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Women's Cricket

"Thank you legend" - Mithali Raj's story is the story of Indian women's cricket

As Mithali Raj calls it a day, all we remember is a masterful architect who built the core of Indian women's cricket.

Mithali Raj

Former Indian women's team captain Mithali Raj (ICC)


Pritish Raj

Updated: 8 Jun 2022 2:37 PM GMT

I love stories. Stories have everything, you know. As a child, I loved stories that had happy endings. But as I grew up, I realized stories are not perfect.

So today, I am here to tell you a story with everything, a rough start, a brilliant plot, redemptions, controversies, and an ending that gives you a tear in the eye.

India is a cricket crazy nation, and with the craziness comes the fandom, the expectations, and the pressure to stay on the top, especially in a male-dominated sport where nobody cared (especially in the early days).

Mithali Raj with coach Jyothi Prasad

An eight-year-old girl would finish her homework beside the boundary of St. Johns Cricket Academy in Secunderabad. This was not her punishment. It was an exercise to avoid her eternal love of sleep.

Out of boredom after her homework, the girl would pick a dozen balls and hit them as far as she could. A watchful eye noticed that batting arc, those swift movements, and that step down to hit the ball.

It was enough to convince then coach Jyothi Prasad (the man who gifted India one of the finest pair of wrists in the form of Laxman) that the girl had potential.

From her first love for sleep to her eternal love of cricket, I bet even Jyothi Prasad wouldn't have thought that he was nurturing arguably the greatest ever batter to play cricket, Mithali Raj.

Today Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami stand as the only link between two different eras of women's cricket.

After coming up at Railways in domestic cricket, Mithali was named in the 1997 Cricket World Cup probables at the age of 14. As she failed to make up to the final squad, her story started with a hiccup.

What followed after the 1997 WC was a year of no cricket, players dropping off due to lack of money and serious lack of talent. Amid all this darkness arrived ferociously talented Mithali Raj.

She got her debut in 1999 at Milton Keynes against Ireland. What followed next was certainly a storm nobody expected.

Mithali blazed her way to a whopping 114* and gave everyone a ray of hope which later became a symbol whenever the India's batting order collapsed.

After the rocking start came the big moment which probably every cricketer dreams of – playing in the whites for their country.

At the age of 19, when you go on the big stage, you have stage fright. Proving that she is as mortal as us, she fostered a duck in her first innings in Lucknow.

Mithali travelled to England just after the rains in August 2002. We are talking about times when the Indian men's team travelled to England and returned with results that were only good enough to give nightmares.

Playing her 3rd test, the 19-year-old Indian batter made 214 off 407 deliveries laced 14 fours and some daunting running between the wickets. It was a batting masterclass by the baby face.

She broke the world record surpassing Karen Rolten's 209. She made everyone get up and applaud when an Indian male cricketer found it hard to score in England.

Mithali Raj in action during her 214

The way she made the runs enthralled those on the ground, not the runs themselves. Senior players who had seen her as a miserable and lonely 14-year-old at India's World Cup preparation camp in 1997 were astounded by her strokeplay and assurance.

"How could such a little young kid have such strength?" wondered those who watched her grow into a world-class batter.

Mithali claims she has never been in the same batting zone as she was on that cold Taunton day. The confidence and the masterclass came as a surprise to almost everyone, apart from a few people back in Hyderabad.

Let's rewind a bit.

In 1995, Sampath Kumar, the head coach of Hyderabad's two age-group teams, enrolled Dorai Raj's daughter in training on the recommendation of Jyothi Prasad.

When Sampath saw Mithali bat, he alerted her father, "I need your and your wife's total trust. I require blind backing. By the time Mithali turns 14, I will make her play for the country."

Dorai Raj was skeptical. "He was bluffing. I told my wife. It looked implausible."

Sampath reasoned that he would hit the moon if he shot for the stars. He believed Mithali would make it by 16 if she missed selection at 14.

Mithali's mother, Leela, recalls, "He didn't want to set the bar too low."

Then ten-year-old, Mithali had the tough choice between her love for dance and sleep or cricket. For a 10-year-old to give up on her dream can be shattering (Like it was for me when I gave up on my favorite bat when it broke).

Mithali Raj during her dancing days

A normal childhood was out of the question. Sampath made her practice striking straight in the cramped corridors of her school in addition to six-hour coaching sessions.

When she was selected at the age of 14, everyone thought that Sampath and Mithali's dream to make the international debut at 14 would come true. Like every other story, this one took an unexpected turn.

Sampath died in a road accident, and his favourite disciple, inches behind the first finish line, went numb. A story about to hit the dream end hung loosely over the bridge where one character was gone forever, and the other was overwhelmed and deemed unfit for that level of glory.

Mithali was hired as a clerk on the sports quota by Railways in 2000, thanks to Diana Edulji, a former India captain.

