cricket:image:1439195 [900x506]
cricket:image:1439195 [900x506] (Credit: BCCI)

MLB draft tracker Day 1 analysis results for every 2024 draft pick

Smriti Mandhana, Asha Sobhana and Bengaluru. It is beginning to feel like a love affair.

Not long ago, these two players were playing in front of a packed Chinnaswamy Stadium crowd, in red and black jerseys, scripting history for Royal Challengers Bengaluru. Just like it did with Virat Kohli, the city has quickly adopted Mandhana as its star in women's cricket after she was signed up at the inaugural WPL auction last year.

This love and support is evident in the city and on social-media platforms. During the WPL, only one kind of replica RCB jersey is sold outside the stadium: 'SMRITI 18'. When India's multi-format series against South Africa began in Bengaluru, it wasn't a surprise that 'SMRITI 18' was all over Cubbon Road and Queen's Road once again, albeit in blue.

As for Asha, RCB helped her go from uncapped legspinner to India international after years of toil in domestic cricket.

On Sunday, Bengaluru witnessed these two star as India dominated South Africa in the first ODI. Mandhana made her first ODI century at home, 11 years after making her debut, and Asha picked up a four-wicket haul in her maiden ODI appearance.

"After WPL, it feels like I have moved to Bangalore from Maharashtra," Mandhana, who hails from Sangli, said after the game. "[I] really like the crowd support here."

****

The last time the city hosted a women's ODI was in 2015. Mandhana had played only seven ODIs then and was wearing rim-free glasses, trying to make the opening slot her own under Mithali Raj. Now, coming into the first ODI, Mandhana had featured in 82 ODIs, smashed five hundreds in 50-overs cricket and was India's vice-captain. She had also led RCB to their first title in WPL 2024.

But after several months of T20 cricket, it was not easy for an attacking player like Mandhana to curb her instincts heading into an ODI series. "No funky shots", she told herself. This became her primary focus in India's batter-specific camp in Mumbai ahead of the home series. She worked on hitting balls along the ground for a week and a half to train herself to not throw away her wicket.

The results were there to be seen.

With India reduced to 99 for 5 after opting to bat, Mandhana anchored them to a total of 265 for 8 with a well-made 117. She fought cramps on a hot and humid afternoon and curbed the temptation to take the aggressive route.

"It was not a bad wicket to bat on," Mandhana said, but variable bounce meant some balls kept low and some took off from the surface.

The pull shot was a feature of Mandhana's innings in which 66 of her runs came on the leg side. South Africa stuck to the stump-to-stump line, denying India easy runs, but Mandhana led the rescue act alongside Deepti Sharma, with whom she put on 81 for the sixth wicket. Pooja Vastrakar then joined Mandhana in putting on 58 off just 54 balls.

"Well, I haven't really thought about it [an ODI century at home] a lot," Mandhana said. "I was really mad with myself in the last four-five years, to be precise. Whenever I played at home, be it Tests or one-dayers, I ended up scoring 70-80, throwing away my wicket. So, more than scoring it in India or abroad, I was really happy that I could get the team through today. The whole team played good cricket. Pleased to know that [a century at home] has happened and hope that it keeps coming.

"Deepti and I kept telling each other to take it till the 35th over in singles and twos. [Scoring] five or six runs per over was the focus because they had spread the field. Playing ODI cricket after a long time, in the nets, it was hard to keep my shots under control. After playing T20 cricket like we have for the last five-six months, it's hard to control your shots. [In] the last eight days, the focus has been to keep the ball on the ground. We had a really good batting camp in Mumbai."

Breaking down her innings, Mandhana explained that whenever she felt like taking on the bowlers after "timing the ball well", India lost a wicket at the other end, and this "helped me to stay on the crease more because sometimes I have a thing to go after the bowlers in 70-80s and make some error."

With this hundred, Mandhana went past Harmanpreet Kaur's five and moved one behind Raj's seven centuries, the most by an India batter in Women's ODIs. With a home ODI World Cup slated for next year, she couldn't have timed her century better.

****

Where the Chinnaswamy surfaces are usually batting-friendly in T20s, it was different on Sunday, when both the seamers and spinners found help under lights. The ball spun more in the second innings, and the new-ball pair of Vastrakar and Renuka Singh troubled South Africa's top order with their swing and seam movement.

After India reduced the visitors to 33 for 3, Asha turned on the magic with her legspin. While many players find the transition from domestic to international difficult, it was seamless for the 33-year-old who has decades of bowling experience.

At the ground where she became the first Indian to take a five-wicket haul in the WPL, Asha once again proved she was ready for the big stage.

With the pitch offering turn, Asha did not want to do "anything extraordinary." She stuck to a tight line and length while ever so often going slower and wider outside off to deceive the batters. This worked against Marizanne Kapp, who looked set on 24 and was building a steady partnership with Sune Luus. Kapp went for a drive and was caught at cover to give Asha her maiden ODI wicket and leave South Africa reeling at 72 for 4.

Asha removed Masabata Klaas with another slow and flighted ball, bowled Nonkululeko Mlaba after she missed a slog sweep, and then had Ayabonga Khaka top-edge a short ball to pick up her fourth. In no time, South Africa were all-out for 122 in 37.4 overs.

"I just kept it simple, I wanted to bowl in the right areas, I was in a good rhythm, I wanted to continue," Asha said after the game. "I have been practising this legspin for years, I did not want to do anything extraordinary, wanted to focus on the basics and my strengths. There was a lot of turn on the wicket. I did not want to give space to the batters, wanted to vary the pace, and pull the length back at some time so that the batters wouldn't have so much time to see my variations.

"This stadium is very special for me, amazing experience being here, by the grace of God everything went well."

Mandhana, under whom Asha played two seasons of WPL at RCB, had a word of praise of her.

"The kind of experience she has, I don't know what nerves she will have," she said. "I have seen her journey in the last two years. I had seen her in 2018 or 2017, she was playing [Senior Women's] Challengers, and I went 'Oh wow, she can actually turn the ball!'

"The way she bowled today, turning square, I'm happy that she is on my team because whenever I face her at the nets, being a leftie against a legspinner, she doesn't give anything easy, it's hard to hit her over the top. That's the first thing I saw in the WPL prep. It's really hard because being a leftie I love legspinners and I couldn't go over the top to Asha. This also shows what strengths she has."

Those strengths were in full display on Sunday, and Bengaluru, already thrilled by Mandhana's efforts earlier in the day, were off their seats once more to cheer a hometown hero.