Don’t Tell Mithali Raj She Can’t, Because She Will
“The Question Isn't Who Is Going to Let Me, It's Who Is Going to Stop Me” – Ayn Rand
When India made it to the semis of the ICC Women's World Twenty20 in 2010, Mithali Raj was carrying the Indian batting line-up on her shoulders. Her campaign began with a 44-run knock against New Zealand, followed by an unbeaten 33 against Pakistan and an unbeaten 52 against Sri Lanka. A minor blip on her side against Australia in the semi-final and India went crashing out of the tournament.
Eight years later, she was geared up to right the wrongs of their last World T20 visit to the Caribbean. But things had changed around her. The Rumeli Dhars and the Sulakshana Naiks were no longer around. Even the ever-present Jhulan Goswami had decided to hang her boots from the shortest format of the game. Mithali, now, was the senior-most player in the team.
But more importantly, the Smriti Mandhanas and the Harmanpreet Kaurs were now the rising stars of Team India.
Mithali was around, and she was one of the world’s most prolific batsmen in the women’s circuit and all of that, but she was hardly going to carry the Indian batting line-up this time. The game had rapidly changed with the arrival of the Big Bash League, the Cricket Super League, the Super Smash and the like. You now have to score quickly, you know.
Mithali may still be the one with the best cover drive in the world but the team needed firepower. A 20-year-old Taniya Bhatia would be a better option at the top, it seemed. After India slumped to 40 for three in the tournament opener, skipper Harmanpreet Kaur decimated the bowling attack of the White Ferns, smacking seven 4s and eight 6s on her way to a sensational hundred. The captain had led from the front.
The former captain, Mithali Raj, though must have been hurting with the way things had panned out on the individual front. She was pushed down the batting order at No 6-7 and never got a hit. India’s best batsman was left unutilised for she can’t score quickly enough!
Defying the Odds
But you don’t tell Mithali she can’t.
The last time she was told just that, she was all of 14. Despite being in the probables, she was not picked for the 1997 Women's Cricket World Cup as she was thought to be too young to handle pressure. About a year later, she announced herself at the international stage, smashing an unbeaten 114 against Ireland in her very first ODI.
Her cricketing journey has been about defying the odds at every step. Her mother fondly remembers that the more Mithali’s dad told her that she can’t do something, the more determined she became to prove him wrong.
Not many believed she would debut for India at 16, she did. Become the first women cricketer to scale 6,000 ODI runs, she did. Become the youngest cricketer to blast a hundred on debut, she did. Notch up a double ton at 19 (the highest individual Test score then), she did. Lead the Indian team from the age of 21, she did. Have a batting average of over 50 in both ODIs and Tests, she did.
Have more than a two-decade-long international career, we’re still counting.
A determined Raj took the field against Pakistan, putting together a match-winning 56-run inning. But she was not done yet. In the next game against Ireland, she doubled up with another well-compiled fifty; ensuring that she was pushed down the order never again.
ICC Event Swansong
“Do you enjoy T20s?” asked Gaurav Kapur on ‘Breakfast with Champions’.
"No," was Mithali’s sharp reply. “If there were (regular) Test matches, I wouldn't have got into this format. (I play T20s) because we don't play Test matches or one-dayers as frequently.”
For someone who does not enjoy the format too much, she boasts of a terrific record. The 35-year-old has amassed 2,283 runs from 85 matches at an average of over 35. Her highest T20 score is just three shy of 100. So much for not liking T20s!
Now that India have entered the knock-out stage, the Jodhpur-born will have an even bigger role to play. Being the senior-most player of the team, it is now that she has to have control over not only her nerves but have a calming influence over the entire unit.
Mithali has gone through three ICC knock-out losses in her lengthy career, twice as captain. The team lost to Australia in the finals of the 2005 World Cup. The Aussies thrashed the side again by seven wickets in the semis of the 2010 World Twenty20. The most recent nine-run loss against England in the 2017 Women's World Cup left the entire nation shattered.
This can well be the last ICC event for the veteran. Many hold the opinion that T20 as a format is not something India can ace. Take my word, don’t you tell Mithali she can’t.
(Saksham Mishra is a budding sports journalist, a student of Radio and TV journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
(This story was first published on 19 November and has been reposted from The Quint's archives to mark Mithali Raj’s 36th birthday.)
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