Jaipur: With two prolific years with the bat, Smriti Mandhana has fast grown into one of the most sought-after names in women's cricket. The stylish Indian opener's successful run saw her bag a bunch of awards over the last year.
Mandhana won the ICC Women's Cricketer of the Year, ICC Women's ODI Player of the Year, Wisden's Leading Cricketer of the Year (female) and BCCI's Best Women's International Cricketer in 2018 along with being ranked number 1 in ODIs.
When asked to react on grabbing such top awards, Mandhana, almost as if interjecting the query midway, points out to the one missing item in that list – "Still a World Cup is not there."
The soreness of the narrow nine-run loss at Lord's during the 2017 ODI World Cup final still aches the 22-year old. However, Mandhana offered a smile after her quick reply as if to suggest 'it's all good now,' but at the same time, the steadfast desire to lift the trophy shone through her eyes clearly.
"I think my focus as a player and even our team is to bring the World Cup home because 'Cricketer of the Year' and all the other awards won't give the same joy as winning the World Cup will," said India's T20I vice-captain.
"Having said that, it felt good to win the ICC Awards. As a kid, I remember reading about Jhulan (Goswami) di receiving the award in a corner of the newspaper.
"I am not someone who really gets excited, but for about 15 to 20 minutes after I had won the awards, I was thrilled.
"I expected one of the awards, but not two of them. The awards came in at a time when I was mentally fatigued as I had played non-stop cricket for 8 to 9 months, but those awards made me question my fatigue and to spur me to strive for better," she added while speaking on the sidelines of the Red Bull Campus Cricket (RBCC) event.
Mandhana took giant strides in world cricket in 2018. She became the first Indian to earn a contract with the Western Storms in the KIA Super League (KSL) and it was one of the most instrumental steps in her way to becoming a world beater. Playing T20 cricket in England helped her shed the comforts of home and bring some important changes to her persona that instilled immense confidence. Hobnobbing with top international cricketers exposed her to different attributes that she could take from her peers and apply in her game.
"It is difficult to go abroad and play for another team because there is a lot of cultural difference. Also having played predominantly in India, you tend to be very comfortable in its setup. Going to a foreign league and playing with strangers isn't easy. You don't know everyone till about 4-5 days, so you have to make a conscious effort of making yourself a better person or being approachable. So that is one thing I learnt from playing away," brought up in Maharashtra's Sangli, she threw light on her initial struggles in the new dressing room.
"When I started to open up and interact with the girls, the funnier and jovial side of me gradually started come out which began to reflect in my game too. The camaraderie gave me a lot of confidence. In about two days I started to talk to them and was making new friends.
"I remember telling myself 'this is a very good environment, the coaching staff is great, so now let's start doing what I have come here for'. When you go out, there are a lot of things you learn. There were a lot of fitter people you see around, which serves as a good reality check that hits you hard, reminding you of how little you are. Sometimes it even brings you down, but all those little things push you to work harder. It propels you to try and be a better athlete than the previous day. All those things have helped me a lot," credited Mandhana.
She finished with a record-shattering 421 runs from her 10 innings at 60.14 with an astounding strike rate of 174.68. No cricketer from Women's Big Bash League (WBBL) and KSL across all editions comes close to her strike rate. In the process, Mandhana broke and created more records while slamming a century and joint-fastest half-century.
The year 2018 also saw Mandhana being conferred with the Arjuna Award.
Mandhana's stellar run coincided perfectly with the upsurge of women's cricket over the past two years and thereby invariably making the left-handed opener a global star.
She, alongside Harmanpreet Kaur, is widely considered as the face of the women's cricket in India.
However, Mandhana plays the claim down.
"I don't look at it as if I am the face of women's cricket as I can't see my face.
"...that's a lame joke," laughed Mandhana surrounded by journalists trying to force a smile.
"I only think of how I can win the match for India, other things are part and parcel of it. I don't really think I am the No 1 batter because all those things might be there or not there you never know, but if India wins the match, that will stay with me forever."
The ICC Cricketer of the Year instead saluted the former legends for laying the foundation of women's cricket.
"I don't really think about those tags, because it will end up adding pressure on me. My main work is to win matches for India or whichever team I play for," Mandhana said.
"I think we have a lot of legends who have been the face of women's cricket. We have Mithali (Raj) di, Jhulan (Goswami) di, Harry (Harmanpreet Kaur) di, Neetu (David) ma'am, Diana (Eduji) ma'am, Shubhangi (Kulkarni) ma'am. Without these guys, we wouldn't have been here. It is not just 2017, it is all the hard work that these women put in. So I wouldn't really like to be known as the face, because I think they have done all the hard work and we are reaping the rewards."
Mandhana also agreed that currently, it is the best time to be in women's cricket.
"Yes, this is certainly the best time to be in women's cricket. Even two years ago, there was no television coverage. We didn't have contracts, but the 2017 World Cup was a game-changer for women's cricket. I can see a lot of changes in the sport. A lot more girls have already started taking a liking to cricket. Women's IPL will be a great thing for all the youngsters coming in."