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Feature

Mandhana shuns the spotlight as 'Queens 2024' party at the Kotla

For a while, it looked like it would be Delhi Capitals' night, but smart captaincy and exceptional spin bowling turned the game RCB's way

Smriti Mandhana wasn't there.
After Richa Ghosh hit the winning runs, all the Royal Challengers Bangalore players rushed onto the field. They had finished fourth in the inaugural edition last year, and now they had won the WPL title by beating Delhi Capitals - who had an all-win record against them and had directly made the final. RCB had made it to the playoffs only after winning their last league game and finishing third. And add to it the running joke about RCB never quite winning anything.
And so, the joy the players felt - and displayed - was completely warranted, with over 29,000 cheering them on at the Feroz Shah Kotla. Shreyanka Patil led the way. Among the first to reach Ghosh in the middle, hugging every member of the RCB contingent, giving a sassy interview - "They keep saying, 'Ee sala cup namde, ee sala cup namde [this year the cup is ours]', look we got the cup so... that's it, guys!" - and just dancing the moment away before and after the presentation and in front of the cutout that said "QUEENS 2024".
It was only fitting - Ghosh and Patil had broken down on the pitch exactly a week ago after a heart-wrenching one-run loss against Capitals. But Mandhana was almost subdued.
She was the last to walk out even as the entire bunch jumped around in the middle after the eight-wicket win. The joy on her face was visible - but nowhere close to overflowing - as she slowly made her way to the middle. She first gave a warm hug to Capitals allrounder Arundhati Reddy, off whom the winning runs were hit. After a few handshakes, she hugged and lifted Ellyse Perry, who saw off the chase with an unbeaten 35, off the ground. But a few moments later, Mandhana was gone again. She was neither in the middle where a group of RCB players were dancing nor in another group that was laughing and chatting with the team owners. And not even among the players celebrating with members of the support staff.
About ten minutes later, she emerged from the dressing room and joined her team-mates.
"The first thing I did was I went to the dressing room and sat," Mandhana explained in the press conference later. "It's hard to celebrate the way others do. I don't know, there's some defect."

****

The smiles did not seem probable for RCB about three hours earlier. Capitals opted to bat - like has been the norm in the Delhi leg of WPL 2024 - and were off to a flier, courtesy Shafali Verma. She gave the RCB bowlers a shellacking in the powerplay, hitting sixes off Sophie Molineux, Renuka Singh and Perry. Shafali had an answer to whatever came her way. The result? Capitals were 61 for no loss in six overs, their second-highest in the phase in the two seasons of the competition. Mandhana then brought back Molineux, who had given away ten runs in the second over of the match. The move paid dividends immediately. Molineux tossed one above Shafali's eyeline and she slogged it straight to deep midwicket. She then struck twice in two balls, bowling both Jemimah Rodrigues and Alice Capsey for ducks, a jolt Capitals could never recover from.
With the initial damage done, Mandhana brought Patil into the attack, and she responded by dismissing Meg Lanning for the second time in two games. Patil and Asha Sobhana continued what Molineux had started as Capitals lost nine of their ten wickets to spin. From 64 for none, they lost ten wickets for just 49 to be skittled for 113.
Little would have pleased the RCB management more than Molineux's returns in WPL 2024. The punt they took in picking her at the auction paid off as she returned 12 wickets at an economy rate of 7.31, bowling a majority of her overs in the powerplay and at the death. She was RCB's joint-second highest wicket-taker, that too after coming in on the back of an ACL injury that had kept her out of action for a large part of two years.
"We've been following her for a very long time," Mandhana said. "I remember her bowling against us in the one-day series [in 2021], which we nearly won when we went to Australia. I think she was the difference between the Australian team and the Indian team and, at that time, the way she bowled in the last four-five overs, it always stuck with me somehow - her performance.
"The last two years have been really tough on her with a few injuries. She went through ACL and I can feel that ACL pain [having gone through it myself], so really, really happy for her. The way she came back - she was really clear. Not only today but even in the eliminator, to [bowl] that kind of a 19th over [four runs and a wicket against Mumbai Indians]. So, really, really happy for her and I think she is definitely a special player."
The series in 2021 was also one where Molineux broke her jaw after being struck by a throw in the third ODI. She had continued playing. Time and again, her resilience and clutch performances have come to the fore, and with the T20 World Cup in Bangladesh on the horizon, she is also back in Australia's white-ball squads. "This one's special - to be taken by RCB after not playing any cricket for a while was pretty special," Molineux said after being named Player of the Match. "I felt like I was bowling really slow tonight. I got a bit quick throughout the tournament. I suppose that is tournament play - you have to keep learning from the innings and the mistakes that you make before that and look forward to the next game."
And it was Molineux's triple-wicket over that denied an Australian captain and ensured an Indian captain lifts the trophy again. After she received the WPL trophy, Mandhana passed it to the young brigade led by Patil, and quietly slipped to the back of the group on the left. Quiet. Almost vanishing again.

… 'I didn't hear anything' of what Virat Kohli said

But her glee was on full display at the press conference after the final, and everyone present got to see a side of Mandhana even she may not have known existed. She is not usually too expressive in public. She had said so herself after the league stage. And we believed her.
Here, she barely finished the first answer when she was she told to pause. A formally dressed gentleman wearing white gloves appeared and placed the WPL trophy next to her.
"Oooooh," Mandhana went. "I have to leave my shyness now."
"Okay, sorry," she said as she pulled herself together, but the laughs and giggles didn't go away. Nor did her awkwardness at being in the situation she was in. "Yeh kyon laaye [why did you bring this]?" she asked the gentleman while pointing to the trophy.
An answer or two later, the gentleman returned to take the trophy away.
"Nikaal lein, ho gaya (Done, taking it already)?" she chuckled. When she was told the trophy had to be adjusted a little for the video being recorded, she said, "Mujhe laga le ke jaa rahe hain (I thought you're taking it back)." Mandhana found her own joke funny enough to burst into another spell of laughter.
On being asked about the conversation with Virat Kohli on a video call moments after the final ended, Mandhana said, "I didn't hear anything what he was saying because it was too loud."
Cue laughter from all those gathered.
"No, I'm not saying I didn't [care to] hear what he said, I'm saying I couldn't hear. What you're laughing? Don't take it the wrong way yaar." More laughter. "As I said, I couldn't hear what he was saying because of the noise. Hans rahe hain yaar ye log, marwayenge [these people are laughing, they'll get me in trouble]."
There were also serious and insightful answers from Mandhana to explain her emotions, what a ride the two WPLs have been, what a find Shreyanka Patil is, and more. Almost all of it was sprinkled liberally with - you guessed it - her never-seen-before sense of humour.
Right at the end, she was asked whether her 31 off 39 to steer the RCB chase would make her think of adopting a similar approach for India at times to close out more games, and she interrupted to ask, "Is she [the journalist in question] telling me or asking me?" to draw more laughs from her audience.
Mandhana was high. She was high on her win, on holding the big golden trophy, and the sweet taste of success after a bitter baptism in the WPL last year. It was the night of her life. And the next time she says she doesn't show her emotions, just remind her of this Sunday night.

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

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