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Smriti Mandhana, and the search for the 'feel'

She seemed like she had thrown her wicket away in the 80s again, but a stroke of luck saved her and she brought up her first hundred since 2019

Annesha Ghosh
Annesha Ghosh
Smriti Mandhana drives through the off side  •  Getty Images

Smriti Mandhana drives through the off side  •  Getty Images

WV Raman, who was India Women's head coach until earlier this year, remembers Smriti Mandhana as a "very chilled-out character" who didn't overthink her game, or "talk cricket" too much, or overdo things at training.
"She had it in her head all that time that 'I need to provide a good start, I need to contribute a lot being a senior cricketer' and stuff like that," Raman recalled when speaking on Sony Sports India on Friday about Mandhana's mindset when going through a dry run.
He was alluding to the up-and-down phase after Mandhana's breakout 2018 following the middle-to-late-tournament lull at the 2017 ODI World Cup. After racking up runs for fun and becoming the 2018 ICC Women's Cricketer of the Year, Mandhana kicked off 2019 with the promise of plenty, even hitting a blistering 105 in India's very first match of the year. But in the 48 innings since, before Friday, not once could she get to three figures. In 12 of those innings, Mandhana lost her wicket after reaching a half-century. And had a front-foot no-ball - which also happened to be a full toss - by Ellyse Perry on day two of the ongoing pink-ball Test against Australia not ruled out a catch, Mandhana would have had a 13th missed hundred to her name.
"I actually get scared of bad balls quite a lot. When that happened on the second ball of the day [I faced]… I got a full toss and I was like, 'Oh, s***!' I was like, 'Oh, God, what is this! I prepared so much overnight, and I have got out to a full toss!' For us, we thought the catch was taken and the no-ball came out of the box," Mandhana said of the lifeline, regaling reporters with her animated narration after the truncated second day's play at Carrara Oval.
On a day when she hit 127, breaking the 72-year-old record for the highest score by a visiting batter in women's Tests in Australia, Mandhana mostly looked the part of the "determined" batter she had set out to be, after finishing overnight on 80.
In an in-play interview with 7 Cricket, she also acknowledged the mental hurdle that the protracted spate of near-misses had become: "Really happy that finally I got through this 80[-run] period because I keep getting out in 80s and 90s, so I was really focused and wanted to at least cross that and try and get to three figures… Disappointed I gave it away towards the end. Nevertheless, I am happy with the performance."
"From 2018 to this year, the way I would have loved to bat, I was not able to. Even though I was getting the fifties or whatever scores I was getting, I was still trying to search the kind of feel I wanted to search"
Smriti Mandhana
The monkey off her back, Mandhana opened up on what the anguish of losing her ability to bat the way she visualised felt like. This, especially when going through her past performances with elder brother Shravan and longtime personal coach Anant Tambvekar back at home.
"From 2018 to this year, the way I would have loved to bat, I was not able to," she said. "Even though I was getting the fifties or whatever scores I was getting, I was still trying to search the kind of feel I wanted to search. With family also I just kept asking about... we kept checking the videos of what has gone different. The only thing which I was working on was to try to get the kind of feel I wanted to get as a batter.
"Whenever the tours were coming, I was not thinking about that because at the end whatever you bat at that time, you have to deal with it and just go forward and try and look to play the match. But, definitely, this series I was feeling much better as a batter and definitely wanted to make it count because of the few chances I had lost in the last two years [because of the lack] of my feel. So, I wanted to try and make it up and still want to try and make it up."
Mandhana had batted all of "two nets sessions" with the pink ball before opening the batting for India on Thursday. But it was down to her that India, despite the lack of familiarity with the pink ball or long-form cricket in general, had got into a position of strength, the opener laying the marker with her "tempo", as Meg Lanning described it.
On Friday, Mandhana added seven fours to take her tally to 23 boundaries in a 216-ball knock. And when the milestone came on the back of two fours - the second a deceptively languorous short-arm pull - off Perry in the 52nd over, an uncharacteristically energetic celebration followed.
"In the 14-day quarantine [in Brisbane, ahead of the start of the series], I was doing all of that only: I was trying to visualise me batting and trying to celebrate my century," she explained, deconstructing the celebration that saw her take the helmet off, raise both arms and tap her name on the back of her shirt with the bat, as if to make a statement.
In his evaluation of Mandhana's 127, Raman jogged his mind back to conversations when he would insist she "consumed overs", for staying in the middle alone would be enough for her naturally fluent style of run-scoring to dictate the pace of her - and India's - innings. "Runs will keep flowing - whether you go for them or not... even if you take some time, you will always make up," he remembered saying.
On the evidence from the first two days of the Test, she might be on her way to making up for the missed hundreds too.

Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @ghosh_annesha