Smriti Mandhana sits in a stand at the Wankhede Stadium
Annesha Ghosh / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Talking Cricket

'I never thought I'd hear people say they felt threatened to bowl to me'

Smriti Mandhana is breaking records and winning awards all over the place. She speaks about her miracle year and what it has taken to get where she has

Interview by Annesha Ghosh  |  

India's Smriti Mandhana has had a prolific 14 months, with awards and records galore. Ahead of her maiden stint as India captain, the 22-year-old opening batsman spoke about life on the field and off it, and what the future holds for her and an Indian women's team in transition.

You became No. 1 in ODI batting at the start of 2019. How would you describe the breakout year that was 2018?
It was a good year personally. It taught me a lot of stuff, through ups and downs. It taught me everything: how to handle good scores, how to handle bad scores. I used to always feel that I need to be consistent, so I had a point to prove to myself. The kind of responsibility which I was able to take for the team, that was quite pleasing. Playing with responsibility is something I didn't believe I could do earlier. But 2018 made me believe that.

What do all the awards, along with the fact that you are the world's No. 1 ODI batsman, mean to you?
I got to know [of the ICC Awards] from my Hobart [Hurricanes] media manager, because the ICC wanted a short interview. I'm not expressive, and I don't get excited easily, but for 10-15 minutes I got really excited about this. My mom was in Hobart and I was travelling with the team in some other city, so I put my mom, dad, who was in our [textile] factory [in her home town, Sangli, in Maharashtra], and my brother on a conference call. I called each one up and said, "Hold". They weren't able to understand what was going on.

My brother, being a brother, said, "Arre! Kaise mil gaya yeh tujhe?!" [How did you get this?!] But mom and dad were very happy. I called up Tracy [Fernandes, the India team physio] ma'am also. Then I called up my school friends. Generally, I'm not someone who'll call up people to say, "Look, I have done this and that." They get to know from Instagram and later they tell me. For 15-20 minutes, it felt really different. And after 20 minutes it was okay. Maybe before sleeping again I got a bit excited for ten minutes. So 30 minutes of excitement overall. (laughs).

But that [Cricketer of the Year] award actually had a huge impact on me because till the end of the year, during the Big Bash, my body was feeling very fatigued. If you look back, for one and a half years I have not got a break. So from about 21st to 25-26th December, I had got into a kind of zone where I was telling myself, "I need rest."

I didn't feel like going and practising, which is very rare. I had to literally push myself to bat, push myself into the gym. But as soon as that news came out, I read it and I was like, "You have to get better. You can't be stagnant." That news motivated me, and the next day I was back to normal: had breakfast, back to practice, wanting to do gym, wanting to do conditioning.

Mandhana's team-mates cheer after she comes back having made a century in the Napier ODI earlier this year

Mandhana's team-mates cheer after she comes back having made a century in the Napier ODI earlier this year © Getty Images

Your sporting feats have made you a marketable face now. How has your family reacted to the fame that has come your way over the past 12 months?
They are the same. My mom still yells if I don't eat properly. My father still tells me, "Last tak kyu nahi khela?"' [Why didn't you stay in till the end?] And my brother keeps pulling my leg. I don't think anything has changed about how they feel. But I do know they feel proud because sometimes my mother says, "God, I don't know what good I may have done to get a daughter like you" and all that senti stuff (laughs). I also sense that in my dad's voice. When I call him after scoring well or winning a match for India, his voice sounds a little different. The tone of the "hello" changes. It's a happy tone, of pride.

Many believe if you become successful at a very young age or early in your career, your personal growth is stunted. How do you look after Smriti Mandhana, the 22-year-old?
By sleeping (laughs). Look, I don't have a complicated life. I don't get into that zone of being happy or sad about life. I'm a bit of a neutral person. I want to live my life simply, play cricket. What happened on the ground, keep it there. Think about it for a few minutes and forget it when I leave the ground.

On tours, with all these youngsters coming in, like Jemi [Jemimah Rodrigues], Aru [Arundhati Reddy], Radha [Yadav], Harleen [Deol]… they are always in my room, doing stupid things, talking the most stupid things. I have not watched a movie alone on my iPad over the last 11 months while touring, which is rare. Even if I'm watching, there are four-five people watching with me almost all the time. I enjoy being around them.

