ICC Women World T20: Indian women go swinging for the fenceshttps://indianexpress.com/article/sports/cricket/swinging-for-the-fences-5465991/

ICC Women World T20: Indian women go swinging for the fences

The biggest evolutionary leap in Indian women’s cricket dwells in their technique, best embodied by Harmanpreet’s bat swing.

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The secret — and the genius — of Harmanpreet’s lofted strokes down the ground lies in her grip and bat swing, which is more like a golfer’s swing, giving her strokes the required elevation and impetus. A frame-by-frame dissection. (Illustration by Suvajit Dey)

India crashed out in the semifinals of women’s World T20, but it threw up a little big moment in their history. There was much brouhaha over the absence of Mithali Raj, a bittersweet moment that told a bigger tale about their evolution. Media fretted about a player’s absence and fans on social media oohed-and-aahed about the same — the intent here isn’t to reflect about Raj’s absence but to point out that how far women’s cricket has grown.

No longer is it been solely viewed through a gender prism, no longer are people diving only into the ‘human’ stories, individual tales of women breaking the glass ceiling — but their games seem to have grown to a point where it’s been discussed seriously. Where fans feel disappointment and anger. Where we are moved into serious analysis. That in itself is probably the greatest aftereffect of this T20 World Cup in India. That we care enough to vent about a player’s absence, that we are hooked enough to talk about Raj’s batting on a slow pitch and how that might have helped.

To talk about their batting or bowling in the way men’s cricket is described at times isn’t commonplace yet. It should be, though, as some of the changes in their game has been organic and evolutionary. The fitness, fielding standards and bowling speeds of course, but there is one aspect in batting in particular that is worth dwelling on.

One trait in particular used to puzzle and irk when watching women batters in the 80s. Be it the Indians or the overseas batters. The lack of fluidity in the bat swing. The lack of power was understandable and lack of faster arm speed in bowling too was understandable to some extent but the lack of fluid bat swing, one remembers, used to stand out. It’s as if majority would react after the ball pitches and then do their thing.

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Also Read: Harmanpreet Kaur 'manipulative, lying, immature, undeserving captain', says Mithali Raj's manager

Or when they would go for a bit hit, the decision it seemed was taken so late, that the bat would be yanked and dragged at the last instant. There were exceptions of course but it’s the norm that one is interested in. When the bat would swing upwards from the arms, it would end up facing down, at the ground, which obviously isn’t ideal. But those days, viewing women’s cricket through technical prism would seemed a bit over the top. It’s only in the recent decade or so, when that condescension could be shed and women’s cricket given its due.

sports, cricket, mitali raj, harmanpreet kaur, women's world T20, indian express
Both Harmanpreet Kaur (left) and Smriti Mandhana have radically transformed batting in women’s cricket. (Photo: BCCI)

Swing it like Kaur

Not many swing it like Harmanpreet Kaur. No wonder Virender Sehwag was moved to tweet: “Great bat swing in a really zordaar innings”. The fluidity that was missing in the earlier decades is the most integral part of Kaur’s batting.

She holds the bat lightly, the bottom-hand not pushed all the way to the bottom and her batting is all about her golf-like swing. At times, it cramps her — rather induces her to go on side more but she has perfected that art. She side-shuffles to the off quickly, retains her balance, and lets the bat swing up and down rather smoothly.

Also Read: Decision to drop Mithali Raj taken collectively before England loss

It’s in the follow-through arc the bat cuts that her batting fluidity screams out all that more. Time and again, unlike many women, she finishes with her bat traversing all the way up and over and behind her shoulders. She doesn’t hold back at all. It’s most pronounced when she is in her attacking phase — when she is on the look-out for some big runs. Then there is no doubt, no hesitancy in holding back, she tries to pick length early and lets the bat swing go through unimpeded. It’s one of those things that wasn’t commonplace in women’s cricket in the distant past. All that seems to have changed now.

Little hesitancy

You can still see the hesitancy, for the lack of better word, in more technically correct batters like Mithali Raj. Her more fluid bat swing comes when she square drives on the off side, she lets the hands go through more easily but not when she tries to go big down the ground or to the on side.

To hark back to men’s comparison, we have seen that with Ajay Jadeja in the past. In his early part of the career, until he surprised himself and found his other strengths during that dazzling 1996 quarter-final knock in the world cup against Pakistan, his more fluent hits would come square, when he would slice, his bat going up and over. The bat swings were more circumspect in other shots.

Without the fluidity in bat swing, it’s difficult to go through the line of the ball in the lofted shots. More and more women are shrugging off the mental hesitancies and are going through the line of the ball with relative ease these days. Hence we are seeing more big hits.

Also Read: Harmanpreet Kaur first Indian woman to hit T20 century

Kaur’s coach Kamaldeesh Singh Sodhi talks about how he had the teenaged Kaur practice with the boys of her age and how that helped her game. “I think that did play a big part as she would get to face faster bowling and she would still hit them. She always had that lovely smooth bat swing and I just polished it a bit. Got it straighter. We would throw balls on a length and ask her to swing freely. Little drills like that. She was always a hard worker and an attractive player,” Sodhi says.

It’s just not Kaur of course; in the likes of Smriti Mandhana too we can see that evolution. Of all the shots that she played in the T20 world cup, it’s a shot that led to her dismissal that we shall first cue up. Mandhana picked the length from a New Zealand seamer so early and despite it not being that short, she waded into a thrilling pull shot. That it was taken down remarkably at square-leg boundary by an acrobatic fielder is beside the point. The shot stayed in the mind, and if you have Hot Star app on your phone, it’s worth watching. The fluidity is quite something.

Imprints of Ganguly

She has been compared to Sourav Ganguly, and understandably so, but in this shot, she surpasses the former Indian opener. There is no stutter, no awkward body shuffle, she just moves breezily, naturally, into the shot. The bat swing is as fluid as it can get in such a shot.

But it’s her knocks later in the tournament we saw the imprints of Ganguly, even though she has publically said that she has honed her style more on her idol Kumar Sangakkara, the Sri Lankan. Indian women batters still don’t punch or get all-arms like Sangakkara could. In that respect, Sangakkara was almost Australian than Sri Lankan in his batting soul. Mandhana is more wristy.

Time and again, she came down the track, staying adjacent to the ball, and caressed the ball through the off. She was more imperious in her lofted shots to the seamers and here it was difficult to not think of Ganguly. Like Ganguly, she was a natural right-hander who converted to a left-handed batter. Fascinatingly, it was because she was gifted a left-hander’s gloves when young apparently.

It’s easy to see why her top hand then is the stronger one. There is a theory going around in cricket that the people have got the batting grip all wrong — traditionally, the top hand is the weaker for the right-handed batsmen and most grip the bat more strongly, powerfully, in their bottom hand, their natural hand.

The theory is that the top hand should be firmer and the bottom hand looser. You can see that in Mandhana. She can go through the line of the ball, sending it up and over mid-off rather nonchalantly.

The bat swing had a nice pendulum movement to it – the one that the likes of Greg Chappell and MCC school of batting salivates about. When you have that cradle movement, it’s easier to find the sweet spot and you can sidestep brute power and still send the ball flying. Like Mandhana. It’s also seen in the South African batter Lizelle Lee. The way she lets the ball swing through her hands.

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In the art of Kaur and Mandhana, we are seeing the organic evolution of batting in women’s cricket and it will be interesting to see how they keep pushing the boundaries more in the times to come.