If you have ever had sugar cravings and felt satiated only after having the delicious chocolate mousse cake that they serve at the County Ground in Derby or the death by chocolate ice cream from Corner House in Bangalore, then you would easily relate to Smriti Mandhana’s state of mind.
Her craving for runs ever since she tore the ligament on her left knee while playing for Brisbane Heat in the Women’s Big Bash League on January 15 this year was the trigger for India Women’s 35-run win over England Women on the opening day of the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 on Saturday. She did not mention it, but it would not be difficult to believe that Mandhana kept a count of the 160 days she was out of action, barring a few warm-up games last week. She made up for her absence with an attractive 72-ball 90, which included an opening stand of 144 with Poonam Raut and allowed India to post 281 for 3 – its second highest total in ICC World Cups.
“It was (a big day). I was waiting for this day for five and half months. I was preparing for 24th of June from the day I got injured,” said Mandhana, who won the Player of the Match award in her first-ever ICC World Cup outing. “Winning a match for India was the thing I was craving for, for the last five and half months. Getting back and winning the match for India was really good.”
The talking point of the innings was how still she stayed at the crease, how she consistently punished the bad balls, how she gave India a flying start despite the openers taking just one single in the first Power Play, and how she surprised the opposition by taking the batting Power Play in the 24th over, which worked to India’s advantage. Mandhana looked set for her second ODI century, but failed to get underneath a short ball from Heather Knight in the 27th over and was caught at short mid-wicket. What ought to worry her opponents and please her fans, including a lot of new ones from the 2343 that turned up to watch her bat, she is not satisfied with what she achieved.
“I think I missed out on a big century,” she conceded. “So, I think I will try and bat for 50 overs and not get out in the 27th or 28th over. That will help the team better.”
It could have been easy for Mandhana to be anxious as Poonam Raut, Mona Meshram and Deepti Sharma staked a claim for the opening spot during India's win the Qualifier in Colombo and Quadrangular Series in South Africa. But she found good support around her even as she underwent a rigorous rehabilitation process at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore.
Snehal Pradhan, the former India pacer who is now a freelance journalist, and Wendy Leach, who was India’s local manager when they toured Australia in 2015-16, were by her side when she underwent surgery in Melbourne. Mandhana’s mother and elder brother stayed alternatively with her in Bangalore, Jhulan Goswami and Harmanpreet Kaur, who too were undergoing rehabilitation at NCA, kept her spirits up with movie outings and dinner nights, and the staff at NCA headed by Anand Date got her back to walking and then playing after the cast was removed from her left leg. The NCA also permitted Anand Tambwekar, Mandhana’s personal coach, to come from Sangli every weekend to help her ward with batting practice. This support chain ensured that the hunger never diminished.
Mandhana thanked everyone including the English bowlers who bowled short of length, allowing her to get into the groove easily.
“They were bowling to my strength, and once I hit the first boundary I thought it was going to be my day and I have to play according to the merit of the ball. Hope they bowl next time also to my strengths,” she said. “I was clueless in the first practice match against England. I did not understand. I was never so nervous in my life. The practice match against West Indies where I scored 82-odd gave me a lot of confidence that I haven’t lost my batting.”
Having been a part of a Test win and scoring 74 in an ODI in 2014, England is soon becoming a special place for Mandhana. “They prepare amazing wickets here and I like the weather. I don’t watch a lot of TV here. I just like England,” she said. “When I get set, I have a habit of playing too many shots. In the last two months, I have worked more on restricting my shots and rotating the strike.”
Heather Knight, England’s captain, rated Mandhana as one of the best young cricketers in the circuit, and said that her side did not react appropriately to India’s approach while batting.
“They played very well. They did take the attack to us, and we did not react the way we would have wanted to. We didn’t bowl in the areas we would have wanted to. Had we done that we would have made it lot harder for them,” Knight said. “In the middle, we struggled to take wickets. We put a few (three off Raut) chances down unfortunately. Credit to India, they played well and put us on the back foot by showing their intent.”
Mithali Raj was impressed because “it didn’t feel like they (Mandhana and Raut) were playing the World Cup or there was any pressure or nerves.” By playing more than 25 overs, they allowed the “middle order to come exactly when it is supposed to come.”
Raj acknowledged that a young team beating England in an ICC World Cup game is a massive statement, but played down the hype as she felt all the games will be “intensely fought.”
And Mandhana is craving those fights.