Smriti Mandhana: The calm, ever-smiling captain

Smriti Mandhana, the ICC Cricketer of the Year, speaks about the changes she’s made to her game and captaining the Indian women’s team.

If I feel the ball needs to be lofted, I would go for it, but I will definitely look at the scoreboard, says Smriti Mandhana.   -  AFP

Smriti Mandhana is fun-loving and a cheerful cricketer. “Sometimes I get angry off the field. That’s also very rare,” she says with a smile.

But when batting for the Indian women’s team, Mandhana gets into a different zone.

The youngster from Sangli has gone from being a promising talent to one of the most sought-after batswomen in the world, with an International Cricket Council Cricketer of the Year honour to justify the tag.

Mandhana, who won the Sportstar Aces Sportswoman of the Year award for cricket, spoke to us about her cricketing journey.

From being another promising cricketer to being the team’s batting mainstay, you have come a long way. Has your world changed?

Well, nothing has changed. I am the same old person. It’s just at a certain point in your career you need to look at yourself and see where you are. I did that, may be a year and a half or two back, and realised that you can’t be just a performer, you need to be a match-winner for India. Only that perspective has changed. It has been a good journey so far.

Have you made any changes to your game to be a match-winner?

Well, I haven’t changed my batting majorly. It’s just about some odd technical changes which you anyway do to make yourself better. There has been a mental shift. The focus has been to not be just a batter and (ensure) that you don’t throw away your wicket. And also to get the team through. That’s the kind of responsibility you have in your head and you select your shots accordingly. Earlier I was not that great with shot selection. That had to be changed and that’s one thing I am still working on.

When you have all the shots in your bag, it can be your strength as well as your weakness. In that aspect, if you talk technically, I think only the selection of shots has changed. Otherwise, nothing much.

Coach W. V. Raman told me that as a batter the only thing that stops me is my level of patience. So he told me to take responsibility and bat, says Mandhana.   -  Vivek Bendre

Is that the reason that you have cut down a lot on lofted shots?

It depends on the format and the situation. If we are chasing 300, I don’t think I would play a shot which I would try while chasing 180. So, it depends. It’s not that I go in with a conscious effort to not loft or something. If I feel it needs to be lofted, I would go for it but (will) definitely look at the scoreboard. I also need to understand what the team needs from me. I just can’t go on in a single gear always. That’s something I have learned. Tomorrow, if we are chasing 330, you will see me lofting.

You spoke about being careful with your shots. What led to this turnaround?

I think it’s the sense of responsibility to bat (sincerely). As a batter, you need to have that hunger to win matches for India. The best feeling is when you walk back to the pavilion being not out after helping India win the match. It’s about keeping that feeling intact. Otherwise I don’t feel things have changed. The routines are still the same, it’s just that the mindset has changed. It’s about telling yourself that I need to stay there and win the match. I just can’t play a rash shot and later think what would have happened had I been there in the middle.

You looked very different in your approach on the New Zealand tour as well. Is the transformation more of a mental thing?

It is definitely a mental thing. From where I was (as a batter) earlier to where I am now, it did require a mental shift. Even now, going into the next level would require a mental shift. I don’t think it has got anything to do with technical stuff because If I am scoring 85-90 and getting out, then I don’t think anything is technical. It’s more of mental. It’s about being more hungry to score. I am trying that and I am sure it will happen soon.

There have been instances when you have been out in the 90s. How do you react when you miss out on a deserving century?

It has happened majorly in T20s. But if we end up winning the match from there, I would not think much. But if we lose from a position where I feel I could have made a difference, that irritates me a lot. As a player, it is frustrating because you put in all the hard work but even then can’t help India cross the line. Otherwise missing out on hundreds is not that irritating. But if India wins, I feel happy.

But how do you handle those situations? You look extremely calm and composed in the middle…

Do I? People have told me that I think a lot. But to be honest, I don’t. For every individual, there comes a phase where you overthink and for me the injury phase (in 2017) was that. I started playing because I enjoyed batting. I could time the ball well, and during the injury phase I wanted to go back there. I don’t think I have been an overthinker; it’s just about 10-15 minutes of analysing what I did wrong. After that, I am off. While batting, a lot of players like to be in their serious zone, but I try to look around here and there. That helps (laughs).

You look very calm, having fun, ever-smiling. Do you get angry?

I am not someone who gets angry. I get angry off the field sometimes. That’s also very rare. On the field I may have been angry at myself once or twice, not sure, and that too would have been at myself.

Mandhana has been named captain for the first time in Harmanpreet Kaur’s (right) absence dut to injury.   -  Vivek Bendre

 

In your career, you have opened the innings with a lot of batters, but you and Jemimah Rodrigues seem to have struck a chord. Does the Maharashtra connection work?

We haven’t played that much together (at the domestic level). She plays for Mumbai and I play for Maharashtra. Before she came into the team, we played just one match for the zone. That’s also long time back. We speak very little on the field, but speak a lot off it.

On the field, Jemi likes to be a bit serious, but yes, it is fun batting with her. For an 18 year old coming into the circuit and to grow so much is amazing. Everyone around her wants her to grow and whatever we can do we will try. We have had good partnerships and hopefully we will give more good starts for India. Not just starts, it is also important for both of us to finish the matches for India.

