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Mithali Raj: An icon, a cricketer & a nation’s pride

RealSport take an in-depth look at the story of India's female cricketing star Mithali Raj.

In a society where women are expected to get married by 25, have families by 28 and are expected to play second fiddle for the rest of their lives, it is their duty to take care of their homes even if they are working women. Especially, women in sports are frowned upon and, despite such limitations, a middle class girl rose above all the pressures  and went on to become one of the finest ever in her trade. We look into the inspiring journey of India’s women’s cricket superstar, Mithali Raj.

The discovery of a star

It was the summer of 1991, the world was restless as one of the superpowers was about to crumble and the future of the world’s economy was uncertain, there was war for oil supremacy and the unemployment in India was at an all-time high. Far away from the troubles of world, an 8 year old used to accompany her brother to St. John’s academy in Secunderabad only to appease her father who wanted her to be active. She, however didn’t have any interest in cricket and instead loved to dance and was learning Bharatnatyam. While her brother use to practice, she would sit near the boundary and used to casually play with the bat during the break. Coach Joythi Prasad, who was a first class cricketer himself, noticed her do this. Prasad was good in identifying talent and he saw something special in the girl. This girl was none other than India’s current women’s cricket team captain, Mithali Raj, arguably the greatest female cricketer produced by the country and unarguably one of the greatest female athletes produced by India at all.

After Prasad identified the talent in Mithali he referred her to Sampath Kumar who was a hard coach and believed in tough training. It was here with Sampath that Mithali started her cricket journey. Initially, Mithali tried to balance cricket and Bharatnatyam but after sometime it become evident that she had to choose one or the other. She sacrificed her love for Bharatnatyam for her new found passion for cricket.Sampath ensured that Mithali trained rigorously so as to be able to face the severity of the challenges of international cricket. There were six hours of practice sessions and apart from them Mithali used to train at school as well. At times, the 11 year-old used to break down in tears. She would go crying to her mother in the evening and would express regret over joining Sampath. However, now she looks back and feels immense gratitude to him for the training which moulded her into a tough player. Sampath trained Mithali with blinders on her and she did not have time for much else. For him childhood didn’t mean partying with cousins, spending summer vacations at maternal home or gallivanting; it meant sweat and blood on the field.

The first signs of success amid tragedy

The seeds of hard work started to bear fruits when Mithali was selected for Women’s World Cup in 1997, after her impressive stint with the Andhra team as a 13 year-old in the mid-90s.

She was only 14 at the time of her first national selection but the selectors were wary that she was too young to be given a chance on such a huge platform and might never recover if she had failed. Mithali was disappointed but she hoped that her time of glory was close. A tragedy struck her life at this point when Sampath died in a road accident. For a young Mithali this was a tough time but she was prepared mentally for all contingencies by Sampath, a tough taskmaster and her dear coach. She also had the support of her mother and her father who, unlike other parents, were keen on her success in sports.

On the 26th June 1999, at the tender age of 16 years and 202 days (three days younger than the God of Indian Cricket, Sachin Tendulkar when he played his first international tournament), Mithali played her first international match against Ireland and performed brilliantly on her debut. For the next three years, Mithali started to secure a position in the Indian team. By 2000 she had started playing for Railways and obtained a job as a clerk. The stint with Railways helped her hone her skills under the guidance of players like G.S. Laxmi and Rajani Venugopal. In 2002 she made her Test debut against England at Lucknow. A few months later, the Indian team went on to tour England. It was here where the then 19 year-old Mithali played one of the best innings of the women’s game and broke the record for the highest individual score which remained hers for next couple of years.

At Taunton against England, India were 2/45 against England’s 329 when Mithali arrived at the crease. While the wickets continued to fall at one end, Mithali held on to her position firmly. She mesmerized the crowd with her crisp drives which were as elegant as Rahul Dravid, cuts which were as ferocious as Belinda Clarke, and defense as impeccable as Sunil Gavaskar. She completed her first hundred with help of Hemlata and took India to 6/297. She later on managed to make 157 runs in a partnership with another star in making, Jhulan Goswami.

The moment she touched 200, everyone was sure that the iron willed girl from India was on her way to break the record of another fantastic player Karen Rolton who made 209 only 12 months ago. Mithali established a new milestone but she wasn’t aware of the extraordinary feat she had achieved until team management informed her. She was declared out on the next day at 214 and though this record was overtaken two years later by Kiran Baluch of Pakistan, those who witnessed the innings still acknowledge it an innings of substance from a quality player who announced her arrival in international cricket.

Captaincy and breaking new ground

In 2005, Mithali became the captain of the national cricket team, at the same age at which Sachin Tendulkar was handed the captaincy way back in 1996. Mithali however proved to be a better leader.

2004-2006 was a historic time for Indian women’s cricket. They not only won their first ever Test in England, but they also made it to the finals of Women’s World Cup in South Africa. Mithali played one of the finest innings of her limited-overs career making an unbeaten 91 runs. To this date, India and the West Indies are the only teams to have made it to the final of the Women’s World Cup, apart from the big three – Australia, England and New Zealand.