Is there room for friendships to blossom in the dressing room?
Yes, but one thing we need to understand is, all 15 of us can't be best friends. Since the last two-three years, since the other youngsters have come, I have had some amazing friends. Jemi and I have really bonded well. It's not that we speak only about cricket. We talk about life, share everything with each other. That's friendship. It's a bit rare, because you're playing for the same spot and all that. But you have to have a certain level of trust. If you look at Ekta [Bisht] and Raja [Rajeshwari Gayakwad, both left-arm spinners], they're competing for the same spot, but they're the best of friends.

I think most of us are "professional friends". We help each other on the ground, have a good time. We're together, we try and do our best, work out what's best for our team, but professional friends to me is, after I go back to my room, it's not necessary I'll hang out with them, or that after I go home I'll be chatting with them all the time.

In the last two years where exactly do you think you have improved as a batsman overall?
I've been selective about shots. Having a lot of shots in your book can make you a better batsman but it gets you in trouble as well, because you may be tempted to feel every ball has to be hit. So selecting my shots has been important, and not having only one kind of game. It's a major thing that has changed in my batting from the start of 2018.

I had to be a bit more responsible. I never wanted to play cricket to score in just one out of four matches. I always wanted to be someone the team depends on. To achieve that - which I think I have to a certain level - I had to be selective with my shots. There were some technical errors definitely, but mentally, selecting my shots were an issue. Because there was a fear of "If I get out what will happen?"

Is it fair to say that with experience and fitness you now have more power and muscle in your strokes?
After coming back from the [anterior cruciate ligament] injury [sustained in WBBL 2016-17], I have become a bit more fitness-conscious. Gymming with Afzal [Khan, the India women's trainer] sir has helped me get the over-the-covers shots, which earlier used to go for four, over the ropes. Age, I think, could also have been a factor. I used to tell my brother when I was 18 or so, "Look, bhaiyya, this is not going for a six." So my brother would say, "Don't worry, when you're 21-22, you'll be able to clear the rope with ease. That's what happened with me too."

Ishita Mazumder / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

But I don't understand why people call mine a power game. If you tell me to hit lofted sixes for six balls, I can't do that. I don't think I have that power game yet. It's still the timing game for me, and in women's cricket, the moment you think of overhitting the ball, you mess up.

With most bowlers, you really don't have that much pace, and so you think you need to hit harder. And in doing so, your head falls over, you lose your shape. So the ones which end up clearing the rope are the ones I time best, and the ones where I think, "Isko zor se marna hain," [I need to hit this hard] I botch up.

Who's the quickest bowler going around in international women's cricket?
Compared to [Shabnim] Ismail, Lea Tahuhu is quicker. When I faced Tahuhu, I didn't even have any time to think. She's got that slingy action, like [Lasith] Malinga, so that makes her difficult to read, but [Marizanne] Kapp is more difficult to face than Tahuhu because her in-between lengths put the batsman in two minds about which foot to play on. And she's very consistent, can move it both ways off the pitch. Tahuhu, after an over or two, you can start playing her, but Kapp is difficult to play. She's my favourite bowler. In fact, during the Johannesburg T20I, she squared me up after bowling a maiden to Mithu di [Mithali Raj]. I walked up to her and told her that was the best spell I ever faced.

Speaking of Raj - how has she been special in Indian women's cricket? What would you like to take from her game?
The sense of responsibility she has shown over these years. There was a phase of ten years when Indian batting used to depend on her. The fact that she never cribbed about it, and took on that pressure - that's one thing I'd like to have in my head, because it's hard when you know your wicket is important and that if you lose your wicket, the course of the match might change. That is a very difficult space to be in as a batter. But she has been consistent, despite being in that headspace - that's a big task. She's calm and relaxed even if there are, say, two or three dot balls. I used to get a bit panicky earlier, but she has always been calm.

What's your favourite shot?
The happiest I am is when I hit a front-foot straight drive off a pace bowler. I feel like, "Haan, haan, chalo, my batting is in good shape." If you ask me what shot I'd like to practise for two hours, it would be the front-foot cover drive, but in a match, if I hit a front-foot straight drive, I feel good about my batting.

Has the label of being a predominantly back-foot dominant player sat comfortably with you? Has it in any way made you work on your front-foot game?
It's been a long time, nearly two years, since I stopped bothering about what people think of my batting or how I bat. It was never that I didn't know how to play on the front foot, I used to play front-foot [shots], but yeah, one and a half, two years ago, the first thought on my mind whenever a pace bowler used to bowl was to go on the back foot.

I had to change that thinking - no technical changes, no practice, only that thought. Because it's easy to go from front foot to back foot but not the other way around. The weight transfer is better if you're playing on the front foot. If it's a short ball, my natural instincts are going to kick in, but if I keep thinking about back foot, I'll never be able to go on the front foot. Whenever a bowler is on her mark now, what I have in mind is going on the front foot.

There used to be a time when people used to say I played front-foot balls on the back foot, and now other cricketers try and play those balls on the back foot. It's just about sticking to one's strengths, I feel.

"I have the fear of getting out at times, but that makes me more sensible in my shot selection" © Getty Images

And how many cricketers in the women's game can play on the back foot anyway? I'm not talking of a pull - how many can play a back-foot shot on the off side? That's my strength and also my weakness, so I have to be smart enough to see how the wicket is. For example, on the Nagpur wicket [in the ODIs against England last year], I can't afford to play on the back foot.

There was a minor slump during the Asia Cup last year, in Kuala Lumpur. Can you talk about what might have happened?
My stance (laughs).

My batting is all about feeling comfortable in the nets. If I'm batting well in the nets, or while knocking, if I feel good about it, it generally reflects in the match. I wasn't batting that well in the nets in Kuala Lumpur.

When I saw the videos, my backlift was quite open. The bat is normally facing downwards [parallel to the ground]. Tushar [Arothe, the former India women head coach] sir was also there. I discussed it with him too, because he knew a lot about my grip as he had watched me in the nets, where, after five minutes of struggle, I would start hitting the ball like that (makes a gesture indicating clearing the rope).

Before Kuala Lumpur, in the tri-series [in Mumbai], too, my grip had changed. At that time I was able to identify what changed and quickly get it right, but in Kuala Lumpur I wasn't able to understand what was going wrong. Even in the KSL [Kia Super League] nets for the first two-three days, I wasn't timing the ball well.

I keep watching a lot of videos of my batting every time something goes wrong or I don't feel comfortable. And one day, during the KSL, I was sitting in the room and suddenly I realised maybe I was thinking too much about my top hand but my bottom hand might have changed. So I changed it quickly, and started hitting the ball well.

There has been criticism that you struggle with your fluency and timing on tracks where the ball keeps low.
As long as I don't feel any problems, or my coach [Anant Tambvekar] or the team coach feels it, I don't let it bother me. The Nagpur wicket wasn't great, but I batted. The one in the second ODI of the New Zealand tour, that too wasn't great, but I did well. So it's not about the wicket, it's about my stance and grip. I have batted on worse wickets in Sangli - on dusty wickets, on wickets where people had practised shot-putting, where water used to come out of the rolling machine while they ran the roller on it. I have batted on these bad pitches, so why should I bother what people have to say about my batting on low wickets?

Fifty ODIs into your career, you are yet to score an international hundred at home.
Before scoring hundreds in South Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia, I didn't think about those hundreds. Similarly, by thinking, "Yes, I have to score a hundred in India," it's not going to happen. I'll have to go with the flow.

What has been your most memorable innings so far?
That 86 in the Nagpur ODI. I would never speak about any of my innings, but I brag about that knock. If I have to feel proud of one knock, it'd be that one, because I had to bat out of my skin in that game. I had a bit of pressure on myself because wickets were falling at the other end, and the pitch wasn't easy to bat on at all. The ball was turning square, one ball was bouncing, the next ball was keeping low. So to be able to go on the front foot and just do a dead defence was something I felt prouder of than hitting a straight drive. That's not my game. So I had to take the responsibility of changing my game and play that kind of a knock, and India won the match. So that counts.

Putting the storm in Western Storm: Mandhana made 421 runs at a strike rate of over 174 in the last KSL

Putting the storm in Western Storm: Mandhana made 421 runs at a strike rate of over 174 in the last KSL © Getty Images

Can you talk about the fatigue you spoke of earlier? Has professionalisation, and your promotion to the Grade A contracts list brought added pressure?
More than the body, I think it was the mental fatigue that was bothering me because I was travelling all the time, didn't get any time off. From October 2017, when I played domestic [for Maharashtra] till about now, I haven't got kind of a long break. Some of the other girls, say, during my KSL and WBBL stints, got a one-month break, or were playing domestic cricket. When you're playing domestics, it's a different thing, I feel, because it rejuvenates you rather than keeps you in that mental-fatigue space, because you know your team-mates.

This fatigue thing is good in a way because we always wanted more matches in women's cricket. And now that we're getting it, I don't think it's something to crib about, but as a player, you tend to think about it sometimes. During those four-five days [at Hurricanes], I spoke to some of my team-mates there, like Heather Knight [the England captain], and it was something we had in common. The World T20 was quite stressful - one and a half months. Mentally it drained me.

What do you do to motivate yourself when you go through such phases, given how hectic your life has become with the travelling, cricket and public appearances?
Very rarely do I go into that zone. I won't lie. I motivate myself to practise because I always feel I need to do this, I need to do that. But when I do get into that space, I think talking to parents, talking to friends, helps a lot, just to divert the mind from cricket for an hour or two.

And then just the fear of not getting runs, and not doing well for the country, that's enough to motivate me to get up and do things. I think of the fear of not performing, and I'm up (laughs). I'm gymming, practising and all that stuff. Practice is fine, but gym and fitness, I guess, is the key.

What about your bats - has there been any change in terms of the weight?
My bat is 1140 grams - not too heavy, not too light. It's somewhere in between. It's actually lighter than, say, what Jemi uses [1260g]. I like the weight to be in the middle of the bat, not at the bottom, because I am a 60% back-foot player. I feel more balanced in my stance with the weight in the middle.

Earlier, say, two years back, I used to use short handles. But then I started taking a liking to Jhulan [Goswami] di's bat. I used to ask her to give me her bats, and very sweetly she'd give them to me. Her bats used to have long handles, so I would cut the handle short to suit my needs, but then someone told me it upsets the balance of the bat. So when I order bats, my brief is simple: I want an SS or an SG bat, like Jhulan di's.

I have been badgering her for the new bat she's got. She'll give me targets: "Go make a hundred. Score big, only then will I give you my bat." From the South Africa tour to the T20 World Cup, I played with her bat, and even before that. She keeps complaining that I make runs using her bats but haven't let the secret out so far in the press. I think this is a good opportunity to let the world know (laughs).

Recently Rodrigues told us that your grip keeps changing. Is that true?
Every professional batsman will tell you their grip keeps changing. I have a problem with my stance as well. I have to keep looking at my stance every now and then. If I notice something different at practice sessions, I ask the video analyst or Jemi to check if it looked all right. So my grip or my stance keeps changing. I still don't know why - it's something I'm trying to figure out, but the amount of cricket we play, and if you play a long innings and you start power-hitting at the end, something or the other changes. And if my grip or stance changes, I don't look the same batsman. I look like a district player, not an international batsman. When I go back home with my grip changed, if I try to play over the covers and the ball goes towards midwicket, it looks very bad.

"My grip or my stance keeps changing. I still don't know why - it's something I'm trying to figure out" Annesha Ghosh / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

What is it like opening with Rodrigues?
It's really fun. If you see her, she's quite restless and fidgety to get her first runs. We don't talk as much while batting as we talk off the field because she likes to be in a serious kind of a zone when she's batting. I'm not like that; I don't like focusing too much, and I keep saying something stupid or the other about the bowlers or the spectators. Our understanding is good. At times, we don't even need to call each other. We just run.

You've had two memorable partnerships together - against Australia in Baroda last year, and against New Zealand last month.
As a partnership, we remember the first one more than the second one even though that was a defeat. We had chat at the start of that innings [against Australia]. I told her, "Whatever it is, we're going there to chase it, not just play the match." If we ever have a discussion about cricket, which is rare, we talk about that partnership, because chasing 333 against Australia, in front of 15,000 people - no one quite expected us to even try. For every boundary she hit, I was saying, "Yes!" For my fours, she was saying, "Yes!" We could feel that we were really motivated to chase it. The kind of innings she played in only her second innings, I would never have been able to do that.

And in New Zealand, both of us were really nervous in that game. Jemi a little more, and for her it shows on her face, unlike me. The first over Tahuhu bowled was really good and both of us were laughing at each other. But after that, we became used to the bowlers.

Last year you became the first Indian player in the KSL. What did that experience teach you?
That I can hit big sixes and clear the boundary at will. That I can play at a strike rate of 200 as well - I did that in the tri-series too, close to 180-190, but KSL was different. It was a big confidence booster for me as a person and a cricketer. As a person because I am shy, if someone praises me, I feel more shy. I never believed I could be a hot property in a foreign league (chuckles), or hear people say they felt threatened to bowl to me. All those praises made me feel more confident as a person.

Cricket-wise, it was great because I got to speak to [my Western Storm team-mates] Anya Shrubsole, Heather Knight, Fran Wilson. Heather told me that the reverse sweep is always premeditated, and I don't like to premeditate at all. So I felt I have to work on the reverse sweep because that may come in use some day, you never know. They helped me identify which balls to use the reverse sweep against. I have executed it in the nets, but I don't have the confidence to pull it off in a match. And in any case, a lot of coaches ask me to control the [number of] shots [I tend to use]. Now if I use reverse sweep too, they'll perhaps go mad. But if I'm confident in the nets, I'll try it in a match.

You played a game against Marcus Trescothick ahead of your KSL debut. Any takeaways from that chat?
I landed in the UK and played in a match the next day against him. I was jet-lagged, wasn't quite able to understand anything because I was so sleepy. And I had my birthday the following day, so I was more bothered about getting a SIM card so people could call me and wish me, because I love my birthday! For a month I ask people to count down - 30 days left, 20 days, ten days. I am a kid that way. I ask my friends for gifts, tell my mom and dad, "You'll have to give me 22 gifts." And to tell you the truth, I didn't know who Marcus Trescothick was, because I didn't follow him when he was playing. But after a few days I got to know how big a legend he is.

Can you talk about your first T20 hundred, which came at Old Trafford, which is not among the smallest of grounds in England?
They scored 150-160, and the wicket was quite tricky. Our coach [Trevor Griffin] was a bit tense. Just before going in to bat, I told Heather, "Ask him to smile, no?" And then, in the chase, one or two wickets fell, but whether they had a fielder at long-on or long-off for me, it didn't matter... it just happened - the hundred. Harry [Harmanpreet Kaur] di came and hugged me, congratulated me.

With Jemimah Rodrigues:

With Jemimah Rodrigues: "We talk about life, share everything with each other. That's friendship" © Getty Images

You also had a fangirl moment with Kumar Sangakkara, your childhood idol, after your 52 not out in Taunton. Were you speechless?
After the game, I was having my meal and I saw he had tweeted some praise about my batting. That's when I realised he was at the ground. So I told my team manager, "Do whatever you need to, I have to meet him." I walked up to him, and after being clueless for a few seconds, I told him everything I could. "I'm such a big fan of yours. I've watched all your videos. Whenever I don't feel good about my batting, I watch your YouTube videos."

Who have your idols been growing up?
I have never tried to be someone else. I have read a lot of comments about [Sourav] Ganguly sir, about people feeling I bat like him. But frankly, I didn't watch him bat that much because I didn't watch cricket on TV until I was 14-15 years old. So it was never like I wanted to be like Ganguly sir, Sangakkara or Matthew Hayden. It's just some aspects of their batting that I found attractive. I wanted to have those in my game, but not to copy them.

I have had a mentor in Amruta [Shinde] ma'am. When I was 15-16, she told me, "By the time you're 21-22, you'll win the Arjuna Award." And when I got it last year, she was among the first people I called. She's had a major contribution to making me the way I am, discipline-wise, cricket-wise.

Within six months of you scoring the most runs in nine innings or fewer in a women's domestic T20 league, Ellyse Perry broke your record in the 2018-19 WBBL. How was it watching her go about things the way she did in the tournament?
It was fun, the way she went past the pressure that was on her. But frankly, I don't relate to Perry that much because she's a different kind of a player - she takes her time, likes to build her innings, takes 30-40 balls before she starts accelerating. I'm not that kind of a player. If the first ball is in my slot, I'll play the shot that's needed. I won't wait for 20-30 balls. If you ask me who I like watching or would like to learn something from, I'd say Meg Lanning. Because she seems like someone who'll go for a cover drive if the first ball is there to be hit.