Most of your teammates have spoken highly of the new coach, W. V. Raman. What changes has he brought to your game?

Technically, it wasn’t much. He told me that as a batter, the only thing that stops me is my level of patience. I like playing a lot of shots, so he told me to take responsibility and bat. “If you bat for 30 overs in ODIs (One-Day Internationals), then I am sure you will go on batting for 50 overs. Maybe 14 overs in T20s as well,” is what he told me. He asked me to set small targets because he knows if I can bat for 35-40 overs in ODIs, I will be in a better place. He told me not to worry about strike rate or run rate. Everything will come, it’s just that I need to be there. That’s what he has suggested about my batting. But he has helped everyone a lot. I can see a lot of positivity in the team.

You won the ICC Women’s Cricketer and ODI Player of the Year Awards. What does it mean for you? Does it add any pressure?

Pressure? (Laughs) Why should I take pressure? I have followed a particular (line) and I don’t think I should stop following it because I have won an award. I would feel a bit more confident and I think, the only pressure you have is to win matches for India. You can’t go to bat thinking that “I am the No. 1 batter because I have won an award.” That way you will end up getting out. But sometimes when you are travelling a lot, there are days when you don’t feel like doing things. That’s when you think that you have got an award and you need to maintain (yourself). That gives the motivation to get up and hit the (ground). I don’t like taking pressure.

Moving on... Do you think the time is right for a women’s Indian Premier League?

It is the perfect time to start. Till we start, we won’t know where we stand. If we don’t start, every year we will have the same conversation, “Should we or should we not?” Till we start, we would not know what we can and what we can’t. There is Women’s Big Bash League (in Australia), there was Super League (in England), and you can see the kind of development that has brought into their game. Just for the fact that we need development and we need people ready for the sport we need an IPL. It’s the right time.

You scored a lot of runs in the Kia Super League last year. You also played in the WBBL. What has playing in these leagues taught you?

These leagues help you grow as person and as a player. But the major impact is you grow as a person a lot because you have to stay alone, you need to do all your work on your own. When you go with the Indian team, you get everything you want, everything is provided for. But when you go alone, you have do your own work, manage your own stuff. As Indians, we always have our mom or dad doing things for us. But to do things on your own makes you a better person. After playing in these leagues, you know what a particular player is all about. It helps, especially in T20s.

Mandhana with fans during the third ODI match against England at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on February 28.   -  Prashant Nakwe

 

Does it make life easier in international cricket?

Yes, definitely. When you play a bowler after one or two years, we generally play a team after one or two years, they change a lot. But if you play them regularly, you play all the top bowlers from each team twice in a year in the Super League and WBBL, you have an idea what they do and that helps a lot for a batter in international matches. We also keep giving inputs to our bowlers about the opposition batters.

We tell them who is good at what and what’s the strength or weakness. That gives a bit of advantage. Like in IPL, players know what they think or what they are going to do. That is an advantage.

How challenging is it to lead India?

I have been vice-captain for two-and-a-half years now. I have always been giving inputs to Harry di (Harmanpreet) whenever I felt in T20s. I have been playing under a lot of captains, have always learned a lot from everyone, Mithali di (Mithali Raj), Jhulu di (Jhulan Goswami) and Harry di. Now it is just about applying that. It is important not to think “I am the captain.” I will do what they want from me, not what I want from them. It is all about what the team requires. I enjoy my batting. I like it. I started playing because I enjoyed it. It is same for captaincy. If I don't enjoy it, it doesn't make sense. It is about enjoying what you do.

You led Maharashtra at an early age. Will that experience help?

If you look back at my career, I was 16 or 17 when I became the state captain. I have been leading India A or Challengers teams since 18. Captaincy is not something that is very new to me. International captaincy is totally different. In the IPL match we played last year, I was captain. That match definitely made me think, “I can do this.” Before that, I had doubt, but that match helped. After that match, I said to myself, “It’s okay. I can do it.”

You have played under the captaincy of Mithali and Harmanpreet. What have you learned from the two, because their approach to the game is entirely different?

I will still have them around me (for guidance). Of course, Harry di won’t be there, but Mithali di will be. I am sure if at all there is something (that needs to be addressed), I will have someone to fall back on. The styles are completely different. Mithali di is very calm on the ground, be it a dropped catch or a boundary. That’s a good quality I would like to take. Harry di is very active and is always in your face. I would like to have a mix of both. It’s not about copying anyone. Strategies are made by all of us; it won’t change. To be honest, I can’t explain what I have learned as a captain. You can do that with batting, but not in terms of captaincy.

You have always regarded Kumar Sangakkara as your idol. Do you idolise anyone else now?

How do idols change? An idol is someone whose certain aspects of batting I want in my game. I never wanted to be a replica of Sangakkara. I wanted some aspects of Sangakkara’s batting, some aspects of (Matthew) Hayden’s batting, some aspects of Virat (Kohli) in my batting. The way Virat finishes matches, I would like to take a leaf out of it.

There were double headers in New Zealand recently. Did you get a chance to meet Kohli and talk about improving your batting?

Yes. I have spoken to him about batting and he was very helpful in New Zealand. Whatever doubts I had about my batting, spoke with him and it was very helpful.