India went on to win the Asia Cup title consecutively under the leadership of Mithali. However, as was the tradition, the tour to England in 2008 proved to be a disaster as India lost the 5 match series five-nil. Later that year, in the Australian summer, they were humiliated in the same manner with a whitewash in another 5 match series. This was the time when Mithali’s body was starting to creak after 18 years of continuous cricket and at 26, she also had the pressure of getting married. She was continuously seeing a physiotherapist about her knee problem and decided to retire after the World Cup in Australia. However, the World Cup proved to be beyond the wildest expectations of both Mithali and India. India defeated Australia to get third place and Mithali ended with 247 runs at an average of 62. The retirement plans were chucked out of the window by the end of the World Cup in March 2009.

Marriage plans were postponed and Mithali cites it as the best decision of her life as she wouldn’t have been able to achieve what she has achieved now. Moreover, she is more independent today financially, emotionally and in every aspect. She credits her parents for this as her father never took promotions so that she could stay in same city and he ensured that Mithali had access to the best facilities to play. Her mother sacrificed her successful career for the sake of her daughter’s dreams. She strived hard to provide Mithali with the proper diet and would be up at 3am to pack Mithali’s tiffin.

Back to her best

Mithali was back in form.

In 2010, India played only 5 One Day Internationals and Mithali made 4 fifties in the 4 innings where she got the chance to bat. The charm in her batting had returned. However, the huge gaps in women’s games meant that she could not get continuous runs. As a result, in the next 16 matches, she scored a solitary hundred along with one fifty.

The 2013 World Cup proved to be a disaster for India. While Indian women had never been a force in World Cricket, they were expected to do well when given the chance of playing at home in front of their home crowd. The team however, only made it to seventh with Mithali failing with 29 runs at 14.5 in group stages. It was against Pakistan that she saved India from humiliation. In this encounter, India kept losing wickets but Mithali held one end and played a high profile innings making a magnificent century of 103 runs, showing why she was a class apart.

A year later in 2014, India toured England. Here they played a Test match after a hiatus of 8 years, which, again shows the state of women’s test cricket. However, Mithali’s girls who won their last Test in 2006 against England and repeated history this time. They handed England a drubbing by 6 wickets and Mithali’s masterminded aided in the tricky chase of 183 with a patient half century. Mithali turned 32 in December 2014, however she showed no sign of aging. In fact, her game had become even crisper and more elegant. Since 2015, she has played 19 matches and scored 726 runs at a staggering average of 73.

Now the icon has her eye on World Cup 2017. This is the one trophy which is missing from Mithali’s cupboard. Mithali has started thinking about life after cricket and one can assume that, at 34 years and after 25 years of continuous cricket it might be time for her to hand over the reins to the next generation who have grown up seeing her play and who cite her as their inspiration. Veda Krishnamurthy and Harmanpreet are two such players who took up cricket thanks to Mithali.

Honoured for excellence

Mithali has been honoured twice for her services to the game, first in 2003 when she was only 21 with the Arjuna Award for excellence in Sports by the Government of India and subsequently in 2015 with the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of the country.

She is considered to be the finest ever female cricketer to be produced by India and one of the finest that the world has witnessed. Her legacy in international cricket is praiseworthy and that she has been compared to the likes of Belinda Clarke and Charlotte Edwards is a testament to her ability. She is the second woman to have crossed 5000 runs after Edwards in international cricket. She has played in all the wins that Indian women’s cricket team has registered in Test cricket and has led them to two series wins in England, which is unparalleled even in Indian men’s cricket.

She was the first captain from India (man or woman) to win bilateral series in Australia in early 2016. Her record is better than many renowned male cricketers including stalwarts such as Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and Virat Kohli.

And still, the recognition is lacking

Despite all this, India has never celebrated Mithali’s career like it should have. One of the major reasons is the lack of popularity of women’s cricket despite the feats achieved by the team. Mithali deserves a lot more recognition than she has gotten.

Unlike the male counterparts, she not only has to persevere, but she also has to swim against the tide. One can imagine how tough her fight might have been when you consider how she commenced her cricketing journey in the 90s, a time when women were even more at a disadvantage in Indian society. One can also imagine how strong her love and desire for the game is when one sees the obvious discrimination against women’s cricket compared to men’s cricket with respect to remuneration and rewards for winning. It is hard to be motivated in this kind of environment, but such has been her passion for the game, that the rewards were secondary for her. It was Mithali who motivated a generation of Indian girls who started to believe that a career in sports is possible for women in India.

One may be disheartened by this blatant inequality in society and sports, more specifically in cricket.

But the little girl from Hyderabad who not only practiced with boys and defeated them but also defeated the general psychology of boys being superior through her dedication and courage. From the tough practice sessions to the sacrifices she made and the losses she overcame, she has done it all in order to become a top class sportsperson and a role model for the generations to come.

What are your best memories of the efforts of Mithali Raj or the women’s game in India as a whole? Let us know in the comments below.

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Abhishek Srivastava

An Avid Cricket Writer , researcher and an analyst. Abhishek is lawyer by profession but Sport writer by passion . His dream is to become a commentator/broadcaster one day and idolises great Bill lawrey .

Mithali Raj: An icon, a cricketer & a nation’s pride

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