The 2017 World Cup was also a big wake-up call for me. We did well in that World Cup but towards the end of the World Cup, I didn’t have the tournament that I would have liked to have. After coming back, I knew that I couldn’t play cricket this way. If I had to keep playing cricket, I had to change a lot of things – the way I work, my work ethics, the kind of training I do, the kind of nutrition I’ve had, and even the post-match recovery with my hydration levels. Everything was considered. It was a wake-up call for me and it changed me quite a lot. That particular day wasn’t a switch-on-switch-off button, but it’s one of those small talks that you have with yourself.
What’s Smriti Mandhana’s target for 2023?
I am not huge on setting targets. Let’s hope we can take women’s cricket to a higher level this year. We shall try and do whatever we can to achieve it. Towards the end of the year, hopefully, we will have a few trophies and inspire a lot of other girls to play cricket.
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