Imagine, one day someone stops you on the street and asks you to name the captain of the Indian cricket team – who bats in the middle order, is 30+ of age, has an average of 48+ in One day Internationals and has taken India to finals of the World Cup. Your immediate answer would be MS Dhoni, the captain of the Men’s team. But if you ponder some more, the answer could as well be Mithali Raj who leads the women’s team. But the similarity ends right here. While MS Dhoni has played 265 ODIs in the career spanning 11 years, Mithali Raj has only 153 games to her name in a career that began in 1999. While MS Dhoni has been ranked as one of the highest paid athletes in the world, Mithali Raj plays without a central contract from the board. While MS Dhoni’s Wikipedia page has been updated with every trivial event in his life, Mithali Raj’s page looks as neglected as a poor cousin.
But this doesn’t stop this spunky woman with an indomitable spirit from playing the game she has learned to love. Her 81* against NZ women yesterday has not only helped in leveling the 5 match series but also made her the first Indian woman to cross 5000 runs in One Day Internationals. She became only the second woman to achieve the feat after Charlotte Edwards of England.
Her International career took off in the year 1999 when she scored 114* against Ireland women at Milton Keyes. This wouldn’t come as a surprise from the girl who was chosen as one of the probables for the 1997 World Cup when she was only 14 years of age. But according to her, the high point of her career was when in 2002, she made 214 in only her third Test at a tender age of 19 years. She broke Karen Rolton’s record of the highest score in Women’s Test Cricket to be overtaken by Kiran Baluch of Pakistan who scored 242 against West Indies in 2004.
She has come a long way from the girl whose passion in life was Bharatnatyam, an Indian classical dance form. Her father, an officer in the Indian air force, didn’t like her daydreaming ways and wanted to instill discipline in his kids at a young age. This led to enrollment in a Cricket Camp along with her elder brother. And thus began the romance of the India’s most successful woman captain with this beautiful game of glorious uncertainties.
As a captain she has had a fair share of highs and lows. She led the team to their first ever World Cup final in 2005 in South Africa only to be beaten by Australia. Later the same year, she won the Asia Cup. This was their second victory in the Asian tournament in 12 months. Meanwhile in the longer format, she led the team to the first ever series and Test victory in England.
The year ended with a disheartening fourth place finish in the Quadrangular. A string of bad performances and a disappointing tour of England in 2008 meant she lost the captaincy to Jhulan Goswami. She didn’t let this deter her spirits and continued playing for the team. She was handed the captaincy reigns back in 2012. India’s substandard performance in 2013 world cup was followed by an epic win in the Wormsley Test in 2014. The team consisted of as many as 8 debutants. The only three “experienced” players were playing a Test match after 8 years. But this calm, composed woman led the team to a back to back overseas victory. All this happened while the men’s team was being humiliated at Old Trafford.
In January 2015, she was awarded with the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honor. The state of Indian women’s cricket is such that this veteran of 153 ODIs, 10 Tests and 47 T20s didn’t think she would be considered for the award. Why? Because, “when I was pitted against Virat Kohli, I gave up because when you compare us with men’s cricket then we think that we may not get it.” Her only wish after winning the award was that it will make more people follow women’s cricket and will take a note of international women’s calendar.
This Wisden India Cricketer of the Year 2015, the first woman to feature, hopes to have central contract for her team. This could lead to more young girls playing the game and will give security to the players who don’t have a secure job. But they have come a long way from the time when there was no TV coverage for Indian women matches. It fills us with immense pride when we see these women appear on our TV screens taking on the NZ women heads on. This 5 match series has been as interesting as any played by their male counterparts. Defending low scores in one match, patiently chasing targets in other have leveled the series 2-2. Maybe the BCCI didn’t anticipate the India eves to do so well which could be the reason for the poor scheduling of the series. The series decider being played on a weekday is a cricket fan’s most horrid nightmare coming true. Nonetheless these baby steps would make sure the next Mithali Raj doesn’t feel surprised when she wins a much deserved award. Indian women’s cricket is richer because of the experience and the calmness she brings to the table. It will be a difficult position to fill in whenever she hangs up her boots.