The moment Shikha Pandey sent Nat Sciver through the covers and to the boundary, bringing up the India women’s team’s victory over England at Wormsley, the players rushed to the ground in joyous celebration. But it was not her that they enveloped in a hug. The person getting the attention was their skipper and perhaps India’s most prolific batswoman, Mithali Raj. The 31-year-old had played a true captain’s knock to guide her side to victory in the one-off Test, India’s first after a gap of eight years.
Raj finished undefeated on 50, scored off 157 balls, shepherding the chase expertly, picking up singles and astutely warding off temptations to go for the big hits. Raj only hit four boundaries in her knock, but most importantly ensured that India were not plunged into uncertainty on a wicket which had produced 34 wickets within three days. While India may not have had a huge task on hand on the final day, requiring 62 with four wickets in hand, the topsy-turvy nature of the game ensured a gripping finale.
While it was the seasoned campaigner who finished the job, an 18-year-old debutant laid the solid foundation which allowed India to claim a famous victory. Smriti Mandhana, from Sangli, Maharashtra, was one of India’s eight debutantes, but her performance over the course of the match did little to suggest that this was her first international outing.
Mandhana, who as a 17-year-old became the youngest Indian woman to score a double century, hitting 224 off 150 balls against Gujarat in a one-day game last year, was elegant in her 51-run knock. Driving confidently down the ground and punishing anything short, she hammered nine boundaries in her 108-ball essay, stitching a 76-run opening partnership with M Thirush Kamini.
Daughter of a businessman who deals in textile chemicals, Mandhana took up cricket after watching her father coach her elder brother. “I had a dream to see my son play for India, so I used to coach him myself every morning. Smriti used to watch intently. When she was nine she told me she too wanted to hit the ball. A couple of years later, she was selected for the Maharashtra under-19 team and since then she has just gone places,” says Shrinivas Mandhana, Smriti’s father. Incidentally, Smriti’s elder brother, Shravan, played for the Maharashtra under-16 team but then quit the game, opting for a job in a private bank.
Since the match was not broadcast in India, the Mandhana family was huddled in front of the laptop at home, following ball-by-ball updates on the internet. “Smriti likes to score big runs when she bats. She has scored four centuries for Maharashtra already and whenever she gets to the 20s, she always makes it count. It was a little surprising for us to see her getting dismissed on 51, but I am glad she helped India to victory,” says her father.
India will now take on England in a three-match ODI series, and Shrinivas Mandhana has already made it known to his daughter what he wants. “I spoke to Smriti after the victory and I told her what I want from her. She is in great form and she should make it count. Nothing would be better than a century at Lord’s,” he chuckles.
Brief scores: England 92 & 202. India 114 & 183/4 (Smriti Mandhana 51, Mithali Raj 50 n.o., Shikha Pandey 28 n.o.). India won by 6 wickets.
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