Mithali Raj has given herself another “year or two” before calling time on her international career. The veteran Indian batsman, who was the player of the match for her half-century in India’s win against Pakistan on Sunday at the World T20, started her international career in 1999 and will turn 36 next month.
"A sportsperson's career is quite short as compared to say, a lawyer or a doctor, so I am just trying to play as many games to the best of my ability,” she told Mid-Day. “When you represent your country, you cannot forego even one per cent of your commitment towards working hard. I believe I have another year or two before I can hang my boots. I am working extremely hard on my fitness too.”
Raj remains one of the torchbearers and among the biggest international star in women's cricket. Since her debut, Raj has remained a constant in the Indian team, and observed the growth of the game from close quarters and is not surprisingly pleased with the ever-rising profile of the women’s game.
"There was no international tour for two years when I made my India debut in 1999,” she recalled. “The likes of Jemimah Rodrigues or Pooja Vastrakar… they have 20 games under their belt. I never had that kind of exposure. If I have to compare a 16-year-old Mithali with the current lot, they would be far ahead in terms of the way they prepare and their professional approach.”
Known for her keen interest in dance, the 36-year-old added that she became a cricketer by destiny, after her father forced her to take up the sport, "Initially, I was into dance and learnt Bharatanatyam for eight years. Cricket happened because my father (Dorai Raj). I love sleeping and to inculcate the habit of early rising, my dad forced me to take up a sport. That was the only reason I started playing cricket in the first place," she said.
The 2017 Women's World Cup was a turning point for women's cricket in India, after Raj led the team to the final and gained nationwide attention. The likes of Smriti Mandhana, Harmanpreet Kaur, Veda Krishnamurthy became overnight stars. She highlighted the wide gulf in the perception about the players and women’s cricket in general between 2005 and 2017.
"In the 2005 World Cup final, there were hardly any people in the stadium and the matches were not televised,” she said. “In 2017, thanks to social media, we had a lot of people tweeting and writing about our journey. And the final was the most-watched women's game in history. In 2005 when we lost, I saw seniors crying. As a young captain, I could not relate to the emotions of it being the last World Cup for them.
“When we lost the 2017 World Cup final, I cried too. Nevertheless, it has set the ball rolling in India, where girls have started to take up the sport. Women's cricket is now a viable career option. Every player is some sort of a brand in the market today.
"Why do we want matches to be televised? Why do we want people to turn up for our matches? That's how you will generate revenue. After the 2017 World Cup, there was a hike in our [central] contracts. We have also seen players signing up for brands. It's a journey. Even the men's team, at one point, were not earning as much."