Smriti Mandhana started the 2017 ICC Women's World Cup in an emphatic manner by scoring 90 against England in the opening match and then followed it up with an unbeaten 106 against the West Indies, but since then her form has tapered away with scores of 2, 8, 4, 3 and 13.
Mandhana’s indifferent form has been a concern of late but according to her personal coach and mentor, Anant Tambwekar, the classy left hander is due for a big innings in the semi-final against Australia on Thursday.
“I’m confident she will turn it around in the semi-final,” Tambwekar told Firstpost from his home town of Sangli.
Mandhana’s dip in form has coincided with the fact that opposition teams have opened the bowling with spin, a strategy that Mandhana has found difficult to conquer.
“We had a long discussion about that and she will be fine,” Tambwekar said.
“We speak quite regularly and we have been in touch throughout the World Cup. After the match she asks me if she committed any mistakes and how they can be corrected.”
“She knows really well what to do and I’m backing her to succeed.”
Tambwekar and Mandhana go back a long time. Eight years ago, Mandhana’s father used to be a maidan coach at the sports ground in Sangli where he would constantly interact with Tambwekar.
In fact, when Mandhana’s brother, Shravan was selected in the Under 16’s squad, it was Tambwekar that travelled with the team as the head coach. By the time Tambwekar returned, it was Mandhana’s father that asked him to coach his 12-year-old daughter.
“He brought her to the ground where I used to hold my nets. Generally at that age you can tell from the body language if they are genuinely interested or have them been pushed into the game,”
“Even at that early age you could make out Smriti was so committed to the game. I remember in our early days, if I discovered a flaw in her game she would practice meticulously to fix it.”
Tambwekar remembers how at the start of their coaching stint, Mandhana along with Tambwekar would have to do everything from scratch. It involved finding a decent 22-yard-strip, watering it, rolling it and then putting the nets up so they could start their drills.
“Where ever I held practice nets for the Under 16 boys, I would invite her and then get her to face some of the boys who were nearly 4-5 years older than her.” he recalls.
“It was on turf wickets – they were not always in the best conditions. If there was matting wicket then she would not object either, she took that as a challenge. “
Tambwekar recalls an incident when a tall paceman got the ball to lift off a good length and hit the young Mandhana in the ribs. But the minute Tambwekar ran over to check on his student, he was greeted with the response “Nahi Nahi sir kuch baat nahi hai – ye cricket me hota he – me bilkul tayar huu es liye. (I’m perfectly fine, this is all part of cricket and I’m ready for the challenges)”.
Tambwekar’s meticulous drills and the exposure to fast bowlers in nets session allowed Mandhana to develop a clinical back-foot technique.
“Playing on the front foot is natural for youngsters. That is why I started to focus on her back-foot game really early in her career,”
“We practised a lot of drills where I would stand and hurl the bowl above her waist.”
“Also she would constantly be playing against older boys who used to try and intimidate her by bowling short so her back foot game evolved naturally.”
One of the shot’s Mandhana mastered right from the outset was the pull and the hook.
“It was such a natural shot for her. All the short balls she received in the nets allowed her to play the stroke frequently. She was so good at picking up the length and transferring her weight on the back foot,”
“It has always been the strong point in her game.”
Ironically, it was the bunch of scintillating pull strokes’ Mandhana executed against Australia during her maiden ODI century that drew abundance of praise from her respective opponents and resulted in her gaining a Women’s Big Bash contract last season.
Come Thursday the Australians will be hoping Mandhana’s lean trot continues. Tambwekar on the other hand will be hoping that his student can rediscover her magic touch and book India a berth in the final at Lords on Sunday.