Irrespective of what age you are – unless you're a bubbling infant – you've had a celebrity crush. The movie industry, with its bustling and near-perfect superstars, fanboyed to the point of exasperation, would be an obvious choice, but the musicians were a thing too. As for Smriti Mandhana, there are no second thoughts – it was always Hrithik Roshan..
Her Twitter bio, set up in 2014, reads, "Member Team Maharashtra, India Women, Hobart Hurricanes (WBBL). Managed by Basin Venture", before signing off with her contact address. Overhead is a cropped out picture of her in a scarlet hoodie, surrounded by weight sets, eyes transfixed at the camera, with her jet black hair tied in a nice, gleaming bun.
Of all her recent teammates, she is the umpteenth one to be working in collaboration with a managing company, but the fourth to be associated with Basin Venture. The other three are Jemimah Rodrigues, Radha Yadav, and Shafali Verma. Instantly, something common between the four shoots up in mind.
One is a nineteen-year old, a bundle of energy unafraid of conferring herself with the "Best game on SM" title, and contriving an award ceremony in which she picks her nose and wails in high pitch imitating a toddler. The other ia self-abnegating lower class Indian daughter who uses her first salary to build her dad a grocery. Verma, on the other hand, epitomises the youthfulness of sport. They all stand for the different planes of a new-age India.
The fourth girl is a member of that quartet in a different way. Mandhana is tall, young, articulate, sporty, hilarious, laconic, refined, and beautiful – the key requisites to being a popular high schooler or college girl. She dresses in sweatshirts and walks in manly gait. Her hair is cropped short, and she uses contact lenses over glasses. She represents the glamourous part of a country doused in its vicariousness, thanks to the movie industry she crushes on. And hers is a face an audience would hardly mind seeing on ad boards, hoardings, and television ads.
A similar question popped up in her recent #AskSmriti session. When asked whether she will soon be seen in the movies, Smriti uncharacteristically offers a dead bat, sniggering, "I don't think anybody will come to the theatre to watch me. So I guess I should not expect it". She is down to earth to the point that she might find oil very soon.
What she has found, rather, or carved out to be precise, is a niche for herself in India's social media dais. With only 262 tweets, she is more Taylor Swift than Katy Perry when it comes to social media. If cricket were a Harry Potter book series, she'd be Parvati Patil, with limited scenes under her belt but vital moments to paint.
With appearances in Gaurav Kapoor's Breakfast with Champions, Vikram Sathaye's What the Duck!, Cricbuzz's Spicy Pitch, and ESPN's Colour Me Blue among others, repeating the same, odd stories, like her fear of being forgetful, Jemimah Rodrigues, and the exponential rise of her Instagram account overnight, she makes herself a brand worth investing in, a 100% concoction of talent, beauty, and India's unforgettable craze: cricket.
She pounces on another question asking her about the messiest person in the dressing room, shooting that Harmanpreet Kaur gives her tight competition. Elsewhere, Jaydev Unadkat asks her if Rodrigues' playlist is more complete than her own, and she replies 'no' with a capital N.
It takes one's mind to her appearance in Sathaye's WTD!, when she revealed how she'd taunt the usually stoical and unassuming (while batting) Kaur and Rodrigues mid-pitch teasing, "Haso na?" ('Why won't you laugh?'). And they'd get furious with her for disrupting their concentration. As they say, every team needs characters, and this Indian side has a bucketload of them.
Five days after her Q&A session, she retweets a BCCI Women post about staying home during these tough times, a convenient marketing strategy taking slight advantage of the social picture with a photograph of Smriti. Here, her hands are folded and she seems grave, as she stands upright tomboyishly against the black background, with light falling on her face from one side.
The women's game in India is at a stage where it commands marketing. After years of oblivion in the eyes of a billion people who did not know that there was an alternate industry they could crush on, an alternate universe to bank on, when this game has finally arrived in India, we can't let it down. And perhaps it is only fitting that the girl who kickstarted it all with her World Cup ton against West Indies, carrying India to the Final and then collapsing like she'd been caught up by an evil spell – just like her male counterpart – is at the centre of it all. Not because she deserves it or the game owes her or she is pretty or there is a fear of the greater oblivion, but merely because women's cricket needs her.
And if it hasn't been made obvious enough already, allow me to prophesise: Smriti Mandhana will soon be Indian cricket's marketing heroine. And unlike her debut ODI match, it will not go into oblivion. Her initials are the same as social media's abbreviations, after all.