Smriti Mandhana: From Sangli to Indian team captain via ICC awards
Smriti Mandhana is ranked No 1 in women's ODIs and sixth in T20Is. © ICC

Snehal Pradhan does not beat around the bush. She keeps things simple and straight. “Smriti is in a good position to lead the side right now.”

A week or so later, with Harmanpreet Kaur out with injury and Mithali Raj no longer in the race to lead the Indian women’s cricket team in T20Is, Smriti Mandhana was named Indian skipper for the T20Is at home against England.

Some may say that this promotion is likely to be temporary and that Harmanpreet will take over once she is back from injury. She may. But for Pradhan, a 10-year-senior to Mandhana, who first played alongside and later under her, the 22-year-old is capable of leading the Indian team.

Pradhan backs her argument because she has seen Mandhana’s journey, from bespectacled teenager to a leader of the Indian batting unit.

“I think she is capable to make that transition,” she tells CricketCountry. “Harmanpreet is also 29, so if you want a captain who will take us forward, not just to one World Cup but to two World Cups, it is ok give Smriti the captaincy now. But it is very important to create a good support system around her that will allow her to focus on the on the field stuff.” (READ: We are looking to win matches rather than experiment: Mandhana)

Pradhan, who played six ODIs and four T20Is for India, knows Mandhana’s career graph well having played under her she was a teenager.

“She was given the captaincy (of Maharashtra) when she was 18. She had to manage players who were, like me, ten years older as well as the youngsters. At the same time, she was also the captain of the Zonal team,” she says. “So she had to deal with the players whom she did not know. I remember one thing, when she used to go for the zone matches, she would make it a point to spend time with the players who were not a part of her state. So she can get to know them better and make them comfortable in the team.”

Smriti Mandhana was named ICC Women's Cricketer of the Year.
Mandhana was named ICC Women’s Cricketer of the Year for 2018. (Image: ICC)

Pradhan, even though she knows that Madhana has handled situations “where you have a lot of external influences”, makes it clear that she must be provided with a strong support system. (READ: Mandhana eyes World Cup win after becoming World No 1)

“The captain must not have to bother about the other things that are going in the team. The captain must have only to bother about strategy and what’s going on on the field,” she reasons. “If the captain is burdened with the stuff that they should not be burdened with, it can of course affect their job. But Smriti, even though she is young, has experience of this kind of a situation where you have a lot of external influences even during her state captaincy days. So, something she has experienced before, she has handled before. So, she can do it. Of course, at the international level it is a different ball game. So, she needs to be given that support system if she is given the captaincy.” (READ: India coach WV Raman keen on improving Mandhana’s ‘patience’)

Anant Tambvekar, Mandhana’s coach for over a decade, is not as direct as Pradhan but echoes her views on his ward’s leaderships skills.

“Hyaacha uttar tich chaangala deu shakte (She is the best person to answer this). If the team management wants her to captain India, then, I don’t think she has any problem. But it totally depends on the management. If she is offered the role in the future, she has the potential,” he says.

The 31-year-old coach has seen Mandhana from close quarters and recollects incidents which indicated her ambitions from the early days.

“Her brother was playing when I was an Under-16 coach of the Sangli District Cricket Association. At the same time her dad came to me and asked if I would be interested in coaching her. She used to be at the ground since the beginning when her brother used to practice,” says Tambvekar. “Her brother used to play and when his photo would appear in the newspapers, she used to say, ‘Mera bhi photo paper main aanaa chaahiye. Mereko bhi khelanaa hai’ (My photo must appear in the newspapers as well. I too want to play)”.

Smriti Mandhana celebrates her fourth ODI hundred last week.
From wanting her photo in newspapers, Mandhana is a visible star today. (Image: @WHITE_FERNS)

Photos of Mandhana are a common sight now, be it in print or online or social media or ad campaigns. By all means, she has earned it.

She is the only Indian woman who has scored ODI hundreds in SENA (South Africa-England-New Zealand-Australia) countries and has been India’s most consistent performer even with the stalwarts of Indian cricket – Mithali and Harmanpreet – till around. Mandhana was in 2018 voted the ICC Women’s Cricketer of the Year and ICC Women’s ODI Player of the Year and is currently ranked No 1 in women’s ODI and sixth in T20Is.

Her wicket, feels Pradhan, is the one opposing teams cherish the most.

“I think we can already see that in T20 cricket she has become the wicket that everyone wants. Mithali’s contribution to the game is irreplaceable, but on current form, Smriti is the wicket all the oppositions want,” she says. “She definitely needs to work on some areas of her game – like her running between the wickets – to become a complete player. But she is adding shots. Like this year, she has played the sweep shot a lot more than she did the last year. She will continue to grow. She is in a good position right now; in fact, she has already taken the batting leadership role. Now she needs support.”

To Mandhana’s credit, she has taken her game to a next level and taken strides to fulfil the potential she showed in the first two games of the 2017 World Cup and has not let failures in the remainder of the tournament get her down. Pradhan and Tambvekar have their share of observations about her game and where and how she has excelled and what she needs to work on.

“She was a hard-hitting batter and used to strike it clean. What she needed to work on was her basics. Otherwise, her game is based on hitting the ball hard,” says Tambvekar. “After playing against the boys (in the nets during her formative years in Sangli), her back-foot game has become so potent that she does not feel overawed when the pacers bowl”

Mandhana stormed her way to the top of the Kia Super League run table.
Mandhana stormed her way to the top of the Kia Super League run table. © Getty

Adds Pradhan: “Her offside and back-foot play and pull shots were always strong. What she has really is the ability to hit down the ground confidently. The sweep shot and the ability to attack from the first ball, too.”

Mandhana’s stints in Australia’s Big Bash League and the Women’s Cricket Super League in England, feels Pradhan, have been instrumental.

“It has definitely improved her game. Her first experience ended in injury. Even that experience would have taught her some lessons about fitness. So, no doubt, playing with these players (in foreign T20 leagues) improves her game,” she says. “In women’s cricket there are not as many matches as in men’s cricket. So, simply getting quality match practice in a team, even in the domestic game (is crucial). You are a main batter. If you get out, the entire team loses. The same thing is happening with the Indian team right now. To perform in that kind of situation, you can’t get the same kind of match practice in those games.”

From being a bespectacled youngster from Sangli who made it to her state team and then to the Indian cricket team skipper, and now winning ICC awards on her way, Mandhana has come a long way. All this at the age of 22 and barely into her fifth year in international cricket.

Many cricketers would have only dream of this, but Mandhana is living her dream.