CWG 2022 – Eng vs Ind

When Smriti Mandhana started playing cricket at the age of 11, she wanted to bat like Matthew Hayden. However, she quickly reshaped herself around Kumar Sangakkara and Sourav Ganguly once coaches told her that timing, not brute force, was her forte.

The same coaches reportedly watched in delight as Mandhana’s daredevil in India’s 2022 CWG semi-final against England.

Take for example that six against Issy Wong in the third over. A sweater in front of the square for a short ball whose length she picked up in a jiffy. Even if Edgbaston’s boundaries had been greatly reduced, the shot would have lasted six lands at most.

It was another example of the transformation that Mandhana had undergone. She’s been trying to consciously work on her punching power, ever since becoming a regular in the WBBL. A debut season for the Brisbane Heat in 2016-17, in which they made all 89 runs in 10 innings, proved to be a revelation.

On rebounding surfaces, Mandhana realized she had to find new ways to score, and not just trust her rising drives. She started working hard on her sweater. His size would allow him to master the rebound most of the time; it was just a matter of controlling the blow without losing balance. Today, Mandhana has one of the best shots in women’s cricket.

And like most good players, she has expanded her game in several directions. She frequently took out the conventional sweep, and on Saturday, perhaps for the first time in a big game, you saw her play the scoop and the tricky paddle.

You might wonder why a player of her caliber should try to be inventive behind the stumps when she has all the shots in front of her. Well, according to his captain Harmanpreet Kaur, it was Mandhana’s way of pushing the envelope and trying to “think outside the box” for the good of the team.

Mandhana’s 23-ball half-century against England spoke of his intention to dominate from the start. His assertiveness in the very first game, against Katherine Brunt, was a milestone. England were perhaps expecting Shafali Verma to attack them. Instead, Mandhana decided it was her stage to set it ablaze with jaw-dropping blows – none performed in anger.

This meant that Shafali quickly slipped into a supporting role, reversing the script from many of her previous partnerships with Mandhana.

It’s not just Mandhana who has grown significantly as a hitter over the past few months. India’s innings against England also showed the development of Jemimah Rodrigues, who gave the finishing touches to the innings.

Rodrigues’ career has seen a number of speed bumps since breaking through as a prodigiously talented 18-year-old. When she was fit, there were no vacancies in the middle order. And when she went through a long streak of bad scores, she admitted to being lost.

When the pandemic took hold and derailed the cricketing calendar, Rodrigues was a constant internet presence with his hit YouTube show with Mandhana. The couple interviewed several sports personalities and added their own touch of humor and color to the long hours of lockdown.

It was during one of these conversations with Rohit Sharma that Rodrigues broached the topic of consistency. Rohit spoke about his struggle to cope with expectations during the first 5-6 years of his career, and how he overcame this by building a “shield” around himself and relying on his family and friends to distract him from the game.

Rodrigues has since explained how that conversation with Rohit — and further conversations with others, including Rishah Pant — helped her deal with her own struggles.

The current version of Rodrigues is defined by her awareness and clarity of thought, which she displayed throughout last week at the Commonwealth Games. In a must-win game against Barbados, she anchored India’s innings with half a century unbeaten. Against England, with the stakes even higher, she produced a rotating strike masterclass to go an unbeaten 31-ball 44. At frequent points during her innings, she came forward on the leg side to hit upside down and access the coverage region, both off-spin and mid-pace.

Rodrigues knows she’s not a power hitter, but she’s aware of the damage she can inflict by relying on her old-school virtues of timing and hand-eye coordination, which she credits to his penchant for hockey.

India may have been dreaming of at least 180 as they went 64 unbeaten after the power play, but those hopes soon hit a snag. Rodrigues was in the middle at a stage where the innings needed calm. She provided that, and when it was time to begin, she did so while trusting in her own ways. That turned out to be the difference between India finishing with 145 and making 164.

Contributions from Mandhana and Rodrigues, good friends and West Zone teammates long before they played for India, gave a glimpse of a potential shift in India’s overall T20 game away from conservatism and towards a more future-oriented.

This approach got them into the gold medal game; if Mandhana and Rodrigues can deliver in this game on Sunday, they could well start a new chapter in Indian women’s cricket.

Shashank Kishore is Senior Deputy Editor at ESPNcricinfo

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