A home-maker mother who didn’t get too excited about her daughter’s culinary skills. A brother who let her kid sister follow him to the cricket field. A businessman father who let his children chase their sporting dreams. A progressive family’s unequivocal support has played a big role in Smriti Mandhana, the 20-year-old opener from Sangli, becoming the most-talked about cricketers at the ongoing women’s World Cup in England. Her impressive showing in the first two games – 90 against England, 106 against West Indies – has seen India fly off the blocks, squat comfortably on the No.2 spot of the 8-team points table and forced many locals to utter in awe – ‘Who’s that tall, graceful left-handed girl?’
Even the usually restrained Sanjay Manjarekar couldn’t hide his excitement. “Smriti Mandhana taking the WWC by storm…A real star in the making,” he had tweeted. The most striking aspect of her batting is the ability to make brisk runs-she has an impressive strike rate of 108.88-without taking risks. She prefers playing straight and can seamlessly shift gears. Only against spinners does she pull out the slog sweep, which, more often than not, clears the ropes. In fact, she is the joint-second six-hitter in the tournament, and sits second on the second on the run-getters’ list.
On the eve of India’s next game against Pakistan at Derby, where a win will almost seal their place in the semi-final, the talk in the rival dressing room would be about Mandhana, the match-winner who has had century stands in successive games.
Four months back, not even her most ardent backer, her brother Shravan, would have predicted Mandhana’s Cup run. Earlier this year, in February, when Shravan went to receive his sister at Bengaluru airport, his heart had sunk. He knew that his sister had suffered an injury – ligament rupture – during the Big Bash in Australia but the sight of her on a wheel-chair worried him. “The World Cup was barely four months away and winning the World Cup was her ultimate dream. I was shocked …thought she would not make it,” he recalled.
Had she not made it to England, Mandhana would have been at home, probably watching Masterchef Australia or as her mother, Smita, says, stirring her favourite paneer butter masala in the kitchen. Not just her family, even the cricket circuit knows about her cooking skills. “If she had not become a cricketer, I’m sure she would be a chef,” says former India coach Purnima Rau.
Of late, Mandhana has been spending more time at the gym. She worked hard during his rehabilitation. At Bengaluru’s National Cricket Academy, under the watchful eyes of her physiotherapist Yogesh Parmar, she chalked out her path to full fitness, and be ready in time for the coveted tournament. Shravan recalls the tough days. “The kind of grit and determination she had displayed during her rehab was incredible,” says the brother, who had hand held his sister since her early days.
Shravan, who represented Maharashtra juniors, was a leg-spinner and a useful lower-order batsman. When he failed to progress any further, he gave up cricket to pursue academics. At 24, he is currently helping his father Shrinivas in his chemicals distribution enterprise in hometown Sangli. During their childhood, Mandhana would tag along with his elder brother. “These journeys were probably what had piqued her interest in the game. I would hang a leather ball, and would ask her to hit it with a straight bat. She started off with 50 consecutive hits, and in no time stretched herself to 1000,” says the brother.
Every time Shravan would pick five wickets or more in a game, he would get to keep the ball. Mandhana would wait eagerly for his brother’s return, so that she could collect them. Soon she had a box full of leather balls and she decided them to put them to good use – thrashing them during net sessions.
By the time she had turned nine, she was selected for Maharashtra U-15 side through an inter-state trial. This concerned mother Smita, “I was concerned how she would cope with the 15-year-olds…so I asked her to take up a sport like tennis.” But Mandhana, not yet a teen, remained steadfast. With the support from both her brother and father, she pursued cricket. Tales of her grit and tenacity won her admirers. Snehal Pradhan, a former Maharashtra player, has seen Mandhana since she was 13. “Once she played a game despite having high fever. Even as the state captain, she showed tremendous maturity,” Snehal said.
Mandhana’s early initiation into cricket meant she was not a regular at schools. But she had very supportive teachers. After finishing school, she got herself enrolled in B.Com course from Sangli’s Chintamanrao College of Commerce. “She is currently in her first-year. She had come earlier this year to give her Part 1 examinations,” Shravan added. With the tournament now reaching the business end, the Part 2 of her examination will commence soon.
Live on Star sports 1: Pakistan vs India, 3 pm