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Mithali Raj Was a Champion Performer, With a Few Lows, But a Lot of Highs

A look at the career of the Indian cricket legend Mithali Raj, who announced her retirement on Wednesday.

Updated
Cricket
6 min read
Mithali Raj Was a Champion Performer, With a Few Lows, But a Lot of Highs
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It was an expected decision, but the one that came out of the blue.

It was not a shock, but the timing of the announcement was a surprise as Mithali Raj called time on her long-storied career. This was the most expected announcement, one which was awaited since the World Cup 2022 campaign ended in a disaster.

In recent years, Raj’s career went into a downward spiral, not just because of the on-field performances but also because of some off-field incidents. All this left a sour taste for some who had followed Raj’s career over the years. But let us hope that the former India captain is not remembered for the tail-end of her career.

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Lest we forget, this right-handed batter from Hyderabad had a very successful career, one where she achieved a number of firsts. Her exploits with the bat made her one of the most successful batters to have played the game, amongst men and women.

Beginnings

When she started off her career, Raj was amongst the most attractive batters to have graced the great game. Her footwork was much talked about and maybe her training in Bharatnatyam also helped her quite a lot. She hails from Hyderabad which has always produced stylish batters, including Mohammad Azharuddin and VVS Laxman. Raj came from the same stable and, as expected, reached new heights throughout her career.

Her exploits at the international level started when she was still 16 years old, much like another gentle giant of Indian cricket – Sachin Tendulkar. Raj struck an unbeaten hundred in her very first ODI and thus started a long journey that lasted 23 long years. The Tendulkar comparison stuck for long, but as her career progressed, Raj showed that she was an original and not a copy of someone else.

Such was her longevity in the game that her peers from her debut ODI game went on to become selectors, coaches, and commentators, but she was still plying her trade for India and that too as the captain of the side.
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The Lows and The Highs

But the big fillip for Raj’s career came when she scored that massive 214 in the Test against England in August 2002. Still 19, Raj turned a new leaf in her career with that double hundred as she emerged as the lynchpin of the Indian batting line-up. The likes of Anjum Chopra were still around, but Raj was fast emerging as the cornerstone of the Indian batting. The 214 was also a record because it was then the highest individual score in women’s Test cricket. Since then, it was eclipsed by Kiran Baluch of Pakistan, but nothing can take away the effort of the Indian batter.

In the ODI format, Raj was a key member of the team, especially in that era as India needed her aggressive approach, but an illness kept her from performing at her best in the 2002 World Cup.

But things changed by the time the 2005 World Cup came along. Raj was now the captain of the side. She led her side to the final of the World Cup, but only to finish second in the tournament. Nevertless, that was a huge fillip for Raj and Indian women’s cricket.

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International Stint

Things were changing at the international level for the women’s game at that time. The world was seeing a merger between the men’s and women’s game. India was proving a tough nut to crack at that time because of long held prejudices. Raj as captain played a key role in smoothing out the transition and was the cornerstone around which the new era in women’s cricket was based by the new bosses at the BCCI.

With a new set of administrators governing the game, Raj played a perfect diplomat in ensuring that the girls got some game time. In their first Tour to England under the new regime in 2006, Raj led India to a famous Test win, and also in the Asia Cup. But after this honeymoon, women’s cricket went through a lull. Playing opportunities started drying up as the new administrators were lukewarm towards the progress in the women’s game.

Raj was expected to play a bigger role, but as game time reduced, so did India’s performance. From being one of the top four sides in the world, India slipped down.

The biggest let down was the early exit during the 2013 ODI World Cup at home. Raj and the side came under a lot of flak, but a lot of the blame also lay at the door of the powers that be.
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Fighting Back

Raj, however, survived the early exit and from thereon, there was a turnaround, thanks mainly to the emergence of the Committee of Administrators (CoA) appointed by the Supreme Court. With a former India player in Diana Edulji being involved, the women’s game received renewed attention. Things turned for good during the 2017 World Cup when India reached the final for the second time under Raj in England.

One major talking point during the 2017 World Cup was the nonchalant way in which Raj would rock up by the boundary line in a chair and be immersed in reading a book.

This was her way to get ready for a knock while the rest of the world focused on the intense action underway on the field. The other performers in the side, like Harmanpreet Kaur, also came to the fore around this time, alongside Smriti Mandhana easing the pressure on Raj. But the result in the 2017 final was the same as India lost to host England.

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A Setback

Batting records kept tumbling for Raj but so did the pressure to increase her scoring rate in the beast of a format called T20 cricket. She first stepped down as the captain in the T20 format and then had to endure the ignominy of being left out of the XI during the 2018 T20 World Cup semi-final.

What followed was an ugly phase when she lashed out at both the head coach Ramesh Powar and Edulji in a letter that was leaked. Powar in turn lashed out at her for consuming too many dot balls as well as blackmailing the coaching staff. Raj was also accused of being aloof as she was no longer the T20 captain. Eventually, the saga ended with Powar losing his job and then soon after, Raj too quit the T20 format.

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New Challenges

The focus now remained on the 2021 World Cup, but a global COVID-19 pandemic pushed it forward, and by then, Powar was also back as head coach and this time had to work with Raj yet again. Unfortunately, the tournament ended in complete disaster for India as the batting just got into a rut.

The main focus as always was Raj as she just could not get the scoring rate increased at will, compared to the younger batters emerging on the scene. In far too many games, India appeared to have lost the plot while batting, especially against the much-fancied sides. Raj always countered this criticism by talking about how strike-rate was overrated. In the end, the tournament ended in tears for Raj and her long-time teammate Jhulan Goswami. Much like Raj, Goswami too had quit the T20 format and was hoping to end her ODI career on a high.

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The Legacy

However, that was not to be as both realised that their time was up. With women’s Test cricket becoming far and few in between, except the two token Tests India played in 2021, the writing was on the wall.

That it finally came a few hours before India named their squads for a Sri Lanka tour told you a lot about how it was known to the powers that be for a while.

For a cricketer with so many batting records to her name, there could have been a better send-off or perhaps a heartfelt note from the BCCI to bid her goodbye, but that was too much to expect.

Hopefully, we will know just how she felt when her life story is replayed on the big screen very soon by noted actor Tapsee Pannu.

Till then we can just say: Shabhaash Mithu!

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Edited By :Ahamad Fuwad
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