Indian T20I vice-captain Smriti Mandhana is set to become the first Indian to play in the Kia Super League (KSL), England’s domestic women’s T20 competition. Mandhana was selected by the Gloucestershire-based Western Storm as their second overseas player. Last year, Harmanpreet Kaur was picked by the Surrey Stars, but pulled out of the tournament due to a shoulder injury sustained during India’s run to the final of the 2017 Women’s World Cup.
Mandhana was contacted by Storm coach Trevor Grifiin through social media just after the T20 tri-series featuring England and Australia in March, where she notched up three half centuries in four innings. Griffin was then asked to send a formal request to the BCCI.
“Once BCCI checked that it's not clashing with international commitments, they spoke to with the team management, who felt it would be a good opportunity for me” Mandhana told Firstpost.
“By the end of the England series, the BCCI got back to me with the NOC. Then I started communication with the Storm manager.”
What is Kia Super League?
The KSL was started shortly after the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) in 2016. Unlike the WBBL, it’s franchises are not aligned to the existing men’s county T20 teams. The objective was to create a competition that could be a stepping stone to international cricket, something the county tournament struggled to do because of a high number of teams. So the country’s top players were divided into six teams: Southern Vipers, Surrey Stars, Yorkshire Diamonds, Loughborough Lightning, Lancashire Thunder and Western Storm. Each team can field up to three overseas players. The tournament is likely to be scrapped in 2020, and more on that later in this article.
The Storm go into the 2018 tournament as the defending champions. Among their ranks are England captain Heather Knight and medium pacer Anya Shrubsole. Shrubsole starred in the World Cup final last year, taking six wickets to deny India a maiden title. The Storm’s three overseas players last year were former New Zealand wicketkeeper Rachael Priest, fast bowler Holly Huddleston, and West Indies captain all-rounder Stafanie Taylor. Priest is set to return for the 2018 edition.
Why do they want Mandhana?
Mandhana earned the call-up after a steller 2018 in the T20 format, before a quiet Asia Cup. In series away against South Africa and at home against Australia and England, she scored 343 runs in eight innings at a strike rate of 155. This will be her second appearance in a foreign T20 league, having spent a season in Australia’s WBBL with the Brisbane Heat. It turned out to be a poor run, with Mandhana scoring just 89 runs in the tournament. Her campaign was ended by an injury to her knee. Now fitter and wiser, the 21-year-old hopes for a better return.
“That time I was just 18,” said Mandhana. “But now after 2-3 years I would be better prepared. Staying alone, doing the preparation all alone, that would be a bit easier.”
While she batted in the middle-order for the Heat, the left-hander is expected to open the batting for Western Storm.
Crictically, it will also be her first taste of T20 cricket in England, having already played a Test and ODIs there. And she plans to prepare accordingly.
“I’ll have to start practicing all the boundary shots and other shots in swinging conditions. In ODIs you take your time and then go for it. In T20 you don’t have that, you have to go after it from ball one. To do that in swinging conditions is something I'll be working on.”
Ahead of her maiden tour to England in 2014, Mandhana had trained with plastic balls taped on one side to account forthe swing. She plans to take it one notch higher this time. “I'll have to add preparation for lofting balls that are swinging.”
What's in it for her?
Mandhana will spend the Indian monsoon, the off season, in England. It is traditionally a time in which players build their fitness and iron out any creases in their technique. She trades it for something just as valuable though: match practice.
“After the England series (in April) we got a window of one month, so that was like an early off season”, she said. “The KSL is a good way to play matches, because getting quality matches ahead of the World cup is really important for me as a player to perform well for India.”
“As an overseas player, they will expect me to do well . So to learn to handle the expectations, that will help me in the World Cup (T20), because people expect a lot from me in the World Cup," she added.
As per the current schedule, India will tour only Sri Lanka in September, before playing the World T20 in November, raising the value of these games for India’s opener.
With the ECB having recently published an action plan to boost engagement with communities of South Asian descent, Mandhana’s arrival could dovetail nicely with those designs. Noted women’s cricket historian and journalist Raf Nicholson observed that “Women's cricket in England still not very ethnically diverse at all.”
“Especially given there are no non-white domestic players playing for Western Storm at the moment, Mandhana’s presence could help make a difference.”
Also, a strong performance from her, coupled with match-winning performances from other Indian players in the WT20 in November could mean more Indians feature in the KSL in future, Mandhana felt.
“If they win games for India, all possibilities open up," she said. Strangely, all three Indians who have played in foreign leagues so far are batswomen. No league has picked up one of India's spin talents, yet.
But Mandhana’s participation in the KSL will be restricted to a maximum of only two years at best, as the tournament will need to be revamped in 2020, when the ECB plans to introduce their new format, The Hundred. While in men’s cricket, the T20 Blast will continue to exist, in the women’s game, voices have been raised for the introduction of a separate women's tournament in the T20 format.
"The KSL won't exist after 2019 and we don't know what will replace it," said Nicholson.
“There will be The Hundred but the ECB have also said they are developing a new elite T20 competition for women, but we don't yet have any details about how long it will be or how many overseas players will play in it.”
So for Mandhana, it will very much be one ball at a time. But given that the KSL is played in the Indian off-season, while the WBBL clashes with India’s domestic cricket, there is a strong case for her to make trips to England in July a regular affair.