'I'm really greedy about batting'
Smriti Mandhana played her first ODI just after the last Women's World Cup, in 2013. But most of India has only just discovered her in this one.
The left-hand opening batsman comes from a family with cricket history: her father played cricket for Sangli and was in line to make the Maharashtra Ranji squad, and her older brother played for Maharashtra Under-19s.
Mandhana has played a key role in some famous Indian victories since her debut: the Test win against England on their shores, and the away T20I series win against Australia last year. She was a big part of India's plans going into the 2017 Women's World Cup, but those plans seemed in jeopardy when she ruptured an anterior-cruciate ligament while playing in the Women's Big Bash League in January. After surgery in Melbourne and intensive rehab at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru, Mandhana celebrated her return to Indian colours with 90 off 72 against England, followed by another hundred against West Indies. ESPNcricinfo caught up with her at the County Ground In Derby, to talk about an eventful 2017.
The last six months have been quite a journey for you, and now you have your first World Cup century. What was going through your mind when you went out to bat and India lost two early wickets?
When two wickets fell, there weren't a lot of runs on the board, so we needed a good partnership, and getting out at that moment was not an option. So I restricted my shots a bit. Mithali di was guiding me very well, telling me to concentrate on singles, because they had spread the field for me. Initially, for the first two overs, I panicked a bit. By panicked, I mean I thought, "Now I must not get out." Because we were already under pressure after losing two wickets in a row.
Your bat has been making good sounds, and the flow has looked good. Since when has it felt this way?
Since I started batting after getting injured, I've had a good feel. The first day, I thought that I won't even be able to connect, but surprisingly I middled everything. I guess there is a hunger after not batting for many days, that [feeling that] finally I'm getting to bat. I thought I connected well.
Can you describe the first day you batted after injury? What was the first shot you played?
It was a front-foot cover drive. I was in Sangli, I had gone there for ten days to give my exams. I thought, "Let's play at least 15-20 balls and see." I called Anant [Tambwekar, her coach]. I was doing a session with him after almost a year. He was excited, I also was excited.
I started with underarm lobs. The first ball I connected, I felt, "Wow, that feel was really good." I'm so greedy about batting that I had never missed a single day before. So not batting for three months was a huge thing. More than the injury, I was feeling bad that I can't bat. After I heard that sound, I slept well that night.
How did your batting progress over the next few months?
The first 20 to 30 days, I was only allowed throwdowns. Out of these, the first five days were underarm, and then slowly overarm throwdowns. I was still not allowed to bat in the nets, which needs quick movements. With throwdowns, you expect the ball, and the movement isn't that quick.
Initially only front-foot batting was allowed for the first few days, since my back foot was the one that was injured. So the first six days I played front-foot shots. Then slowly I started underarm back-foot shots, and it progressed: first underarm back-foot from a short distance, then with a leather ball. Before coming to England, I practised with a plastic ball to train for the conditions.
It was like the way we start for little children: hanging ball, stationary, throwdowns. I did throwdowns first because the physios wanted to see how my reaction is. Then after 15 to 20 days, when I settled down with throwdowns, I did hanging ball and stationary.
Were you nervous before the team was announced? Were you uncertain if you would make it?
Yes, I was. Firstly because the openers had done really well. One thought in my mind was that the selectors would not want me, because already everything was settled. Secondly because I didn't have match practice. Four, four and a half months, no match practice. And generally, after an injury, they say that one should start from domestic again, just to, you know, get that confidence back. So I had a doubt in my mind as to whether they will go for me directly for the World Cup. I'm thankful that they had the faith in me, despite not playing for four to five months, and despite the openers doing well, they supported me.
There must have been a fitness test before the selection meeting?
Before the selection meeting, NCA sent a mail to the selectors saying I would be fit by the time the camp for the World Cup started. They sent my videos, details of what I was doing, everything. The team was announced quite early [15th May].The day the team was announced, I was not match-fit. Because it was early. But they had sent a mail that I would be fit by so and so date. So that was according to NCA procedure.
Is coming back from injury like this a lonely and insecure process?
It is, because first of all you are not able to move. Second thing, no matter how great a player you are, when someone takes your place… I was feeling happy that India is winning, but somewhere it was like, the spot that I have made my own for two years, did I lose it with this injury? So that is somewhere in the mind. Of course I was really happy for them [the openers].
And nothing is in your hand. When you are dropped from the team, you know you can go back, work hard, do running, work with dedication, and then you have your chances. This time I wanted to, but still I could not do too much running.
Initially when I started running, it was with just two strides. Even if I wanted, even if I heard motivational music, I could not do more than two strides. So it's really not in your hand. But I accepted the fact that it's not in my hand. What was in my hand was how I progressed when I got the green signal. So I didn't think about it that much, which is a good thing. I didn't sit crying, "Why did this happen?" I had other issues to deal with.
I started concentrating more on my diet, which would not have happened if I wasn't injured. In fitness, I did 40% more than what I used to do before.
The biggest lesson was that when you're out of form, your mindset is to keep thinking about things like "I've not scored, I've not scored." And you don't really concentrate on the fact that you're actually running around. Earlier I used to put a lot of pressure on myself if I had not scored. I would go into a shell, then I would go in to the next match in that zone. Now it's not like that. If I don't score, I know I'm at least running, doing everything else. So I just be grateful and keep playing. The day will come when I score runs again.
How did your diet change?
They aren't significant changes. I've not gone gluten-free or anything. But I've definitely cut down on maida [wheat flour], butter, cheese and sugar. I could not do without four spoons of sugar in tea. Now I drink green tea.
You've spent almost five whole months at the NCA.
Yes, I went home only for my exams. Besides that I was completely at NCA. But I wasn't homesick, because my mother or father was there, and having relatives in Bangalore really helped.
Quite the cricketing family?
For them, my cricket is their cricket. More than me thinking about cricket, they think about it. When I go out to bat, they are more nervous than me. I'm bindaas (cool). Aai used to make food for me in the hotel we were in, so I could get a good diet and didn't have to eat out. I fought with her so much, but she would say, "You have to eat this." Whatever I am, it is because of them. Their dedication is more than mine.
Former India bowler Snehal Pradhan is now a freelance cricket writer