<
>

'Every time I enter the field, it's like: Smriti, you have to score'

I'm mostly a quiet person by nature and don't like letting my emotions come out on the field. That's very much the opposite what I'm off the field" Annesha Ghosh / © Annesha Ghosh/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Smriti Mandhana sure does love repartee.

Sample this reply from June 29, 2017, during the post-match presser following her 106 not out against West Indies at the World Cup:

Reporter: "Do you think India can win the tournament?"

Mandhana: "What? You don't?"

Cut to January 21, 2018:

Reporter: "Let me start off with "

Mandhana: "The same question, right?"

Reporter: "What do you think I'm going to begin with?"

Mandhana: "How has life changed after the World Cup?"

In the seven months between those quips, Mandhana's cricketing journey has seen more ups and downs than in the near-five-year period since she made her India debut at age 16.

She now has 61 international caps, 1438 runs across formats, two hundreds outside the subcontinent, a place in the inaugural ICC Women's Team of the Year, a WBBL season under her belt, over 1.4 million followers on social media, and the tag of World Cup runner-up attached to her.

That last distinction came on the back of a run of form - innings of 90, 106 not out, followed by six single-digit scores and a 13 - that tapered off as the team's campaign took flight. It is a fact not lost on 21-year-old Mandhana in the face of the "how has life changed after the World Cup?" refrain from the media back home.

"Consistency," she says, when asked what she expects of herself on her maiden tour of South Africa. "I expect to be consistent through the tour and give a good start to the team and play 50 overs if I'm set. Simple."

Things were not straightforward, though, when her form fell away last year. Back then Mandhana was reluctant to forego the security of her comfort zone and to iron out imperfections red-flagged by those close to her: India's head coach, Tushar Arothe, and her father, Shriniwas, hadn't been wholly approving of her technique for some time.

Mandhana concedes her father had advised her for two years to consider opening up her stance a bit, to no avail. "When you get results in your comfort zone, you don't bother going against those set of plans or techniques, [in case] it will reverse the results you had been getting.

"I had never been through a patch [the World Cup] like that in my life before. In domestic cricket, I used to get out [cheaply] in one or two matches but then score in the third game. Even in the international circuit, it was never that long a phase for me. I used to think, 'Everything's okay, or will be. I'll go on with this stance.' But after the World Cup, I was open to everything: if someone suggested a change in my technique I felt could work for me, I was willing to give it a try."

The first thing she did after returning home to Sangli was to work with her personal coach, Anant Tambavekar, and dissect her batting with her father and her brother Shravan.

"Whenever I go home, I have a healthy discussion with bhaiyya and papa about my performances. They have played cricket, they know cricket. Even during domestic series, say after the Challengers, my father would say things like, 'Your footwork was much better than what I saw the last time', or he would hold me to account for keeping a fielder in a particular area [when the situation didn't call for one]. It's a great thing that the closest people in my life can get me out of any cricketing problem I face."

After a ten-day break, amid increased attention from media and fans, she devoted two to three days to fitness work before letting herself "get into the batting groove". A month and a half at the National Cricket Academy followed in mid-August, where she resumed rehab for a knee injury she had picked up at the WBBL last season. She worked on her strength and agility, capping it with a week-long fitness camp in November, in the company of other members of the World Cup squad.

Among the adjustments she implemented in the domestic season that followed was opening up the stance - from elbow to the shoulder, which had previously pointed in the direction between the umpire and mid-off. The tweak, Mandhana says, has widened her "range of shots" through the course of a domestic season in which she captained India Blue to a Challenger Trophy title and scored an unbeaten hundred and four half-centuries.

"The things I worked on after the World Cup went pretty well for me in the domestic matches. In fact, Tushar sir was also surprised I could cope with the open stance easily.

"I just got four one-dayers [in the Senior Women's One-Day League] as we [Maharashtra] didn't qualify [for the Super League]. I thought it was pretty good for me and even the T20s, especially the knock [a 52-ball 67] against Railways. Even the failures I had in the domestic games, I've been able to learn from them."

There's a refreshing honesty and self-awareness in Mandhana's assessment of her "failures". It echoes her evaluation of her maiden WBBL stint, brought to a premature end because of an anterior cruciate ligament injury. She says Brisbane Heat not renewing her contract might not have been too big a letdown in retrospect.

"This season, I wanted to come back to the domestic circuit and get some game time. I had directly played the World Cup after the injury, so I needed to see how my knee reacts, how my body goes.

"When I went to the WBBL last season, I realised, yes, you learn a lot, but you don't get to play that many matches during that period. It's like 50 days of a long tour and you just get to play, say, two matches in two weeks. Glad I got some match time here in India this season, but if I perform well and get a contract next time, I could definitely think about it."

By her own admission, much of the making of Mandhana, the pensive, mature batsman consumed by her craft, can be traced back to the Maharashtra captaincy she was handed at age 17, and the expectation to excel, in leadership and batting, that came with it.

"Every time I enter the field, it's like, 'Smriti, you have to score.' And I love that responsibility. If I don't feel that [onus on myself], I don't get that [motivation], something doesn't feel right within.

"I'm mostly a quiet person by nature and don't like letting my emotions come out on the field. That's very much the opposite what I'm off the field, when I'm around my close ones. When I step onto the field, it's more about bat and ball and less about me and my emotions."

