"There are so many breaks of play, you have to focus, you have to switch off, you have to again focus..."
Stoppages in play, as Smriti Mandhana touched upon while talking of the allure of the longest format as India's maiden day-night Test kicked off in the Gold Coast, can go either way for batters. Some prosper, summoning heaps of concentration. Others lose their focus to the stasis of unscheduled breaks.
On Thursday, it could have gone either way for Mandhana too. A full 110 minutes had elapsed since lightning, and then a heavy downpour, halted India's post-dinner session at Carrara Oval. When play recommenced, ahead of the 34th over, India were on 101 for 1. A maiden Test century was on the horizon for Mandhana it seemed, but so was more rain, and the latter came first, Mandhana going to early stumps unbeaten on 80 (she now has the highest score by an Indian woman in Australia in each format, including 102 in ODIs and 66 in T20Is). That she had got so far on this rain-hit day was quite a feat, and not just due to having to deal with the stoppages and the elements.
India, it emerged on match eve, had their first taste of the pink ball only two days out from this match. Though the BCCI announced the match in May, few efforts had been made over the four months since to help the potential squad attune to the pink ball. Mandhana, for her part, had had only two nets sessions prior to the match to adapt to it all - complications with visibility, a different seam, varying swing, and other behavioral variables the pink ball might throw up. Not least in a format that she, and India, have only played twice - both this year - across over seven summers.
She had made a personal attempt, she said after the day's play, to acquaint herself with the pink ball during her two-and-a-half month tour of England stretching from June through late August, across India duty and the Hundred.
"During [the] Hundred, I had ordered a pink Kookaburra ball, just to keep it in my room because I knew there's going to be a Test match, so that I can at least look at the ball and understand (how it behaves)," she said. "I have actually not batted against it, other than the two sessions. But the pink ball was there in my kit bag for the last two-and-a-half [or] three months. I don't know why did I carry it. I thought I'll have a session [but] I really didn't get the time to do that."
The unfamiliarity with the pink ball hardly came through, though, over the 70 runs Mandhana had scored against Australia's seven-pronged attack until the first rain break. The exceptions were when she precariously bisected two gully fielders on 7, early in her 93-run opening stand with Shafali Verma, and then, on 18, when she uppishly sliced through a heavily patrolled backward point - a part of the field where she's perished several times in recent outings.
In these moments, Mandhana had some coaching from her 17-year-old partner. "If I, say, chased one ball outside [off], she came to me and said, 'Didi, bahut bahar ka hain; mat khelo (It's way outside off; don't offer a shot)," Mandhana said of Verma.
She also got an unwitting helping hand from Australia, as she waltzed to her third Test fifty in just 51 balls. She latched on to the width offered by their pacers, and was not challenged by the innocuous bounce of the drop-in surface which did not offer the carry of the ODI surfaces in Mackay.
"At the start they bowled quite short," she said. "Considering the one-day wicket in Mackay, today was completely different. It was flat, it wasn't as hard as they would have loved. The lengths they bowled in the one-day [games] were similar [to today's,] but those suited that wicket..."
The Australia captain Meg Lanning's field settings didn't offer her much resistance either. A vacant deep-square leg for long stretches of her innings meant she could showcase her famed back-foot prowess. She pulled, mostly risk-free, for 60 out of 70 runs that came in boundaries until the first rain stoppage.
"I think the plans that they had was to bowl up [full], so I'm sure because of that they didn't have the deep-square-leg fielder," Mandhana said. "After some time, they did have a deep-square-leg fielder… I was just trying to play the ball [on merit] and even if the fielder was there, I would want to play that [pull] shot but in a different direction."
Spin was introduced soon after Mandhana reached her fifty, and she went on to show another side to her batting. She decelerated from that juncture, to the point of striking at under nine against offspinner Asheigh Gardner, who has dismissed her four times in ODIs, the most she's got out to a bowler in the format. She had a 41-ball boundary-less sequence, scoring only three runs. This from a batter who had earlier in the day carted debut quick Darcie Brown for four fours in an over.
She adjusted the pace of her innings exactly as needed, Lanning said after play. "Her tempo was excellent in this innings. She was punishing the bad balls, defending the good ones. It's pretty simple, but when you can actually execute that, it's certainly very effective. She sort of counter-punched a bit. We were just a bit off with our lengths; she was really punish[ing] us. So far she's been extremely good… and showed how to adapt to this format."
Mandhana differed somewhat with Lanning's assessment. "I didn't have a tempo," Mandhana said. "I just told myself watch the ball and play accordingly. Don't look at the scorecard, don't look at the strike rate, whatever. At the start, I think I started like a one-day [innings]... When you have a few shots, you [can] complicate things for yourself as a batter, so I was trying to keep it simple. If the first ball is something which is my strength, I'll go for it."
As for the stoppages, Mandhana had plenty of advice coming her way. "The people [India players] who were sitting out were really helping me. Whenever I came out, whoever was sitting outside, on the bench, they kept telling me, 'You again have to start from zero. You have done nothing [so far]," she remembered, chuckling.
"They kept telling me again and again because I have this tendency of going for a casual shot. So, I think, they kept me pumped up throughout those breaks, and I think they had a big contribution to make me focus the way I was able to focus."