It was still 15 days into the new year, fresh still with the new vows and beginnings, when Smriti Mandhana’s world turned upside down. She was just a month into her maiden Women’s Big Bash League stint, still getting used to a new culture and teammates, when she slipped and tore her ACL while bowling, something she rarely does. The torn ACL was to keep her out of the game for six months, but more than the physical agony of the injury, it was the mental angst of missing the World Cup, scheduled in late June, that tore her spirit.
But she was unwilling to leave anything to fate. She determined herself to work as hard as she could on regaining optimal fitness in time for the World Cup, an event she had dreamt of playing all her life. Not that she hurried through the rehab, but she ensured her overall fitness didn’t flag and that she was mentally in the loop, careful to not drift away from the game.
This meant expending every ounce of her energy at the National Cricket Academy, resisting even the weekend recess and brief holidays back home. She worked like a focused maniac with a single-minded resolve to play the World Cup. Some of her teammates swear they had hardly seen the characteristically laid back 20-year-old from Sangli look as overwrought as she was during the lengthy rehab.
Then, her toil nearly went futile. When the selectors sat to pick the 15-member squad, there was an air of apprehension surrounding her fitness, as she hadn’t played a single competitive match post rehab.
Taking someone who hasn’t proved match-fitness is risk-fraught. But then, her credentials were too glittering to ignore. A breezy half-century in India’s Test win over England after eight years, a nearly-run-a-ball ODI hundred in Australia, and her risk-free stroke-play made her a compelling choice.
Three fleeting practice games, and she suddenly found herself facing England’s skiddy new-ball operator, Katherine Brunt, in picturesque, blustery Derby.
Inside her mind, it must have been an emotional whirl. After all, she’s just 20, at the biggest stage of her nascent career, finding her feet back into competitive cricket after a terrible injury. It was a dream come true, but it could so easily turn nightmarish if she didn’t perform.
A bad outing could batter her mentally, even if it might not jeopardise her tournament.
But the first stroke that whooshed off her blade must have swat aside the grains of self-doubt that she might have harboured. The marginally short-pitched delivered was pristinely smeared through the square-leg fence for a one-bounce four. It was a release shot in every sense, banishing her fears and doubts. She bounced off this pent-up nervous energy, slamming Brunt for four more boundaries, three of them in succession, in the next over.
Thus she eased India to a furious start, the sort of high-impetus starts that can define a tournament.
These five boundaries summed up the essence of her game. Two of them were powerful, instinctive pulls-the sort of power she generates seems at odds with her lithe frame. The three off-side strokes were an antithesis to her leg-side game. Those were fluid, cultured strokes-one a gentle tap behind point, another a melting slice on the back-foot and the third a gorgeous back foot drive.
As her innings strummed along, the happy paradox of her stroke-play only accentuated. The brace of sixes she clubbed were akin to husky chops with a bludgeon, while the drives and flicks were like the brushstrokes of an inspired artist. Pity that her 72-ball knock ended just 10 runs away from what could have been a spectacular hundred. Pitier that it ended with an ungainly leg-side swipe.
In Mandhana’s edge-of-the-seat knock was lost the efficient sheet-anchoring of Punam Raut (86 off 134) and the late dazzle of the seen-it-all Mithali Raj (71 off 73). Nonetheless. these were bulky blocks that bricked India’s impressive monument of 281 runs.
Accomplishing the second highest run-chase in women’s cricket was always going to be a tedious task, even though the hosts were armed with experienced campaigners and powerful hitters. For, the sheer scoreboard pressure is enough to suffocate, and induce panic. And panic they did at crucial points of the match. The top-order perished manufacturing shots, while the middle-order ran themselves out, sparking memories of the contest between the two sides in the T20 World Cup last year.
A similar run-out spree by the England middle-order almost gifted India the match, which England eventually won by two wickets, chasing a meagre 90.
There was no jail-break this time around – as three of them, including top-scorer Fran Wilson, contrived to run themselves out in the space of three overs. Wilson, who smacked 81 off 75 balls was the hosts’ last flickering hope, and with her departure, India’s victory was virtually guaranteed.
India eventually won by 35 runs, but not before Mandhana endured another injury scare. She pulled her hamstring while fielding, but in the post-match presentation she revealed the injury wasn’t serious. “I think I’ll be okay for the next match,” she said. So would hope her teammates.
Brief Scores: India 281 for 3 (Smriti Mandhana 90, Punam Raut 86, Mithali Raj 71 off 73) beat England 246 in 47.3 overs (Fran Wilson 81, Heather Knight 46; Deepti Sharma 3/47).