The Indian presence in the upcoming Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) doubled overnight, with Brisbane Heat announcing the signing of Smriti Mandhana. Following Harmanpreet Kaur’s inclusion in Sydney Thunder, Mandhana becomes only the second Indian player to be picked up, after the BCCI granted permission for female players to play in foreign leagues.
The stylish left-hander, who opens the batting for India, will join West Indian Deandra Dottin as the second overseas signing by the Heat. “I’m really excited. Even before the WBBL, Australia had the best domestic system. Now the opportunity to play in that competition, with the world’s best, is something amazing," Mandhana told Firstpost.
Mandhana had a stellar tour of Australia earlier this year, where she scored 157 runs in the three ODIs, including her maiden century. In the preceding T20Is, she had helped set up a record chase in the first encounter, and then remained unbeaten in the second to secure a never-before series win. These scores Down Under would have done her WBBL chances great good.
Mandhana has oozed precocity right since her U 19 days. You know a player is ready for the next step when she bosses the domestic circuit. Mandhana always looked a class apart, and had the scores to back it up. A few months before her international debut in 2013, she came within four runs of scoring a century in a domestic T20 match. And a few months after earning India colours, she smashed an unbeaten 224 in a 50 over U19 game.
In 2014, she burst onto the international scene as a 17-year-old with a half century in the last innings of her Test debut, in a tense chase no less. It helped India to a rare Test win against England, in England.
Now, this bespectacled young lady from Sangli, barely out of her teens, will take guard in the tournament that I believe is changing the power structures in world cricket. In March this year, the West Indies lifted for the WWT20 trophy for the first time, and it was no coincidence that the players who delivered in the final also played in the WBBL01.
“It is a big thing for a girl from a small town to make it big," said Shankar Dalvi, coach of the Maharashtra women’s team. “Not every young girl will get that kind of support, but luckily for her, she comes from a cricketing family. And after that it is her work ethic that has gotten her so far.”
The cricketing family that Dalvi talks about is Mandhana’s father and brother. Her father Shriniwas, now a businessman, represented Sangli district in his youth and came close to being picked for Maharashtra. Her older brother Shravan played for Maharashtra U 19s. Both are closely involved in her cricketing development.
“I can easily talk cricket with them, they know my game so well”, said the youngest Mandhana. Her father has spent many hours on the ground working with her coaches on her orthodox, but almost mellifluous technique. “His inputs at practice are really valuable.”
Besides the panoply of strokes she possesses, Mandhana’s biggest strength is her adaptability. Great players succeed in conditions both domestic and foreign, and Mandhana’s away record is admirable. She puts it down to her preparation though. “For England, I practiced with plastic balls taped on one side, to handle the swing,” she said. “Before going to Australia, I worked on my back foot play a lot. The true bounce on the wickets there made batting a lot of fun.”
Having played on the same state team as Mandhana, I have seen up close just how punctilious she is with her preparation. She made her U 19 debut as a callow 12-year-old, and was handed the captaincy of the senior team at 18. She has grown into a level-headed leader, capable of both diplomacy with older players, and hi-jinks with the younger ones. Above all, she has always put the needs of the team first.
I remember a T20 match between Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh at Indore. We were playing at the opponent's home ground, in a match that was to decide second place, so the stakes were high. Smriti took the field despite a temperature. Chasing a low total, which could easily have become tricky, she stroked a fluent unbeaten 59 to see us home, shaking off severe weakness and chills. That game, in my opinion, was a testament to not just her plentiful skills, but also her intrepid character.
With a number of WBBL teams yet to announce their overseas signings, it is very possible that we could see more Indians, particularly legends Jhulan Goswami and Mithali Raj feature down under as well. Though the fact that Mandhana and Harmanpreet have been picked up first does underline how much clubs value fielding skills. Both Harmanpreet and Mandhana are athletic fielders, and this is likely to have played a big role in their selections. The two players will also miss the domestic T20 inter state competition, as it overlaps with the WBBL.
WBBL02 will kick off with a three day women’s cricket carnival in Sydney, featuring all eight teams, and four of those matches telecast on free to air television in Australia. The season will include 14 doubleheaders with the Big Bash League – four more than last season – including the semifinals and final. In all, 12 matches will be broadcast on free to air TV. With Harmanpreet and Mandhana set to make history, there is likely to be a lot of interest from India as well. The two will gain invaluable knowledge of the conditions there and also the experience of playing different players. Hopefully that experience will contribute to sustained success for the Women In Blue.