Forbes India 30 Under 30 2023

Smriti Mandhana: Willow and grace

At 26, opening batter Smriti Mandhana has notched up quite a few milestones and firsts in Indian cricket. And she's not done yet

Published: Jan 12, 2023 11:27:38 AM IST
Updated: Jan 13, 2023 12:49:07 PM IST

Smriti Mandhana: Willow and grace Smriti Mandhana, International women’s cricketer Image: Neha Mithbawkar for Forbes India; Styling: Bornalii Caldeira; Makeup : Shivangi Upadhyay; Hair: Arnold Dsouza; Outfit- @Majesticbyjapnah. Earrings- @Goldenbyree. Rings - @Anayah_Jewellery; Footwear - @Meliss Ashoesindia

It was an off day in the middle of a series against Sri Lanka in 2014, and Jhulan Goswami, the pace spearhead for the Indian team, had decided to stay in bed till late. But her sleep was scuppered early in the morning by a constant knocking sound. “It came from Smriti [Mandhana], who I was sharing the room with,” says Goswami. “She had woken up and was shadow-batting in the room.”

Goswami, who recently retired as the most prolific wicket-taker in one-day international (ODI) history, doesn’t bear a grudge for lost sleep, though. “In fact, I was really impressed to see a young girl following a routine even on an off day without being prodded by seniors,” she says of Mandhana who was just six when Goswami made her international debut. “It goes to show how sincere and committed Smriti was to her craft even in her early days.”
   
When she hears of her roommate’s early impressions of her, Mandhana retorts in mock-anger: “Jhulu-di mera image kharab kar rahi hai (Jhulan is ruining my image). Here I am trying to build a chill image of a happy-go-lucky cricketer, and there she’s spilling the beans.”

“But yes,” she laughs, “batting toh pyaar hai (batting is sheer love). I can even wake up at 2 am and start batting.” That’s as big a testimony of love as any, given that the other thing Mandhana really loves is sleep—she has confessed to falling asleep anywhere, anytime.

If Mandhana loves batting, it, too, loves her right back. Twice in her decade-long career, in 2018 and 2021, the southpaw has won the ICC’s Women’s Cricketer of the Year award. The only other female cricketer to have achieved the feat is Australian Ellyse Perry; the only other Indian woman to have ever won the award is Mandhana’s magnanimous roommate Goswami, in 2007.

Not just the awards, Mandhana also manages to ratchet up incredible consistency year after year. According to a report in Wisden, since 2019, the 26-year-old has scored 1,471 runs in ODIs, having played nine matches fewer than top-placed Laura Wolvaardt, who has 1,774 runs. Only Alyssa Healy has scored more runs and averages better than Mandhana’s 49.03. She finished 2022 as the highest T20 run-getter among players from top nations, with 594 runs in 23 matches, notching up an ICC ranking of No 3 behind Australians Tahlia McGrath and Beth Mooney; in ODIs, she aggregated 696 runs in 15 matches, ending the year at No 6 in the ICC rankings. She was also part of the team that won the silver in the Commonwealth Games.

In September, Mandhana became only the third Indian woman, after Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur, to cross the 3,000-run-mark in ODIs, and the joint third-fastest overall (in 76 innings), behind Aussie legends Belinda Clark and Meg Lanning. Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli are the only Indians to have scored 3,000 ODI runs faster than Mandhana.

Smriti Mandhana: Willow and grace

That’s a lot of milestones conquered since her international debut in 2013, but nothing has diminished Mandhana’s glut for batting. “Sometimes, my mother asks me, now that I’ve played cricket for 10 years, if there’s anything else I’d like to do. And I just can’t think of anything,” says Mandhana. “Even if I start playing tennis now, I would eventually gravitate towards cricket.” 

A Batting Fiend

Sport came into Mandhana’s life thanks to her uber-enthusiast father, and her brother, Shravan, who played under-19 cricket for Maharashtra. That explains why she never had to really convince her family to take up cricket at a time it was quite an obscure discipline for women. “In fact, I would have had to convince my parents if it would have been anything other than cricket,” she says.

