Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur in action. ©BCCI
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“Tactically, definitely, I would say I have to bat till 20 overs. That is the best option. The more I bat till 18 overs, we won’t collapse. Because… the top order, if they bat till 18-20 overs, it becomes very easy for the (rest of the) batting unit to just revolve around that batter. That is what I am thinking, and that is what, tactically, I will be doing.” – Smriti Mandhana in the post-match press conference.

 

Mandhana is India’s king pin. She never looks rushed or under pressure. Even with Lea Tahuhu steaming in, pushing the speed-gun past the 120 kph mark, and forcing the Indian batters on to the back-foot, when Mandhana faces up to her, she nonchalantly clips her off her pads or strokes a full delivery through cover. There is not a bead of sweat on her forehead or a hint of tension in her movements.

 

When Meg Lanning or Ellyse Perry—arguably two of the best batters in the world at the moment— bat, there is an intensity in everything they do. Every movement is purposeful and calculated. It’s easy to recognise the ruthlessness in the way they achieve dominance. With Mandhana, on the other hand, everything just seems to flow. Her footwork is graceful, almost an afterthought, her bat comes down perfectly through the line of the ball, and the ball pings off her blade. It is as if it is all happening in slow motion. Her shot-making is not brutal. She never appears to bludgeon her way to a score, but before you know it, via trademark back-foot punches, well timed pull shots, and silken strokes over extra-cover and mid-wicket, she has flown to a half century, at a strike-rate of 200.

 

Mandhana’s consistency over the last 12 months has been nothing short of scintillating. She has scaled peaks not many batters her age (or older) have managed— she has won the Rachael Heyhoe Flint medal, climbed to the top of the ICC ODI rankings for batters, scored hundreds in the ‘SENA countries’— but there are a few things the 22-year-old is still trying to work on.

 

In the recent past, Mandhana has often talked about wanting to finish games for her team. For much of her career, she has shown the ability to set up a game, only to be dismissed short of the target— her exit often triggering a collapse.

 

India’s 23-run capitulation in the first T20I against New Zealand in Wellington on Wednesday (February 3) was much the same story— the vice-captain setting the game up nicely, only for the middle and lower order to flick the self-destruct switch after her dismissal.

 

It was a game that India should have won at a canter. They were sitting pretty at 103 for 1 in the 12th over, in pursuit of 160, with Mandhana and Jemimah Rodrigues batting on cruise control. At that point, even the staunchest New Zealand supporters would have thought the game was out of their team’s grasp. Hannah Rowe, however, provided the spark of belief that the hosts were searching for— taking a superb (albeit slightly misjudged) catch on the deep extra-cover boundary to dismiss Mandhana for a 34-ball 58, thus breaking the 93-run second-wicket stand.

 

After that, came a procession of wickets— India’s inexperience showing in the form of rather poor shot selection. The young lower-middle order froze under pressure, resorting to wild swipes across the line, rather than trying to play the percentage shots.

 

It was almost a mirror image of the issues India faced during the 2018 Women’s World T20 in the Caribbean last November— their inexperienced middle/ lower order made them very vulnerable. In Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur they had two of the best short-format players in the world, and in Rodrigues, they had found a young batter who looked the part on the international circuit and could be banked on for the years to come. Those three (and Mithali Raj) aside, India looked a little light on the batting front.

 

In a high-pressure semi-final against England, that inexperience came to the fore— India losing 8 for 23 in 5.4 overs, and putting up a sub-par total.

 

New Zealand are often thought of as a ‘top-heavy’ side with Suzie Bates, Sophie Devine and Amy Satterthwaite— New Zealand’s best and most successful batters— in the top four, but it seems India are no different in T20Is. With Mithali out of the mix, Anuja Patil in indifferent form, Deepti Sharma not highly regarded as a short-form basher, and the rest of the line-up trying to find their feet in  international cricket, India are, at this point, far too dependent on Mandhana and Kaur.

 

Kaur is quite clear that she wants to shape the T20I side with one eye on the 2020 T20 World Cup in Australia, and she has therefore stuck with a young group that she believes in and is keen on giving them an extended run. They are a young side, filled with much talent, but they would do  well to learn quickly, and find a way to plug some rather glaring holes within the line-up.

 

With Mithali, Ekta Bisht, and Shikha Pandey (157 T20Is between them) sitting on the sidelines, one wonders whether India will continue with this baptism by fire (‘with an eye on 2020’), or give their experienced heads a go, and allow the team to build around them. For now, it looks like Kaur and Mandhana will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting whenever their team bats— to the 18th over at least.

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