Inspirational Smriti Mandhana remains a class act, on and off the field
Be it as a batter, captain or ambassador of the women's game, she comes out of Sharjah in flying colours
Till not long ago, Smriti Mandhana had grown accustomed to doing the heavy lifting for India's T20I batting line-up and, invariably, watching the rest of the side fall like a pack of cards.
In the 2020 Women's T20 Challenge final against the defending champions Supernovas, Mandhana, the Trailblazers captain, struck an impressive 49-ball 68, but soon after her dismissal in the 15th over, a familiar nightmare played out before her as the team went from 101 for 2 to 118 for 8 at the end of the 20th over.
However, this time, her side would counter the poor finish with the bat with an excellent start with the ball. They ensured the Supernovas chase ran out of steam, setting the Trailblazers up for a maiden T20 Challenge title triumph. In a contest dominated by spinners from both sides, the fielding brilliance of Thailand's Natthakan Chantham, as underlined by Mandhana herself after the game - "Special mention to her; [I] haven't really seen a girl field like that" - and the latter's own captaincy smarts eventually made the difference. But that the margin of victory was a sizeable 16 runs was largely down to Mandhana's leadership with the bat and in the field, both playing a vital role in reducing the Supernovas to the lesser line-up and the Trailblazers' collapse an insignificant subplot.
For Mandhana, the half-century was a much-needed confidence boost after having a scratchy T20 World Cup and not playing any competitive cricket since March 8.
The rustiness was on view in her previous two outings in the T20 Challenge: a nine-ball six, followed by a 40-ball 33 in a losing cause. In the final, however, the difference in her approach was evident in the way she set the tone of the Trailblazers' innings.
Two nights earlier, Mandhana's out-of-sorts innings against the Supernovas had ended with a flaccid return catch to offspinner Anuja Patil, off whom she had scored just 9 off 16 balls, 11 of those being dots. Patil's success in that league game may have prompted the Supernovas captain Harmanpreet Kaur to deploy her as early as in the second over in the final, but Mandhana was quick to negate the low bounce and off-side heavy field. She combined power with flair, striking two fours - one down the ground and the other across fine leg - and a 72-metre-long six over long-off from the final three deliveries of the over.
More crucially, though, Mandhana sustained that fluency even against the other two spinners she faced, striking at 125 against left-armer Radha Yadav and 160 against legspinner Poonam Yadav, whom she carted for 13 in the 12th over. Mandana's fluency even eased the pressure on her opening partner Deandra Dottin and No.3 Richa Ghosh, who both struggled to get going.
The only bowler Mandhana found herself wanting against was the experienced offspinner Shashikala Siriwardene. Mandhana carefully played Siriwardene's first eight deliveries for just seven runs - all coming off singles and twos - but was stumped off the ninth as she tried to go on the attack. With 36 balls still left in the Trailblazers innings, even Mandhana knew an opportunity was lost to potentially score a hundred.
"I gave my wicket away," she would say in jest after collecting her Player-of-the-Match award. But that her 68 in the final - her highest score in the format in over 12 months - came exactly a year to the day since she fell for 67 against West Indies, should offer Mandhana some insights on her approach towards conversion of fifties.
But for the most part, nearly every decision Mandhana made on Monday night paid off. From bringing in a specialist wicketkeeper Nuzhat Parween after an iffy showing by part-timer Ghosh in the last league game, to returning to the successful template of opening with her two best wicket-taking options - Jhulan Goswami and Sophie Ecclestone - as she did in Trailblazers' rout of Velocity, Mandhana appeared a captain in control. Her decisions to use offspinner Deepti Sharma outside the powerplay, employ spin for 17 overs in all, and not reintroduce pace until the 18th over on a sluggish surface were especially noteworthy.
Her boldest move as a leader, though, came away from the thick of the action. At the toss, Mandhana, the youngest woman to lead India in T20Is and currently deputy to Harmanpreet in the national side for the shortest format, stressed on the importance of the final in the context of dearth of playing opportunities for India Women in a Covid-19-affected world.
"As Harman said, we don't know when we're going to get to play next," she said. "So that's motivation in itself to put on a good show, a good match, so that people will be watching this and then think, 'Okay, we want to watch more of this.'"
A reiteration, in a wider context, would pop up briefly at the post-match presentation: "I just told the girls [in the innings break] these are the last 20 overs, and we don't know when we'll get to play again. If we bowl 20 good overs, we'll win."
In walking a path few captains from this part of the world rarely tread, Mandhana may have unwittingly ensured her success on the night as a leader resonated beyond a title victory in a four-match competition.
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo