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Feature

The rise of captain Smriti Mandhana

Both she and her team, RCB, had a difficult first year in the WPL. But now they are a strong shot to win the title

S Sudarshanan
S Sudarshanan
16-Mar-2024
Last August, Smriti Mandhana decided to play domestic cricket for Maharashtra and skip the WBBL 2023-24 that overlapped with the Senior Women's T20 Trophy. And after the twin home series against England and Australia, which included two Tests, she was back again for the domestic grind as the captain of West Zone for the Senior Women's Inter-Zonal One Day Trophy.
Mandhana's individual performances in those competitions were above par - she was among the top ten run-getters in both, and averaged around 50 - but that wasn't her biggest gain. Rather, by playing alongside and against some Indian domestic players, she became familiar with the skillsets of some of them.
She learned of ways to contain Yastika Bhatia, S Sajana, D Hemalatha and others like them. She learned how she could counter the likes of SB Keerthana, Tanuja Kanwar and Arundhati Reddy. She was in touch with the vast pool of local talent that is just waiting for an opportunity.
The result? After their fourth-place finish in the inaugural season of the Women's Premier League, Royal Challengers Bangalore are now within touching distance of the trophy the second time around. They will take on Delhi Capitals, who, for the second successive year, have taken a direct route to the title clash. One of these sides will go where neither of their men's sides have gone before. They will win a major franchise T20 trophy.
A different Mandhana has been seen all through this WPL, not least on the eve of the final. She was all smiles during the photoshoot with the trophy and her counterpart Meg Lanning. She was very relaxed as she walked into the press conference, and settled on a seat next to Lanning in front of the mic. While the frames were being set, they managed to have a quiet chat, with a sprinkling of grins. The next 15 minutes just sped by.
The tight finish in the Eliminator against Mumbai Indians on Friday night brought out a gamut of emotions from the RCB captain, be it throwing her head back with hands on her face when Richa Ghosh missed a stumping chance of Harmanpreet Kaur, or engulfing her team-mates in a warm hug after their five-run win. Mandhana allowed herself to feel everything even though she has gone on record to say that it is a captain's job to be a lot more straight-faced.
"I think that's the most expressive I've been in my time as a cricketer," Mandhana said on Saturday. "The emotions kicked in [after the win against Mumbai]. That said, the group was really calm, no matter what was happening out there - even if it looked extreme.
"After winning, we had a bit of a celebration, because sometimes however much you want to control emotions, they come out. I am happy we have experienced something like this - for me personally, too. It is good sometimes to express these feelings; it only gives this group more confidence."
It was a tough initiation to captaincy in the WPL for Mandhana. RCB lost their first five matches last season and weren't really in the playoff equation. This time, although they had they had to win their last league outing to confirm a spot, or risk it going down to net run-rate, they've looked more of a threat. Even Lanning has noticed it.
"Whenever we came up against India, we always used to talk about Smriti and how we could get her out early - because we knew how dangerous she could be," Lanning said. "She is a proven match-winner in any conditions. She's on her own leadership journey as well, going through ups and downs, and it sounds like Smriti is really starting to understand the ins and outs of that, and has done an excellent job with RCB this year."
So how does Lanning prepare for Mandhana, the captain? Before Lanning could answer that, Mandhana interrupted with a one-liner: "Is she bowling to me? (laughs)"
"Unless I am bowling to Smriti, I don't know if I should think too much about it," Lanning said. "It's about the team we are coming up against. My prep doesn't change depending on who we are playing. For me, it is about going in being as prepared as I can be, [and] as we can be as a team.
"I have played a lot of cricket now, and have learned that no matter how much planning you do, the game always pans out differently than you think, and you have got to be able to adapt on the run and think on your feet. We have seen throughout the tournament that there has been some crazy cricket and crazy finishes. I am expecting nothing less tomorrow."
Mandhana, on her part, recalled how a chat with Lanning had helped her after Capitals chased down 151 with two balls to spare against RCB at DY Patil Stadium last year.
"From the time I debuted [in international cricket in 2014], Meg Lanning was the top run-scorer for Australia, and [I] had always looked up to her"
Smriti Mandhana on her counterpart ahead of the WPL final
"Should I answer this before the match?" she said, smiling, when asked about the conversation. "Jokes aside, last year wasn't the greatest for RCB as well as for me. After the second match against DC, she came up to me and we had a conversation of 10-15 minutes, which is really cool because how much ever you play - you play international cricket for some time - when you are going through something like that, a little conversation with someone who understands batting as much as you do [points to Lanning] really helps.
"It really taught me as well [about] how to look up to other players from other teams if they're not doing well. From the time I debuted [in international cricket in 2013], Meg Lanning was the top run-scorer for Australia, and [I] had always looked up to her. I remember the 2016 tour [of Australia] where, for the first time, I was playing against Australia in Australia. I remember really properly that time she had flicked a pace bowler over fine leg for a six and I was like, 'Oh, that's some shot'. She won't probably remember that. But that time I was like, 'Okay, if you really want to play, be good at cricket, that's something you real need to improve'. But I will keep that thing aside for tomorrow's match and focus on trying to play the best cricket and beat them."
On Sunday, Mandhana will face the biggest test of her captaincy so far, at a time when she is understanding her game better than she ever has in a match against her idol, and perhaps the best tactician in the women's game. This is going to be fascinating.

S Sudarshanan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Sudarshanan7

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