The reclusive, brooding young Smriti Mandhana’s transformation to the confident cricketer of today started when she donned a pair of worn-out gloves of her elder brother Shravan.
Shravan, four years older than Smriti, also passed on his love and passion for the game to his younger sister, who is now one of the brightest stars in the women’s cricket world.
A natural right-hander, Smriti became a southpaw to fit into Shravan’s — a left-handed batter — gloves. The switch changed her world, forever.
“I was a left-handed batter and after watching me play, Smriti took up the sport and would also bat left-handed. Being (a kid), she initially thought batting aise hi karte hain (you bat like this),” Shravan tells Sportstar.
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Back then, Smriti — hardly nine — would accompany Shravan to the nets at the Shivaji Stadium or Chintamanrao College of Commerce grounds in Sangli, a small town in Maharashtra, for training. While Shravan sweated it out in the nets, Smriti would stand in one corner and observe her brother’s game. On their way back home, the two would talk about the training session, their favourite cricketers, and how they could improve their game. While Shravan had dreams to chase after making it to the Maharashtra under-16 squad for the Vijay Merchant Trophy, for Smriti it was just about being in the moment.
“She found her passion in cricket and enjoyed batting. She wanted to be the best and slowly developed her skills. At the age of eight or nine, no one thinks of taking up cricket as a profession, they just play for the love of the game, and it was similar for Smriti,” Shravan recalls.
She made it to Maharashtra age-group teams soon, and her father Shriniwas took her to Anant Tambwekar for training. Having known the Mandhanas for years, Tambwekar was happy to take Smriti under his wings.
Smriti Mandhana of India celebrates her century during day two of the Women’s International Test match between Australia and India at Metricon Stadium. – Getty Images
“Not many knew much about women’s cricket. So, when Smriti’s father approached me, I took up the role because I saw huge potential in her. I was impressed with the way she timed the ball and was always willing to learn,” Tambwekar says.
After school, Smriti would visit Tambwekar and they would roll and water the pitch together before a few hours of training. But soon, Tambwekar realised that with a bit of guidance, Smriti could go far, and the sessions became more intense.
“We started training for about three-and-a-half hours in the morning and then again for a couple of hours in the evening. It was a new challenge for me because I had not worked with a woman cricketer before. But gradually, things got better,” Tambwekar recalls.
Smriti made it to the State team, and her consistent performances for Maharashtra earned her an India call-up in 2013.
Former India captain Shantha Rangaswamy was the head of the national selection panel when Smriti made it to the squad. “She had done tremendously well for Maharashtra, scoring a lot of runs. She looked impeccable in her defence and had all the attributes of a good batter. She has not let that selection committee down as she has consistently performed beyond our expectations,” Shantha, who is now part of the BCCI’s apex council, says.
In her eighth year in international cricket, Smriti, now, is more confident, responsible as one of the seniors in the Indian team. “She can now handle everything,” Shantha says.
Anuja Patil — Smriti’s former team-mate with Maharashtra and then the national team — credits her success to a change in mentality. “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 shed all those negativities,” Anuja had said during a chat earlier.
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Former India coach and erstwhile national selector Sudha Shah believe that playing in various overseas leagues has worked wonders for Smriti. Over the last few years, she has played in the Women’s Big Bash League, the now-defunct Kia Super League, and the newly-introduced The Hundred.
“Playing in the leagues abroad has helped her move ahead faster. The exposure and the challenges of living alone, speaking different languages, getting used to conditions — all that has changed her outlook,” Shah says.
Raking in the runs
Smriti is a well-rounded batter today and looked at ease in the series against England and hammered a century in India’s first-ever pink-ball Test against Australia. Every time she walks out to bat, she looks calm, composed, and at ease.
“She is cool-headed and always wants to do better than the previous game. The best thing about her is the maturity in her thinking,” Shah says. Those who follow her career closely also believe that just like the Indian women’s cricket team, Smriti’s career, too, took a turn for the better after the 2017 World Cup. Coming back into the fray from a career-threatening injury, it was a challenge for Smriti to cement her place in the team. It was a test of character, but the then 20-year-old aced it.
“When a player suffers an injury, that’s the most difficult phase for him/her. How you handle that mentally and physically is something that makes you stand out. In that phase, she was very tough. With the World Cup just a few months away, she went to the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru for rehabilitation, and I would travel every weekend to help with some match training,” Tambwekar remembers.
“She hadn’t batted in a while, so her aim was to bat as much as possible and regain the momentum. So, my job was to oversee her batting and suggest changes. In the World Cup, too, she got off to a fine start and had few off games, so after her return, we again worked on those areas,” Tambwekar says.
Keeping it simple
W. V. Raman has seen Smriti closely during his stint as the head coach of the Indian women’s team and he believes that “keeping it simple” has worked for Smriti. “She does not overthink. She does nets sessions diligently and for a long time, but once she is off the nets, she does not talk too much about cricket. She knows how to switch on and switch off. What has also helped her is the fact that she is someone who lives in the moment,” Raman says.
