Column | Smriti Mandhana - pure class

Smriti Mandhana
Smriti Mandhana has been India's star batter for quite some time. File photo: IANS

Of the many innovations that have taken place in cricket, the concept of a Test match played during day and night, using a pink ball is the newest one. Kerry Packer-sponsored World Series Cricket (WSC) had popularised limited overs cricket played with a white-ball under floodlights wherein players wore coloured clothing. This came to be accepted in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) from 1980s onwards as more and more games came to be played under lights and gradually became the norm even in such matches played during the day as well. Since T20 cricket is a 21st century phenomenon, it never had a phase where games were played using the traditional red-coloured ball.

It was Test cricket, the oldest and most conventional form of cricket, that resisted change the most. It was only in 2015 that a Test match was played as a day-night game. Since administrators did not wish to change the dress code of white clothing in these games, it was decided to use a pink-coloured ball, which had better visibility under the floodlights. There was resistance from many a quarter about tampering with this format of the game and hence only there have only been 16 pink-ball Tests during the six years since November, 2015, when Australia took on New Zealand in the first game of this type at Adelaide. Out of these 16 matches, two were played at Dubai.

One interesting piece of statistics that emerged on going through the details of the 16 games is that all of them produced a result. Further, after discounting the Tests played at the neutral location of Dubai, 13 out of the remaining 14 matches were won by the home side, except on the solitary occasion when Sri Lanka defeated an obviously inferior West Indies at Bridgetown, Barbados, in June, 2018. The “home” advantage is inbuilt into the structure of Test cricket as the hosts, besides being more familiar with the weather and ground conditions, are allowed to prepare pitches to suit their strengths and exploit the weakness of the visitors. However, conventional Test matches played using red ball have never been so skewed in favour of the host team as has been the case with those played using the pink one.

The above data was discussed to highlight the significance of the result achieved by the Indian women against their Australian counterparts in the pink-ball Test played between the two teams at Carrara during the week that went by. Not only did India hold Australia to a draw, they had the better of the exchanges during most part of the game and might even have scripted a win had inclement weather not acted as the spoilsport. This is an important achievement that goes in step with the strides made by the women’s side in international cricket during the last decade.

Smriti Mandhana
Smriti Mandhana drives one through the off side. File photo: Twitter/ICC

The star of the show for India was the opening batter Smriti Mandhana, who struck a polished century in the first innings. Australia won the toss but their skipper Meg Lanning asked India to bat first, thinking that the visitors would be all at sea against the pink ball. But Mandhana put paid to all such hopes and played an innings of character that saw her break the prevailing record for the highest score ever by a visiting batter in Australia. The opening pair of Mandhana and Shafali Verma put on 93 runs, thus denying the hosts whatever advantage they were seeking when they chose to bowl first. Here also Mandhana was the more active partner so much so that she was unbeaten on 42 when Indian total reached 50! The pair added runs briskly and when the drinks break was taken at the end of first hour, by which time 15 overs were bowled, the total had reached 70, with Mandhana completing a half-century. When India ended that day on a satisfactory note with the total reading 132 for one wicket, Mandhana was unbeaten with 80 runs to her credit.

Mandhana slowed down the pace of her run making on second day and duly completed her century, which came off 170 balls, with 18 hits to the boundary and one six. She continued to be the dominant partner in the second wicket stand with Punam Raut till she was dismissed for 127, with the side’s total at 193. Raut and Mithali Raj put their heads down and ensured that neither the dismissal of Mandhana nor the interruptions on account of rain would swing the tempo in favour of the hosts. Later Deepti Sharma scored a patient 66 which helped the visitors to reach a total of 377/8 before skipper Mithali Raj declared the innings closed.

The Indian bowlers kept the Aussie batters on a leash right from the beginning with Jhulan Goswami, Meghna Singh, Pooja Vastrakar and Deepti picking up wickets. Except for Elysee Perry with an unbeaten 68, and Ashley Garner, who scored a chancy 51, none of the others could get going. When the ninth wicket fell, with the total at 241, Lanning declared the innings. However, by that time only less than two sessions of play remained and hence a draw appeared to be the only possible result. India batted for 37 overs to reach 131/3 before Mithali declared the innings and the hosts were 36/2 when stumps were finally drawn.

Hailing from Sangli district of Maharashtra, Mandhana entered the record books when she became the first Indian woman to score a double century in limited overs cricket - a feat she achieved when she scored 224 for her home state against Gujarat in the under-19 championship in October, 2013. She made her debut in Test cricket the very next year when she opened the batting for India against England at Wormsley Park. She was named in the International Cricket Council (ICC) Team of the Year for 2016 and won the CEAT International cricketer award in 2019. She also became the youngest woman cricketer to lead India when she captained the national T20 side during the series against England in 2019, at the age of 22 years and 229 days. In her international career spanning almost eight years, she has scored more than 4,600 runs and, more importantly, shown that she is adept at adjusting her batting style to suit the requirements of all three formats of the game.

India’s performance in this Test as well as the one played in England in June, 2021, throws up the question as to why our women’s team is playing so few Tests. It was surprising to read that Indian eves had not played a Test match since 2014, when they took on South Africa at home. Incidentally India played in two Tests in 2014, which came after a long gap of eight years as the previous game was played in 2006. It was in November, 2006, that Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) took over the responsibility of conducting women’s cricket in the country. But surprisingly, this has not resulted in increase in number of Test matches played by the national women’s team though it must be stated that organisation and conduct of games improved by leaps and bounds, as have the remunerations of the players. The performance of the Indian eves in international limited overs cricket too has hit an upward curve. Hence one hopes that the class shown by the side in the two Test matches in England and Australia will spur the BCCI to organise more such games for the women’s team as well.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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