The prodigious journey of Smriti Mandhana
At an age where her friends are just starting to contemplate a career, Smriti Mandhana, 19, has already established herself as a pivot around which the Indian batting revolves. Her maturity, which has become a hallmark of her game, shines through as she talks about breaking "female stereotypes" and "changing perceptions."
The picture of a very serious and focused character may emerge, but while she is a model of concentration on the field, she is quite a prankster off it. Her room is often branded as the "play station arena", where she throws open challenges - "Come and get me. If you can, the meal is on me." Dancing sessions are a no go because the others are "much better," but songs, especially those of Arijit Singh, have her reaching out for the loop button.
Mandhana's mindset and personal space is a reflection of how much things have changed in the Indian dressing room since she made her international debut as a 16-year old in 2013. Professionalism, recent results and team bonding sessions have helped break the ice.
"We are a family now, this is the closest we have ever been because we have spent more time together in the last three months than we have at home," Mandhana tells ESPNcricinfo. "The Australia tour helped many of the girls break the ice. The vibe is so positive and energetic, can't remember a dressing room like the one we have now since my debut."
While she talks about her journey with fondness, there is a hint of disbelief at how things have panned out so quickly. After all, her life is not quite like that of an average teenager growing up in India. But that she is measured is not lost upon anyone.
There is a bat that Mandhana carries in her kit that is almost as big as her. She drags it to training, but does not use it. It is a bat that was autographed by Rahul Dravid for her older brother Shravan, an aspiring cricketer who made it as far as Maharashtra Under-19s before the pursuit of academic excellence resulted in a promising career coming to a halt. He is now employed with a private bank in Sangli, a small town in Maharashtra, as a branch manager.
When Shravan was briefly scorching the domestic scene for Maharashtra Under-16s, Mandhana used to tag along with her father to watch him play. While Shravan used to reel off runs and see his name printed in the local papers, Mandhana used to carefully cut and collect those clippings. "One day, I thought I should also be scoring runs like this," her eyes light up. "My father never said no to me, so whenever my brother went for a net session, he used to lob balls at me gently."
What Mandhana does not tell you is at first, she hated the ball being lobbed at her gently. "Then my father started bowling from 15 yards, and he noticed I could hit the ball well. I didn't even know what a cover drive or square cut was. I am a right-hander otherwise, but because my father had a fascination for left-hand batsmen, my brother and I played left-handed. So that is how it started."
Young Mandhana was all of nine when she was first picked in Maharashtra's Under-15 state side. But the confidence with which she would face up to bowlers older than her convinced her father that she had a future, even though he was not sure how to channelise it. Long work hours at a textile company, where he worked as a chemical distributor, left him little time on weekdays. But he put her under the watchful eyes of Anant Tambwekar, a junior state coach.
"I used to train in the morning, then go to school, and then have nets in the evening," she says. "Sometimes, if the teachers let me go early, I used to finish evening nets and then go home and watch TV." Wasn't running around difficult? "No, in Sangli everything is easy," comes her swift reply.
"Unlike Mumbai or Pune, there's not much time spent on the road. Even at the ground, once the boys finished training, I could get someone to bowl at me for as long as I wanted. I couldn't have had that kind of practice in big cities."
At 11, Mandhana was fast-tracked into the Maharashtra Under-19s side, but an opportunity in the playing XI did not come about for the first two years. When she finally had the chance, she could not quite make the most of it. At 15, Mandhana had a big decision to make. "Class X boards," she laughs. "I wanted to study science, but my mother dissuaded me because she knew I wouldn't be able to balance studies and cricket then."
Science clearly was not her thing, and her mother's decision, which she is thankful for now, stood vindicated as Mandhana scored three centuries and a double-century - an unbeaten 224 against Gujarat Under-19s in Vadodara - in the Inter State Under-19s one-day competition. She followed that up with tall scores in the two Under-19 limited-overs tournaments which paved way for her inclusion in the Challenger Trophy. Against the country's best bowling crop, Mandhana clearly towered over the rest, leading the run-charts that brought her into the national reckoning.
At 15, Mandhana had most things going her way. But the quest for more cricket kept her edgy, even as she saw her peers in Mumbai and Bangalore train at big grounds on turf wickets. While moving out was not even an option, Mandhana built a concrete pitch with her savings to facilitate her batting sessions under Tambwekar's watch.
All those sacrifices paid off when she earned her India call-up in 2013, after a number of senior players were rested for a short limited-overs series against Bangladesh in the wake of a disappointing World Cup campaign. But it was not until 2014 that she left her imprints. A call-up to the World T20 meant she had to skip her Class XII board exams; a tour of England later that year meant a she would have had to miss a year, and forego admissions into a hotel management course she wanted to enroll for.
"Whatever little doubts I had, vanished after the England tour," she says. "That tour changed me as a cricketer. To score a fifty and win the Test, which was our first win in eight years, was extremely special. After that, we started getting more matches. So now, I'm thankful that my mother prevented me from choosing science in school. I wouldn't have been able to manage, no way!"
A central contract, she says, guarantees financial security, but she does not want to look too far ahead. "Any form of cricket, the moment you switch off and take things lightly, we all know what will happen," she says pragmatically. "While money reduces your external worries, I hope to finish my commerce degree too," Mandhana, who is a first-year Bachelor of Commerce student at Chintaman Rao College of Commerce in Sangli, says.
"I haven't attended lectures though, but attendance is not an issue. Studying sometimes helps me from over-thinking. But for now, I'm happy playing cricket. Winning a World Cup is a dream. There's the T20 World Cup now and a 50-over World Cup next year. Who knows, our time isn't too far away."
When she started playing, she wanted to bat like Matthew Hayden, but remodeled herself around Kumar Sangakkara's style once her coaches told her timing, and not brute force was her forte. For now, she is happy to revel in Hayden's praise after her exploits in Australia, where India won a T20I series for the first time. "That was something," she chuckles. It indeed was.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo