To win a World Cup is every player’s dream. For Smriti Mandhana, India’s left handed opening batter, it is no different. She made her debut in the series immediately following the last Word Cup (2013), so her entire career has been building towards this month’s tournament in England. But six months ago, her dream lay in tatters, just like the cartilage of her left knee.
Mandhana is among the most precocious batters India has ever produced, and this is from the country that gave the world a Mithali Raj century when Raj was just 16. The bespectacled batter from Sangli was also handed a debut at 16 against Bangladesh, after colossal scores in domestic cricket, including a 94 in a T20 match. As if to vindicate the decision of the selectors, she piled up 224 in a domestic U-19 game soon after her call up. In 2014, she scored her maiden ODI fifty against Sri Lanka at home.
The following tour to England brought her test debut. On a green wicket where 30 wickets had fallen in three days, she scored a unperturbed 51 in the second innings, which set up a tense chase of 183, handing India a famous overseas Test win. After a quiet series against South Africa and New Zealand at home, she excelled against Australia in Australia. Two useful knocks at the top of the order helped India win a historic T20I series against Australia, and in the ODI series that followed, she scored 157 runs in two matches, including her maiden hundred at Hobart.
She could not carry that form into the World T20 though, where India crashed out in the first round. But her performances at the antipodes were enough to earn her a Women’s Big Bash League contract, and she became only the second Indian to play in an overseas T20 competition, after Harmanpreet Kaur. She was also the only Indian picked in the ICC’s first ever ODI team of the year for 2016.
If all this makes pretty reading, prepare for rough speed bump. Mandhana had a string of low scores in the first half of the WBBL. But just as she seemed to be getting into a rhythm, she was laid low by injury, that specter that always follows professional sportsmen. During a game in Brisbane, she turned to her right to field a ball after bowling, and her left boot got stuck in the turf as the rest of her body twisted. She crumpled to the ground, clutching her left knee in pain.
For those watching at the ground, including me, it was a horrible sight. I knew, as she must have, that she would miss the upcoming ICC World Cup qualifying tournament in Sri Lanka. Scans later revealed the exact nature of the damage: she had ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in the left knee. Her WBBL was over, and the next question on every mind was: will she be fit in time for the World Cup?
A surgery followed, and five months of intense rehab, most of which were spent at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru. “She was concerned about recovering in time for the World Cup”, said Anant Tambwekar, her coach in Sangli. “It was important to motivate her at that time, because she was constantly wondering whether she would make it in time.”
For the longest time, Mandhana’s WhatsApp status read ‘Race against time’. Her sessions at the NCA, previously dominated by batting drills and fielding practice, were now centered around stability and stretching instead. As soon as she was cleared by the medical staff to bat, she did her best to make up ground.
“The NCA was closed on weekends, so there would be no one there to bowl to her. So I travelled to the NCA from Sangli on weekends to help her train”, said Tambwekar. “She wanted to get as much practice as possible in the short time she had.”
Meanwhile, her replacements were making the most of her absence at the top of the order. Teenager Deepti Sharma- getting a regular opportunity to open- top scored in the two tournaments Mandhana missed. She and Punam Raut broke the record for the highest partnership in women’s cricket last month, when they put on 320 against a hapless Ireland in Potchefstroom.
On the very day that Raut and Deepti put on their record stand, Mandhana’s name was announced in India’s World Cup squad, a vindication of the hard work she had put in to get fit in time for her first World Cup. Now she has a point to prove.
The Indian team features four genuine opening batters in squad, and competition for the two slots will be intense. Given Deepti’s form over the last couple of months, she is likely to be first choice, leaving the other three to battle it out for the second place. The practice matches became virtual selection matches for Mandhana but she had a mixed time with scores 1 and 44 against New Zealand and Sri Lanka respectively.
No longer the baby of the team, Mandhana- who has been vice captain of the T20I squad- must now step up and play a lead role. Had she been injured even a week or two later, she probably would not have made this squad. Now, she has a second chance to achieve her dream.
Snehal Pradhan is a former India cricketer and now a freelance journalist. She hosts the series ‘Cricket How To’ on YouTube, and tweets @SnehalPradhan