The calm called Smriti Mandhana

WPL 2024 - FINAL

"I was really calm today, which was a real learning for me" - Mandhana after RCB's title win.

Calmness as a trait has been frequently spoken of in Royal Challengers Bangalore's comeback tale in Women's Premier League 2024.

After RCB had qualified for the playoffs, Ellyse Perry credited new coach Luke Williams for bringing a sense of calm this season. Williams observed the same of Smriti Mandhana's captaincy ahead of the Eliminator. And in turn, Mandhana recognised it as her team's strength before and after winning the finale.

And championship-winning captain Mandhana was indeed a picture of absolute calm through the ebbs and flows of the title clash against Delhi Capitals, and the frenzy that followed after.

She traced the trajectory of the Shafali Verma six, that sailed over the bowler's head, like a kid following a shooting star in the night sky and then ran immediately to have a word with a dejected Renuka Thakur. She helplessly watched DC plunder 61 off the powerplay and in the strategic time out led the team talk on sticking to their guts, and plans. When she saw Asha Sobhana also charging in for a catch towards covers that was always hers to take, Mandhana first sounded a note of caution to her bowler, barely avoiding a collision, before getting in a group hug with her to celebrate the key wicket it was.

Her composure shone through the handy knock of 31 (39 balls) in RCB's final-over chase of Delhi's 113 - the skipper refraining from any of the flashy shots she tends to lose her wicket to after getting her eyes in. She wasn't among those ready to run in the moment the ball left Richa Ghosh's bat and crossed over the fence on one bounce. She wasn't a part of the first mid-pitch huddle where Ghosh and non-striker Perry were joined in by their Indian teammates. She wasn't even among the second batch, or the third. Mandhana instead took a second-row seat in the dugout since her dismissal, put her arms up in jubilation seeing Ghosh complete "some unfinished business" and first congratulated each of the staff and management before becoming the last to cross the ropes and join the team's celebrations.

If there was one frame to epitomise how she's quickly grasped the "ins and outs of captaincy", to borrow Meg Lanning's words, this was it.

Once the customary handshakes with the opposition camp were done, Mandhana walked straight up to the dressing room and sat there in silence. Loud celebrations aren't her thing; "maybe some defect," she joked later. As Shreyanka Patil turned a choreographer for her teammates, trying to get them to shake a leg to the Academy Award-winning song Natu Natu, Mandhana stood by the Capitals dugout, embracing her India teammates in a consolatory hug.

The same level-headedness was on display when Mandhana ranked the elusive win for RCB as among her top-five career highs before finally ending its supporters' decade-plus long wait of hearing the words: "Ee Sala Cup Namdu [this year, the cup is ours]".

Moments later, a bashful smile turned into a full blown laughter as the trophy, now adoring only the red ribbons, was put on display next to her. Even with the adrenaline rush of becoming the first RCB captain to lift a trophy for the franchise in 17 years, she remained mindful of giving a shout-out to the entire fanbase foremost, while also keeping her sights set on the bigger prize i.e. a World Cup for India.

"More than anything, the way the fans have turned up in each and every match - be it in Bangalore or Delhi... and the management... they've gone through so much in the last 15 years being so close and all of that. They've just been amazing throughout. Even last year, when we were not doing well, the only conversation they had was 'Are you okay?' which meant a lot as a player.

"When the management shows that kind of (faith), there's something you want to play for and win for. First thought for me was, 'Wow the fans of RCB as a franchise are going to be so happy. The management are all in tears'. I was really happy to see them and this whole group. We've been through a lot in this tournament from the time when we didn't know we'd make the Eliminator, to that crazy Eliminator and then this final. The whole group just stuck at it. One thing we did for sure was flight back. Even today, I think we fought back really well. Maybe it is difficult for me to individually express, but there's a lot of gratitude for the fans and the franchise as a whole and this whole group," Mandhana said, the trophy in tow.

Perhaps all this composure was a smidge easier for a captain whose team took total control of proceedings ever since they put a forgetful first powerplay behind them. That she was able to do that on Sunday night captured very well how she consigned the disappointment of the inaugural year to the past and got back to her jovial demeanour and self-deprecating humour, which had almost gone missing in the previous campaign.

How Mandhana turned the fortunes around for her team lay in making the right choices even before the WPL kicked off. After spending India's off-season at The Hundred, she sunk into the assignment to repay the management's faith. She skipped the 2023 WBBL as a conscious choice in order to partake in the Indian domestic white-ball season and know her teammates, and opponents, better. Navigating through the lows of five consecutive defeats first year into franchise leadership that admittedly "changed something deep within" to this absolute high in the matter of just 12 months, it has been quite the learning curve, with lessons aplenty.

"The one thing I've learnt is to believe in myself," Mandhana said after RCB's title clinching eight-wicket win at the Arun Jaitley Stadium. "I thought that's something that I lacked. Last year when it did go wrong, I doubted myself. That was a real conversation internally that I need to keep trusting myself. That was the biggest learning for me.

"Even today, six overs 60 [runs] - we'd planned a few things which didn't go our way. A few field sets didn't go our way. But the only thing which stayed constant was the belief I had. I was not really panicked. I was really calm today, which was a real learning for me. That was great. I could have that clear conversation with the bowlers because the Indian batters were coming [to bat]. So I spoke to them about bowling certain balls and seeing what they do. Eventually those wickets came. So, it was about being very clear [instead] when that panic button is pressed. Most importantly, it was about keeping faith in myself and my team."

While Mandhana was all smiles after the victory, it definitely must not have been easy being Meg Lanning after Delhi Capitals were completely outplayed to concede a second straight WPL title; both times after qualifying directly.

Yet, Lanning plastered a smile on her face as she congratulated the opponents and the officials, before sprinting off to the DC dugout. In solitude, the Orange Cap she donned, and conceded, during RCB's chase bore the brunt of her wrath. Quite uncharacteristically, Lanning flung it hard on the floor in frustration before bringing on her DC cap. By the time the cameras turned their focus on the losing camp, the tears had started flowing even as Lisa Keightley and Annabel Sutherland stood by, trying to pacify. As much as she tried to hide it, it was a rare show of emotions from a usually stoic Lanning whose all-conquering aura was challenged for the second successive year.

The Australian was among the first to check in on Mandhana when the times were tough last year. Rest assured, the RCB skipper too will be dropping by soon enough.