When she was young, Mandhana would shadow her brother, and, like him, started batting left-handed even though she was a natural right-hander. At home, they would hang balls with a rope and take turns to hit, often ending up quibbling because “like me, my brother also loved batting and wouldn’t give up”. [Shravan, who has quit cricket since, still loves to yank her chain. “Even now, if I score a lot of runs in a series, he will joke with me and tell me, ‘Woh kya kharab shot khela tuney (you played a nothing shot)’,” she says.]
 
As a kid, Mandhana enjoyed playing gully cricket being the limbu-timbu (meaning, the youngest or a weak link in Marathi) because, given its rules, she was allowed to bat for both teams, and skip bowling and fielding. “Being the weakest link actually worked to my advantage,” she laughs. Such was her love for batting that she believed it was all that there was to the game.

“When I made my debut for the Maharashtra under-19 team, I was 11, and hadn’t watched a lot of cricket on TV. I didn’t understand the magnitude of the game in the country,” says Mandhana. “Even when I got a chance to play for India, my parents were more excited than me. When I started playing at the senior level, I was made to sit down and watch matches so that I could familiarise myself with other aspects of cricket.”

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Because she wasn’t quite used to the ways of cricket apart from batting, Mandhana admits that when she made her India debut at 16, it took her a while to understand international cricket, especially the standards of fielding upheld by the English cricketers. “I would take notes after every series of the things that I would need to improve upon, and come back home and work on those with my father and coach,” she says. “Taking notes is still important to me. Once I start writing down mujhe kal kya karna hai (what I need to do in future), it helps me adapt quicker to a new situation.”
 
Mandhana also attributes Goswami as a key motivating factor in her early days, helping the then-teen settle down in a team that had seniors almost twice her age. “Whenever I wouldn’t do well, Jhulu-di would lend me her shoulder, and when I would do well, she would question why I got out. She played the part of my mentor in the Indian team,” she says.

Goswami remembers the time Mandhana was going through a lean patch and she gave her a bat “to encourage her to do well”. “She did play well with the bat, and ever since it became a ritual for her to pick a bat from my kitbag before a series and play with it. Later, she stopped, but the other girls took up the practice,” she laughs.  

Smriti Mandhana: Willow and grace
 

Journey Of Growth

In 2013, the year she made her international debut, Mandhana also became the first Indian woman to score a double century in a one-day match, smashing 224 in an under-19 domestic game, playing with a bat that Rahul Dravid, former India captain and currently the coach of the men’s team, had gifted her brother. The knock, and her prolific scoring in the domestic circuit from even before, carried her reputation far and wide.

But it was the first time that she played against Mandhana, during the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s (BCCI) Challenger’s Trophy in 2013-14, that Goswami recognised her class. “Smriti, who was part of the under-19s, played an on-the-up shot square of the wicket that I’ve hardly seen any domestic players play to my bowling. Unless they were exceptional, like a Mithali Raj or a Harmanpreet Kaur,” says Goswami. “Later, too, when both of us played for the Indian team, bowling to her in the nets would seem a bit more challenging because she read the length early and got into position, so even if I erred marginally, she would hit me.”

Snehal Pradhan, a former player who played alongside Mandhana in the Maharashtra team, remembers that she once got Mandhana out during a practice match for Maharashtra. “That was probably one of the few times when I could get the better of her, because as she grew up and progressed in skill, she was really able to hold on her own against contemporaries like me who were years older to her,” says Pradhan, now manager, women’s cricket, International Cricket Council (ICC).

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For Mandhana’s international colleagues, it’s her ability to score briskly that made her stand out in an era of Indian openers who were known for plodding along. She wanted to get on with the game at a time when most Indian openers were “compilers”, says Lisa Sthalekar, a former Australian all-rounder and a World Cup winner.

Sthalekar, now a commentator, first noticed Mandhana during the 2014 and 2016 T20 World Cups, and also played against her when she, along with Kaur, became the first Indians to participate in the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL), Australian T20 franchise cricket, in 2016. “Two things that I noticed were that she wore glasses, because you don’t often see a bespectacled opener, and that she had a sensational cover drive with an ability to manipulate the ball through the gaps really well,” she says. “She was willing to take risks, she wanted to score fast and she brought in a change in approach among Indian batters.”

Smriti Mandhana: Willow and grace(Clockwise from left) Smriti Mandhana (third from left) with Jhulan Goswami (second from right), her mentor in the Indian team in the early days; Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur (right) during the T20 series between India and Australia; Mandhana has been honing her power-hitting, a skill that’s gaining significance in the T20 format Image: Clockwise from left: Michael Bra Dley / AFP; Pankaj Nangia / Getty Images; Indranil Mukherjee / AFP

Playing franchise cricket abroad, starting with the WBBL in 2016, was a paradigm shift for Mandhana. From planning meals, cooking, cleaning, managing expenses, doing paperwork, and everything else that comes with living alone, it set the then-18-year-old off on a journey of personal growth. “Sometimes, even when you felt like going for a walk, you’d stop and ask yourself ‘jaoon ki nahi (should I go or not?)’. You’d face doubts in every step, and then you’d learn to conquer them,” says Mandhana. “As cricketers, we never get to live in hostels, so playing franchise cricket abroad is our hostel life, where we learn to become independent.”  

Franchise cricket became a vehicle for sporting growth as well when Mandhana returned home from the Kia Super League (KSL) in 2018 and sat down with her coach Anant Tambavekar to sharpen her six-hitting ability. She was already the KSL’s player of the tournament that year after emerging the highest scorer, but focussed on honing a skill that was growing in significance in the T20 format. “For two months, we practised power-hitting with old balls that don’t travel far,” says Tambavekar, who has been coaching Mandhana for over a decade. “Initially she hit 30 to 40 balls a day, later, it went up to 200 balls a day. I started with setting her a hitting distance target of 30 yards, and kept increasing it periodically.”  

An example of such power-hitting surfaced recently in the second match of India’s five-match T20I series against Australia, where Mandhana hit four sixes en route a 49-ball 79. The match was eventually decided in a Super Over where Mandhana scored 13 off three balls, including a six and a four.

While her white-ball exploits are well-known, Mandhana has also proved her credentials in the longer format, despite the limited opportunities, by scoring a century in an away Test against Australia in 2021, an innings that Isa Guha, a commentator and a former English international player, remembers as a standout knock. “In that particular innings, she was uncomplicated in her approach, with classy cover drives and handling the short ball really well against a quality Australian attack,” says Guha. “Everyone sees her as a fine limited overs cricketer, but to see her perform in the longest format was special.”

Classy and elegant are two words that cricket watchers often associate with Mandhana, as she picks up runs around the ground with effortless, silken grace. “With someone like a Shafali [Verma] or a Harmanpreet, you see the big hits and sense they are scoring a lot of runs,” adds Sthalekar. “But Smriti scores runs with ease and an understated elegance. You suddenly look up at the scoreboard and you’d see she’s already reached 40-odd.” 

Smriti Mandhana: Willow and grace
 

Leading From The Front

While her list of achievements and stature grow, Mandhana demurs when called a star. “I feel really uncomfortable being treated as the star,” she says. “My school friends have no idea what I do, sometimes they’ll read some of my posts on Instagram and tell me, ‘I guess you performed well today’. And that’s the way I prefer it to be.”

“She does play a mean game of table tennis I tell you, and has beaten me to it,” laughs Sthalekar. “But she’s a friendly girl. I don’t think stardom has got to her.”

Tambavekar agrees, and says that even now Mandhana treats the local club staff with as much humility as she did when she was young. At home, her family helps her stay grounded irrespective of the runs she piles on the field. “They are proud of my cricketing achievements, but if I don’t pick my plate after dinner, they will remind me this isn’t a hotel, and that I have to do my own work,” says Mandhana. The only pampering she gets when at home in Sangli, which isn’t very often these days, is that she gets to eat whatever she asks for. But, even then, if she slacks on her training, there is always someone to hold up the mirror. “My brother or my trainer are always around to tell me ‘jaldi line pe aa ja (better fall in line soon)’.”

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But fitness and diet are things Mandhana has herself been a lot more careful about over the past year or so. The ratio of cheat to diet days has reversed, and her favourite bhel in Sangli is also now off-limits for months. Besides the technicalities of her game, her biggest change over the past few years is her attitude to training. “Five years ago, I didn’t take fitness sessions so seriously, but now I realise every session counts,” she says. “Earlier, my trainer had to drag me, now I message him beforehand. At 26, if you don’t train your body regularly, it doesn’t react the right way during a match.” 

