With a date with cricketing destiny at stake at Edgbaston, Smriti Mandhana and India came out and played as if they owned the place, writes Shashwat Kumar.
Over the past few years, Smriti Mandhana has established herself as one of the premier all-format batters in the women’s game. Blessed with the ability to surgically cut apart any bowling unit, she has been a vital cog in India’s white-ball machine. However, there has been a slight asterisk attached to her performances. Her talent has never been in doubt, but her tendency to not rise to the biggest of occasions has pulled her down a touch.
Before the match against England, Mandhana had only scored 298 runs in 17 Women’s T20 World Cup fixtures. In the knockouts of the Asia Cup and the T20 World Cup, she had averaged 14.50, with a strike-rate of 101.75.
Mandhana, though, wasn’t the only one who had to change narratives and perceptions on Saturday. Over the past few days, there were murmurs that England would have too much firepower for India to handle. They had defeated India on these very shores to clinch the 2017 Women’s World Cup, and had also gotten the better of them at this year’s edition. India played the final of the 2020 Women’s T20 World Cup at England’s expense, although that came about only after the semi-final was abandoned.
And in a manic semi-final that went all the way down to the wire, both Mandhana and India found a way to silence their doubters.
Throughout the Commonwealth Games, Mandhana has looked in excellent touch without translating that form into a defining knock. She couldn’t quite capitalize on a breezy start against Australia, while her entire repertoire of strokes was on display against Pakistan. In India’s final group game, she was dismissed for five, making people wonder if this was another one of those tournaments where she would only sparkle intermittently.
But those fears were allayed from the moment Mandhana strode out to bat. The fourth ball she faced was crunched past Katherine Brunt for four. An over later, she repeated the dose before sweeping Alice Capsey past square leg for another boundary. The biggest takeaway from this knock, however, was how she attacked England’s key bowling weapons, telling them that she and India intended to dominate this clutch clash.
In the fourth over, Issy Wong, comfortably England’s quickest bowler, was disdainfully dispatched over mid-wicket. A couple of balls later, Mandhana leaned forward and caressed the ball over mid-on for four. She then took down Nat Sciver in the next over, collecting two boundaries and a maximum, before greeting Sophie Ecclestone with a boundary at the start of the sixth over. Mandhana raced away to a 23-ball fifty in the process, finishing on a 32-ball 61, thereby establishing a solid platform for India to build upon.
The rest of the team took a leaf out of Mandhana’s book and didn’t get bogged down by pressure. Almost all of them were under pressure to perform, especially after what happened at the Women’s World Cup earlier in the year, where a failure to hold their nerve against South Africa resulted in group-stage elimination. Deepti Sharma, who bowled a decisive no-ball in the final over of that game, accounted for Sophia Dunkley early and only conceded 18 runs from four overs.
There were situations where it felt India would hand over the initiative to England and would be left ruing another defeat in a game that mattered. But for a change, they stuck to their guns, were calm and showcased enough conviction to get past the line.
Before Saturday, India hadn’t defeated England in a completed game in an ICC event since the opening fixture of the 2017 Women’s World Cup. Even that year, they lost the final, before going down to the same opposition at the penultimate stage of the 2018 Women’s T20 World Cup.
So, there was a feeling of a mental block that they had to overcome. And the only way they could’ve done that was by brazenly proclaiming that they owned the stage. That they had come to Edgbaston fearing no opposition and that they could, irrespective of what history was teaching them, be as good as any cricketing outfit on the planet.
And it all began with Mandhana taking the attack to England and exhibiting that India hadn’t just rocked up at Edgbaston to make up the numbers. Or, to surrender as timidly as they have done in recent times.