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India batter is costliest player in women's cricket

Published on 2023-06-04 16:40:14 source:NBC News

India opener Smriti Mandhana made history this week by becoming the most expensive player in women's cricket. Sports writer Annesha Ghosh profiles the poster girl of the India team.

It's hard to tell if it's a group of Smriti Mandhana's ardent fans or her team-mates who were hollering at the sight of the 26-year-old batter on Monday.

What's unmistakable in the video clip is the excitement that enveloped the first-of-its-kind event in women's cricket - a player auction for the inaugural Women's Premier League (WPL).

In the video, India's T20 World Cup squad members in South Africa cheer, whistle and scream as the bidding war for Mandhana unfolds on a big screen during a watch party at the team's hotel.

In a matter of minutes, Mandhana, the first name to go under the hammer, becomes the Twenty20 league's most expensive buy. After a fierce two-way battle with Mumbai Indians, Royal Challengers Bangalore bought her for a staggering $413,000 (£340,000).

She is all but certain to lead the team in the five-side, 23-day competition that kicks off on 4 March in Mumbai.

"Before leaving for South Africa, my son, Smriti and I had a casual chat at our home about the WPL auction. We predicted she would attract the highest bid," the batter's father Shriniwas Mandhana told the BBC.

"I am a proud dad, not just because I got the prediction right but also to see her reach where no woman has been before. That bid, her name - it's historic."

That Mandhana is now on top of the list of cricket royalty in the women's game is largely down to the grounding in cricket Shriniwas gave his daughter.

It was his enthusiasm for the sport that brought cricket into Mandhana and her elder brother Shravan's life.

But Shriniwas did not stop there. Resolved to make them well-equipped to stand a chance to play cricket for India, he got both his naturally right-handed children to become left-handed batters.

"Being a leftie gives anyone an edge in cricket, but even more so if you are from a country like India where the competition is so huge," says Shriniwas, a textile businessman.

"In retrospect, I can only be glad I made that decision because it is her batting that's brought her to where she is."

Mandhana, who opens the batting for India, has a combined 6,049 runs from her 193 international appearances across the three formats, including five one-day international hundreds and a Test century.

"Her batting combines grace and style with power. She's consistent against all kinds of bowling attacks. She's also a good student of the game," says former cricketer Mamatha Maben.

A sought-after name on the franchise cricket circuit, Mandhana has played in the Kia Super League, The Hundred in the UK and the Women's Big Bash League in Australia.

Mandhana started playing cricket when she was about six years old and has reached many a milestone in her career since her teens.

Widely considered a prodigy, she became the first Indian woman to hit a double century in under-19 cricket, representing Maharashtra, as a 17-year-old. Memorably, she achieved the feat with a bat given by former India men's captain Rahul Dravid to her brother, a former under-19 cricketer himself.

She had made her limited-overs international debut, against Bangladesh in India, earlier in the year. And anchored in an appetite to make a name for herself as a cricketer, Mandhana has continued to evolve steadily.

"She was a very obedient student when she first came to me," said Anant Tambwekar, a former cricketer who plied his trade at the university level in India and minor counties in the UK before turning to coaching.

He has worked with Mandhana since her father brought her to him as a 12-year-old. Until then, he had only been Shravan's coach at the district level in Sangli, a small city in the western Indian state of Maharashtra both the Mandhanas and Tambwekar call home.

"Even after all these years, despite everything she has achieved at such a young age, she puts her cricket and the discipline it requires for one to succeed and then sustain that success, at the front and centre of her life," he said.

"That is what will fuel the next phase of her career as women's cricket comes more into the spotlight."

Indeed, Mandhana's accomplishments in her decade-long international career have been impressive - especially so since the 2017 ODI World Cup in England, where she played a pivotal role in India's breakout campaign which culminated in a runners-up finish.

Then in February 2019, she topped the ICC Rankings for batters in T20s for the first time.

She is the only woman other than Australia allrounder Ellyse Perry, whom she'll share the dressing room with at the WPL, to be named the ICC Women's Cricketer of the Year more than once.

She first achieved the feat in 2018 at age 22, when she was also adjudged the ICC ODI Cricketer of the Year, and then again in 2021.

Last year, on the back of 594 runs in 21 innings, she dominated the run charts in T20s among players from full member nations and was named on both the ICC ODI and T20 Teams of the Year.

A Player-of-the-Match-winning 32-ball 61 at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games semi-final against hosts England, where India won the silver, was the centrepiece of her prolific run in 2022.

Her other notable performances from last year include an unbeaten half-century in the final of India's victorious Asia Cup Campaign and a pulsating 49-ball 79 in the second T20 against Australia in Navi Mumbai.

That game marked India's first involvement in a super over - a challenging proposition against the reigning world champions that India conquered by riding Mandhana's ever-evolving fearless big hitting.

Off the field, too, her stocks have risen rapidly over the past six years.

Mandhana now boasts brand associations with high-profile clients like Red Bull and Nike and has appeared on adverts with Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh and and cricket icon MS Dhoni.

With a combined following of nearly 15 million across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter she is one of India's most popular female athletes on social media.

Add to that the prodigious WPL price tag and Mandhana could well go on to become the superstar female cricketer that the women's game in India is yet to see.

"She's a different kind of Indian cricket star - she's stylish in her game and charming and accessible as a person," says sports journalist Sharda Ugra.

"She reminds me that cricket is still fun and played with a sense of joyousness which sometimes goes missing when the lads are playing."

Annesha Ghosh is an independent sports writer

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