Smriti Mandhana: Willow and graceOver this period, Mandhana has also been made the vice-captain of the national team and has been drafted into its senior leadership core. And if Pradhan of the ICC is to be believed, it’s a role she can slip into as effortlessly as her silken drives. “I’ve played under her leadership in the state team when I was 10 years her senior, and I’ve never had a problem. Smriti manages to take seniors and juniors along at the same pace,” says Pradhan. 

“I have been taught that whenever you play for a team you have to think you are the leader. You have to treat your own role as that. When I was 17-18 and was just a batter, I’ve always had it in me to lead my own game,” says Mandhana. “My current role is just an extension of that.”

The rise and rise of Mandhana, not just in domestic but also world cricket, has also done much to popularise women’s cricket, once considered a poor cousin of its male counterpart. A watershed moment was the 2017 ODI World Cup, where India finished runners-up to England, but returned home to a hero’s welcome. As Mandhana says, “This was when people realised India ka women’s cricket team bhi hai (India had a women’s cricket team too).”

While one of the most definitive innings from that tournament was an unbeaten 171 scored by now-skipper Kaur, “I remember young boys and girls were rushing to stores to buy Smriti Mandhana T-shirts,” says Guha. “While stalwarts in the team like Mithali and Jhulan had been around for a while and deserved plenty of recognition, Smriti, with Harman, had been at the heart of a change of mindset and perception shift for women’s cricket in India.”

It was also the beginning of a financial turnaround for women’s cricket that has now culminated in the recent BCCI announcement of pay parity in match fees, bringing the women on a par with men—this means Test match fees for women will be hiked from ₹2.5 lakh to ₹15 lakh per match, while ODI and T20I fees will rise from ₹1 lakh to ₹6 lakh and ₹3 lakh, respectively. “Imagine what this means for parents who would otherwise have been in two minds about allowing their girls to turn cricketers,” says Mandhana. The board has also announced a five-team women’s IPL (Indian Premier League) in March that will open up new markets for the sport and introduce it to young girls beyond metros.

Smriti Mandhana: Willow and grace

Personal sponsorships have also poured in thick and fast—Mandhana who had nine brand endorsements in her kitty two years ago, has doubled the number to 17 this year, while her earnings from endorsements during this period are expected to double and touch ₹20 crore, says Tuhin Mishra, the co-founder and managing director of Baseline Ventures that represents her. Her endorsements fees have also risen 1.5x in a year to ₹1-1.2 crore per brand.

Her contribution to the exponential rise of women’s cricket is reflected through her endorsement portfolio that has modern jewellery brands like Her Story that on-boarded Mandhana to represent its ‘Limitless’ collection. The brand believes that Mandhana is the most appropriate portrayal of its tagline: “They ask me why I never stop, I wonder if they have seen the view from the top.” “For most jewellery campaigns, brands want to speak about their products, but at Her Story, the conversations always begin and end with our consumer, who is the muse and the modern woman. Who else could it be, when it comes to our Limitless collection, but Smriti,” says Falguni S Kapadia, the brand marketing director.

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With the T20 World Cup scheduled to be played in South Africa in February, Mandhana will be at the forefront of India’s quest for lifting the trophy. While she refuses to dwell on past achievements or list long-term goals—“Memory bhi kharab hai meri, aur main aage ka bhi nahi sochti (I have a poor memory and I don’t think too long ahead),” she jokes—she admits that she would love to win a World Cup or two among the few that are scheduled in the next five years.

Goswami recalls two knocks of Mandhana’s that stand out. One, a match against England in Nagpur in 2018 where she dug in her heels on a challenging wicket, and another an ODI against England in Scarborough during the batter’s third series. “The second, especially, wasn’t a big innings, and she has scored many centuries and bigger runs after that,” says Goswami. “But I remember these two because of how well she handled really tough situations.”   

It could very well be an idiom for how Mandhana has handheld women’s cricket over the past decade—from obscurity to stardom.

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(This story appears in the 13 January, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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