Is it fair to say that, heading into the two WBBL seasons you've been part of, the teams you played for weren't the strongest on paper?
That was the reason why I chose Hobart, to be frank. Brisbane [Heat] had asked me again. I knew Heather, she was playing for Hobart. I wanted to go somewhere where I knew someone and not just end up in a place with strangers. And with Hobart, I felt it would be a similar kind of responsibility like the Indian team: to bat through the entire innings. Though our campaign didn't go well and I didn't score that many runs, the girls there were really great. With Sal [Salliann Briggs, the head coach] too, I had great discussions, understanding my batting, my stance. Given she's worked with [Ellyse] Perry and all in Loughborough, I liked picking her brains about how Perry and Lanning prepare, because they've been so consistent over these years.

I believe you're strict about your diet. What do you eat?
I have protein powder, protein bars, fish-oil tablets, eggs, soyabean sometimes. I don't like soyabean much, though. Then normal stuff. I just try avoiding maida [wheat flour]. I try and have less sugar. Try. (laughs) Just add a bit of sugar in coffee, or have a bit of chocolate. I tried going off sugar completely during the home series last year and some blood-pressure issues came up. Because of that, I'm having sugar a bit.

Your strike rate was impressive in the WBBL, but your average of 24.46 in 13 innings spoke of a degree of inconsistency.
As an opener in T20s, it's hard to be consistent, I feel. At times I have been harsh on myself for not being consistent in T20s the way I have been in ODIs. If you look back, sometimes the risks you take will go against you, but that doesn't mean you stop taking risks. If you're chasing eight runs an over, you need to play a certain way. What I want to do in T20s is, when I am not in good touch, I should be able to get runs by rotating the strike. I'm still trying to figure that out.

Mandhana on her WBBL season:

Mandhana on her WBBL season: "With Hobart, I felt it would be a similar kind of responsibility like the Indian team - to bat through the entire innings" © Getty Images

Does it get frustrating when you see wickets tumble around you, like in the recent past with the Indian line-up?
I don't look at it that way. Whenever I do get frustrated, 90% of it is at myself, especially when I get out playing a stupid shot. I play a team sport, so the advantage is, somebody is going to cover up for someone else. And that's my responsibility too - to bat for my team. I'm not doing anyone any favours. If I'm failing at my job, that's my mistake. I won't lie, yes, I have that fear of getting out at times, but that makes me more sensible in my shot selection.

What are the key areas India need to improve in to be a firm contender at next year's T20 World Cup?
Fielding is massive in T20s. Bowlers are going to get hit in this format. You can't afford to have an economy of four or five in mind, but as fielders it's our responsibility to make sure we back our bowlers. That's something we lack at the moment - that discipline as a fielding side - and we're working on it.

Bowling-wise, we need to have more variations - various types of slower ones - especially our pace bowlers, because in Australia, pacers will play a huge role. If you look at the most successful T20 bowler, [Megan] Schutt, she doesn't have 120 pace, but she has different kinds of cutters. And batting-wise, our middle order definitely needs a finisher. After Harry di, we need someone who can get us a quick 30-40 runs. We felt we found someone like that in Pooja [Vastrakar], but we'll have to wait for her to come back [from injury].

How would you describe your captaincy style?
More than anything, I want to make my players comfortable because they're who are going to do it for me. And try to take everyone along. That's something I try in the Maharashtra team.

People say as a captain you can only be attacking or defensive, but I feel there can be a middle way as well. And it's more about instincts. I got Harleen on [in the Board President's XI game against England in February] because I felt she could get Danni Wyatt out. She's comfortable against left-arm spinners, so I didn't get a left-armer. And learn along the way by looking around. I see Heather Knight, Meg Lanning, how they lead.

The main aspect of being a captain, in my opinion, is to not think you're the captain. You've got be around with everyone, trying to understand what our players need. That will be the main focus of my captaincy - to find out what they demand of me, not them trying to find out what I demand of them.

Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo