Amidst shared admiration Lanning and Mandhana eye top prize


Lanning and Mandhana were effusive in praise of each other.

"The 2016 tour was the first time I was playing Australia in Australia and I remember she had properly flicked a pace bowler over fine leg for a six, and I was like 'oh, that's some shot!'" Smriti Mandhana said, pointing to keenly listening Meg Lanning, before quickly adding with a chuckle, "She probably won't remember that."

It's usually Mandhana who's at the receiving end of such quips, blessed as she is with a forgetful memory by her own admission. But some memories leave indelible impressions. For a teenaged, bespectacled Mandhana, it was Lanning stamping her class and, ever so quietly, becoming the benchmark to beat.

Mandhana would go on to show her own mettle later in that series - a maiden international century against Australia in their backyard that opened up the world of league-cricket opportunities for the left-hander in the years to follow.

Today, Mandhana is amongst the most sought-after signatures in franchise cricket, a double Rachael Heyhoe-Flint award winner, the national vice-captain and, now, another high-profile name in the long list of Lanning admirers.

The appreciation that began in Australia eight years ago for Lanning the batter was reinforced last year, for Lanning the captain as well.

As Royal Challengers Bangalore's sorry campaign virtually drew to a close with their fifth successive defeat upfront in 2023, against Delhi Capitals, Lanning dropped by for a quick chat with her counterpart. While not entirely new to the rigors of captaincy, Mandhana, 26, had had a tough initiation to the job as high-profile. The Australian, who got the top-job most unexpectedly at 21, sure understood the pressures that come with. That quick check in, and a brief conversation that followed, in turn taught the RCB captain "how to look after others from opposition teams if they're not doing well".

This respect is purely mutual. Cut to a year later, on the eve of the 2024 WPL final in Delhi, Lanning went on to narrate how Mandhana's name - rather, threat - frequently popped up in Australia's team meetings. She gave another shout-out to her co-finalist for keeping fellow captains on their toes on grounds with uneven boundaries and then another for shepherding RCB's remarkable resurgence in only a year from that forgetful month in Mumbai.

On the face of it, there's a lot similar between the two. Both abundantly talented batters are head and shoulders above their peers in their own right. Both wear their accomplishments as lightly as air. Usually self-effacing, both also have an excellent gift of repartee.

"Oh, she's spoken really nicely about me, so I better go back with it," laughed Lanning, before leaning into the cricket talk. "She's on her own leadership journey as well, I guess, going through the ups and downs, and it sounds like Smriti is really starting to understand the ins and outs of that and, obviously, has done an excellent job with RCB this year."

Under the similarly calm exterior though are two very different women on their own contrasting paths to the WPL throne. One is a captain in waiting, the other a captain who's made it - and then some. One arguably the best tactician of the women's game who has a point to prove in the freelance world, and the other starting to learn the ropes in this cutthroat circuit.

"I think we give a lot of importance to the role of captain. The captain is only as good as her team," Mandhana said, earning Lanning's nod of approval. "Nothing changes tomorrow as well," she said, looking forward to RCB's maiden final. "We are playing a good Delhi Capitals side which has played some amazing cricket not just this season but also last season.

"One thing cricket has taught us is that it is important to live in the present, that what's gonna happen. I don't think I will be thinking - or any of the teammates, nor did I ever have a chat with any of the other Indian team-mates about how we outsmart them. It's just about playing good cricket on that day," Mandhana added, flanked by the WPL trophy on one side and Lanning on the other.

The Australian concurred.

"It's about the team we are coming up against. My prep doesn't change depending on who we are playing. For me it is about going in being as prepared as I can be, as we can be as a team. I have played a lot of cricket now, and have learnt that no matter how much planning you do, the game always pans out differently than you think and you have got to be able to adapt on the run and think on your feet.

"We have seen throughout the tournament there has been some crazy cricket and crazy finishes. I am expecting nothing less tomorrow, we are coming up against RCB who have played some excellent cricket. They have got match-winners, they have shown they can play great cricket when under the pump. What a great challenge for our group to go out there and take them on," the 31-year-old multiple World Cup-winner said.

One of the several things Mandhana and Lanning mutually bonded over, during the course of their 15-minute pre-final press interaction, was the nightmare of the uneven boundary sizes. Consecutive games across both venues of WPL 2024 meant deployment of multiple pitches, making some boundaries as short as 43m on one side more often than not.

"There's a lot of planning that goes on when it's 40m on one side. I feel it is a lot of headache... a nightmare to understand which end to bowl your spinners or pacers from," Mandhana said, to which Lanning agreed.

"That is one thing I haven't necessarily enjoyed as a captain," the DC captain said, cracking Mandhana up. "We could look at potentially having slightly bigger boundaries [neat year onwards]... But there's so much more power and strength in the game now that people are clearing the ropes pretty easily. It is entertaining and is same for both sides, so you can't complain too much. But, yes, I have lost a lot of sleep over games where there's only a 40m boundary on one said, especially when there's left-handers like Smriti making it even worse," she remarked, bringing another shy smile on Mandhana's face.

This mutual admiration society will adjourn for a day now. There's a final to be played and some last punches to be thrown at each other for the bragging rights to that glittering trophy. One that can prove to either be the only absent piece of silverware in Lanning's overflowing trophy cabinet or the first one in Mandhana's.