She came across teammates GS Lakshmi and Rajani Venugopal, both of whom were a decade her senior. It was a competitive atmosphere. Venugopal and Mithali competed for a spot on occasion, but their friendship was unaffected. In multiple interviews, Mithali has accepted how these two seniors helped her grow.

By 2003, the Indian squad was incomplete without a certain 21-year-old. Mithali became synonymous with everything around Indian women's cricket.

A captaincy offer was not far away with all the buzz and charisma. Everyone advised her to say yes when it comes, but being the learner she has been, Mithali decided to become the deputy to Mamtha Maben.

No one knew that Mithali rejected the captaincy. At such young age, I am not sure how many people would refuse a responsibility of this stature.

Mithali took the captaincy in 2005 and led India to their first World Cup final – two years after the Indian men's team lost to Australia. Mithali was instrumental in the semis scoring a 91* against New Zealand to steer India into the title contest.

What unfolded in the final was nothing different. It was the same script as the 2003 world cup final. Australia scored big and bundled India to continue its domination.

But what followed next for India was huge. They set a benchmark for the first time in the 30 years of International cricket, which promised a bright future ahead. The biggest of them was the Women's Cricket Association India merger with BCCI.

Women's cricket India was getting the due it deserved in small amounts. But no more a player had to play world cup with a ligament tear as Mithali did in 2005.

Mithali Raj enroute her 91 against New Zealand in the semifinal of 2005 World Cup

With Mithali Raj in the leadership, the Indian Women's team has won four Asia Cup titles. In the Asia Cup 2005-2006, 2006, and 2008 editions, India had defeated Sri Lanka in the finals three times.

Mithali captained India to another podium finish in World Cups where India defeated Australia in 2009 to take mini revenge.

By 2009, Women's cricket started changing significantly, with India producing more talents than ever, and people started following the game.

Meanwhile, Mithali was feeling the strains of her yesteryears when her body started taking a toll at 27. She would spend hours with physiotherapists, the pressure on her knees and the sounds of her getting married because apparently, she was aging at 27.

Mithali's Indian team was dominant in Asia but was always floored by Aussies, Kiwis, and the Brits.

2013 Cricket WC presented a perfect chance for India to excel on the home soil. But like it has happened before in this story, the story twisted and turned with India finishing at 7th among eight teams.

It was a catastrophe and Mithali was deemed responsible. Echoes of captaincy change and a revamp of team India were heard around the corner.

But the first question was, If not Mithali, then who?

With no clear answer, a rebuild happened but with Mithali at the center again, intending to win the 2017 World Cup.

Mithali Raj's Indian team set a record by winning 16 consecutive matches dominating even the mighty Aussies.

2017 World Cup was rumored to be the last dance for one of the game's longest servants. India started the tournament on a high note and went to the finals before faltering at the finish line by the barest of margins.

Yet again, India failed, and Mithali failed.

The nation was shattered, and so were the players. But it was a huge success as the nation found a solid team with another army of superstars in the form of Smriti Mandhana, Harmanpreet Kaur, Punam Raut, and many more.

2017 brought a blemish on Mithali and her legacy when a public spat with coach Ramesh Powar during the T20 world cup became the talk of the town. She was to be blamed, and so was Ramesh, but as ugly as it got, things were solved maturely, and they moved on.

India lost another World Cup a few months back, making it the 5th World Cup Mithali failed to win as a captain. While failures are always tough to swallow, the harder part is getting up and hustling again to rise.

Mithali Raj was not just the captain of the Indian Women's team, she was much more. Mithali Raj is the name that built Indian cricket for 20 years.

The 2005 win against NZ inspired a 12-year-old Veda Krishnamurthy to pick up the bat and dream of playing with her idol.

As a nine-year-old, Smriti Mandhana broke into Maharashtra's U-15 squad, training at Sangli's lone net facility, the year India reached the World Cup final for the first time.

These are just a few of those stories. I am not here to tell you her numbers and list of achievements that you can Google. I am here to tell you the story where winning or losing becomes small in front of its impact.

Mithali Raj's greatest achievements are not her numbers but it is the fact that her mere presence adds composure and steadiness to a unit that would otherwise appear timid.

Someone who reminds us of principles that are now deemed outdated yet are unrivalled – much like the odd delight of listening to cricket commentary on summer days on a radio transistor.

Mithali Raj is a throwback to an era when the skill of self-preservation and dependability were considered the true virtues, in an age where histrionics and bang-bang cricket were becoming the norm.

Perhaps this is why, in an era where Chris Gayle and David Warner are regarded giants, a Dravid remains relevant, if not essential.

As she calls it a day, all of us probably, wish she had a WC to her name, but I am sure when we look back at this name, all we will remember is a masterful architect who built the core of Indian women's cricket brick by brick.

The story of Mithali Raj is the story of Indian women's cricket.

Thank You, Legend.

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