For a month while she was in England, playing in the Kia Super League, Smriti Mandhana jived with form. A step out of the crease here, a twist of the hip there, and then the arc her bat made as it twirled, sending the ball to the boundary no less than 66 times. You could set music to her 421 runs in 10 innings, and it would have your head bobbing along. It was the cricketing equivalent of owning the dance floor; everyone stops and turns, just to watch your feet.
She carried those feet to Sri Lanka, scoring 73*, 14 and 51 in the three ODIs. Then in the T20Is, suddenly the music stopped.
Scores of 0, 6 and 5 came in her first three outings, silence perhaps birthing doubt in the mind. So, she might have been forgiven, if in the final T20I, she had taken an over to get set as she searched for the beat again.
Instead, she stepped out on her second ball, and tried to hit the bowler over mid-off.
It didn’t matter that she got out for her second duck in the series. What mattered was her intent, that word used by most but understood only by a few. Understand this: Here was a batter in the form of her life, suddenly faced with three failures. At such times, an itch creeps into the nervous system, tinges of fear appear in the blood. Is it gone? Now, with the biggest T20 tournament under a week away?
How you respond in these situations is intent. And Mandhana chose to be aggressive, to bat like she had scored a hundred in the last innings. She chose the team’s needs, for quick runs to come in the first six overs, over her own reassurance. And this is symbolic of the changed mindset with which the entire Indian team heads into the WT20 2018.
You could see the difference in the first T20I, where India batted like a different team from the one I have been watching over the last year. You could see it in the three consecutive sixes that Jemimah Rodrigues hit, in the insistence on aggression that Taniya Bhatia showed. You could even see it in Mithali Raj as she ran between the wickets, a march hare with young rabbit’s feet, showing a desperation I haven’t seen before. She had a top score of 17, but what the scorecards don’t show is that she never dawdled, she never seemed to be trying to get set.
You could see it in the batting order, with Bhatia given a go at No. 4, in a team that has so far hidden its ‘keepers in the tail. You could see it in the bowling department, with debutante pacer Arundhati Reddy, all of 21, playing every game ahead of the experience of Shikha Pandey, who was eventually dropped from the squad. You could see it in Deepti Sharma being given the new ball, for the first time in her career, in three of the games. You could see it in 18-year old left-arm spinner Radha Yadav, a talented cricketer but an unfinished product, being preferred over the veteran Ekta Bisht.
There is a different air to this Indian team.
The arrival of a new coach in Ramesh Powar is one of the catalysts, but perhaps another is the wake-up call that was the Asia Cup. India lost twice to Bangladesh, including in the final, something that is sure to have prompted introspection within the group. India were falling behind in T20 cricket, the world could see it. Now they seem to have decided to catch up.
This is not to say that India are suddenly the team to beat. They are simply latching on to a trend that the world adopted a while ago, like your reluctant friend who finally joined Twitter. Australia have been experimenting with their batting order for a year, England have let their formulae simmer over the summer. The defending champions, the Windies, are colluding with their home conditions. South Africa’s hitters are ready to take on the year-old playing conditions that allow only four fielders on the boundary in non-powerplay overs. And let’s not forget New Zealand, who India play their first game against, a potential quarterfinal.
With the WT20 now upon us, it remains to be seen if India’s sudden bravado can bear the gaze of the Caribbean sun, where India play their games in the afternoon so that those at home can watch. What happens when there’s an audience of lakhs, not the few score who turned up in Colombo in a non-televised series?
What happens when the expectations of another march to the final, another 171*, are unfairly dredged up. Will Reddy’s inexperience show, will Bhatia’s bat hold its shape? Will Mandhana find the beat again as the best in the world vie for a spot on the floor? So much can change in a month. But then it could also stay the same.
Ramesh Powar’s contract currently runs only until the WT20, but irrespective of what happens in November, he seems to be building a roster for 2020. Could this team be so audacious to think that this tournament doesn’t matter? Could they find that freedom of mind, and carry it onto the field?
If they do, it will be quite the dance.