In 2019, an injury kept Smriti out of international cricket for a while, and after her comeback, she struggled initially — failing to convert good starts into big scores. Raman remembers helping Smriti through that difficult phase.
“She was trying to do things in the interest of the side. She wanted to be the major contributor, but in trying to do so, she was being a bit rash. She needed to combine discretion with responsibility. I told her not to look at her numbers in terms of runs and that she should look at playing 30 overs in a 50-over game.” Raman says. “In T20s, she should be there till 10 overs, because if she does that then she will have enough runs. She is not someone who is bogged down by opponents.”
The advice helped Smriti, and she returned to form with a 74 in the lone ODI that she played and amassed 107 runs in the four T20Is on the tour of West Indies in 2019.
In January-February last year, she accumulated 226 runs in a tri-series involving India, Australia and England.
Off the pitch, Smriti has been similarly dominating. Currently, she endorses about 12-13 global brands and has also dabbled in several digital campaigns.
“Smriti is currently among the top-most women athlete brands in the country. She is very young, very presentable, speaks very well, and obviously, she signifies someone who has come through the ranks,” Tuhin Mishra, the managing director at Baseline Ventures, which manages Smriti, says.
“She has been performing consistently over the last five years and has been creating one milestone after another. She is the vice-captain of the squad, so there are lots of hopes for her. All the girls rally behind her, which signifies her leadership qualities. Even from a brand perspective, she has the highest engagement on Instagram among all athletes, barring, perhaps, Virat Kohli,” he adds.
According to Mishra, it’s her clean and controversy-free image that has helped Smriti attract brands globally. “We have worked hard in marketing her, right from 2017. She is a very humble, sweet person and easy to work with. That is something remarkable. She is controversy-free and a consistent performer and all those factors do come into the play,” ” Mishra says.
Sky is the limit
Several brand experts believe that brand Smriti will only grow over the years. The next couple of years are crucial for her as she is looked at as a future leader.
And Raman believes the change of guard might happen soon after next year’s 50-over World Cup.
“She has got all that it takes to be a captain. If there must be a change of guard, then it must happen after the World Cup. If you leave it too late, you never know whether Smriti will have the motivation to be a captain then or how long she will be captain after that. The change should happen regardless of the result in the World Cup,” Raman says.
“She should be given a reign of four-five years to create a cricketing culture that is positive. She must inculcate a brand of cricket that is fearless. She wants India to be No. 1 and can do a grand job,” Raman feels.
Shantha, too, agrees. “She is captain material. If Mithali Raj (Test and ODI captain) does call it a day, the selectors will do well to have a look at her because she can play with responsibility. Look at the consistent performances. A captain also needs to show others how to perform and that suits her perfectly,” the former India captain says.
Smriti loves staying in the present, but the cricketing fraternity is confident that a brighter future awaits her.
- 2005-2006: Smriti Mandhana makes it to Maharashtra U-15 squad at the age of nine.
2008: Smriti makes her debut for Maharashtra U-19 side at the age of 12.
2010-11: Makes it to the Maharashtra senior women’s side
2011: On November 4, scores her first century in women’s List A matches, featuring for Maharashtra
2013: Makes her debut in India’s ODI and T20I sides during the series against Bangladesh in April.
2013: On October 29, plays a knock of 224 against Gujarat in a U-19 Women’s One-day tournament fixture in Vadodara.
2014: Makes her Test debut against England
2016: Scores her maiden international hundred -102 off 109 balls- in an ODI against Australia.
2016: In September, she signed a one-year deal with Brisbane Heat for the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) along with Harmanpreet Kaur.
2017: Features in the World Cup and scores her second century – 106 not out – against the West Indies in a group league match.
2018: In March, she broke her own record of scoring the fastest fifty for India in a Women’s Twenty20 International fixture, taking just 25 balls in the opening match of the tournament against England. Her previous record came against Australia women in the 2017-18 Tri-Nation Series where she took 30 balls to score a half-century
2018: In June, BCCI named her as the Best women’s international cricketer of the year.
2018: In June, signs up for Western Storm in the Kia Super League, becoming the first Indian to play in this league.
2019: In March, at 22 years and 229 days, she became the youngest T20I captain for India. In the absence of Harmanpreet Kaur, she led the side in the series against England.
2019: The sports ministry bestows her with the Arjuna Award.
2019: In November, she broke Virat Kohli’s record, becoming the second fastest Indian to complete 2000 ODI runs.
2019: Bags the International Woman Cricketer of the Year award.
2020: In January, receives the BCCI award for the highest run-getter in ODIs.
2020: Guides Trailblazers to the Women’s T20 Challenge title in Sharjah, beating Supernovas.
2021: In March, during the ODI series against South Africa, she becomes the first-ever batter to smash 10 consecutive 50-plus scores in One Day Internationals while chasing.
2021: In July-August, features for Southern Brave in the inaugural edition of The Hundred.
2021: On October 1, becomes the first Indian women cricketer to score a century in a pink-ball Test against Australia.