Appointed deputy to Harmanpreet Kaur, the captain of India's T20I side, in October 2016, Mandhana recalls how a few experiences as a 12- or 13-year-old in the Maharashtra Under-19 side helped shape much of her approach to captaincy.

"I remember how nerve-wracking it used to be every time my captain shouted at me after a misfield. The next ball, I'd think to myself, 'Ab toh yeh waali bhi nikalney waali hai!' [Now I'm going to miss the next one too.] Had the approach [of my captain] been milder, I could have become a better fielder, I think. Those were the moments when I made up my mind, 'If I ever grow up to lead a side, main kisi player ko kabhi daatungi nahi [I will never shout at any player]. I'll talk to them and make them understand.' That's one thing young Smriti had been very particular about, and is trying to implement now."

I ask her how she feels about sledging. Mandhana says she mostly remains "conveniently oblivious" to it. "That's not because I'm too focused on my batting. When I concentrate too much, I invariably get out, which is why I speak a lot with my partner, and at times even bully them if they play a [false] stroke. But one thing I do when at the non-striker's end is observe the seats and the spectators. That helps me block out unwanted thoughts - and voices on the outside."

When the focus of our conversation shifts to her team-mates, Mandhana sinks slightly into her chair in the lobby outside the change rooms at the MCA, her eyes following a few players trudging past us after practice.

"I hate comparisons, just as I hated being compared to my brother and vice-versa," she says to a question about whether she sees a reflection of herself in the youngest member of the squad, Jemimah Rodrigues, who appears almost as if on cue.

As Rodrigues hauls her kit bag past us, aiming a playful half-taunt at her senior, Mandhana says that despite the similarities - both precocious teenagers fast-tracked into the national squad, and double-centurions in U-19 cricket, who were handed captaincy of their respective senior sides (Maharashtra and Mumbai) at 17 - she hopes her team-mate, and room-mate, is seen as the first Jemimah Rodrigues and not the next Smriti Mandhana or Mithali Raj.

"Every youngster carves their own journey. I've been doing mine and she hers. I don't see her needing to follow anybody's footsteps, let alone mine."

Mandhana says the professional nature of the sport doesn't often allow much scope for players to engage with each other "beyond their own world", but she has forged bonds with some of her team-mates. She spends considerable time over meals with fellow eggetarian Shikha Pandey, and has developed a mentor-cum-confidante relationship with Jhulan Goswami, her "first room-mate in the Indian side".

Her injury layoff let her spend time with Harmanpreet, who too was recuperating from injuries sustained at the World Cup, at the NCA, helping them develop a sense of camaraderie that they didn't have despite having toured together.

"You don't get to spend much time with one person when you're travelling. Earlier that may have been the case with me and Harry di" Mandhana says. "What really brought us together was the time we spent at the rehab. We're PlayStation partners, we point out each other's mistakes, discuss them. At times, when I'm not scoring, she'll give me her bat and say, 'Yeh le, isse khel. [Here, play with my bat.'] I can say our bond has grown stronger after that, really."

Another source of strength in her life is her "go-to person" in the team, one she calls her "on-tour mommy" and credits for making her believe she could be fit in time for the World Cup.

"The kind of person I am, it's rare I get emotionally disturbed, but if I do, I can go speak to Tracy [Fernandes, the physio] ma'am any time. She's the one who got me out of the injury phase. I didn't believe I could play the World Cup, but she was the one who did. She's very close to me that way; she's done big, very big things for me."

The conversation veers towards food when the MCA's in-house butler, Ozmond "Ozzy" D'Souza, fondly called "captain" by most of the women players, makes an appearance. Mandhana picks matki usal over a masala omlette.

"Food used to make me instantly happy. I remember I'd tell my mom, 'Theek hai, de de na, do round main extra bhaag lungi." [Give me another helping, I'll do two extra laps of running].

"I like food. I used to love cooking and had aspirations of becoming a chef. After the injury, I realised the importance of nutrition and gym. We've had to cut down on a lot of [food] stuff to maintain our fitness."

For someone known to conduct herself with a sage-like detachment on the field, Mandhana speaks fluently, and at times unceasingly. Her responses are routinely followed by uninhibited peals of laughter as she recalls moments with her family, how clueless she was about playing Test cricket at first, the joys of fielding at short leg, and scoring a half-century in India's historic Test win at Wormsley in 2014.

"I'm not someone who gets excited at the prospect of celebrating or gets carried away by the highs of success. But that Test, it was something special. When I was a kid, I used to stand in front of the mirror and visualise myself taking a single and getting to a hundred and raising my bat. Though I had only made a fifty [because we were chasing 180-odd], I got really excited. One of the first thoughts that came to my mind was, 'Arre, yeh to bachpan mein socha tha! [I had dreamt of this as a child!]."

The combination of composure and combative intensity, of self-awareness and modesty seems to indicate how much Mandhana has grown, inside and outside the field.

"My cricket, my batting - there will be good things said about that and not-so-good stuff too. All of that may remain the same or keep changing with time. That's part of the game. But if there's one thing I'd want to be remembered for in the long run, it should be my humility. When people hear my name, I hope they will say, 'Oh, Smriti? She was one humble girl.'"

Humble, and open - in conversations, and to change.