The Making of Mithali Raj and Her Special Place in Women's Cricket
For first 10 years of her career, Mithali was living her father’s dream and then she fell in love with cricket.
The year was 2009 and 27-year-old Mithali Raj was in Australia playing the World Cup. She was already writing the record book – a century on ODI debut in 1999, the highest score by an Indian woman cricketer in Tests in 2002 and leading India to their first-ever World Cup final in 2005. Quite impressive for someone who didn’t love or even enjoy cricket.
Her almost decade-long cricketing career had been spent living a dream, that of her father and her coach. So, when in early 2009 her parents decided she’d had enough and the time was right for her to “settle down”, Mithali didn’t protest. Plagued by injuries, marriage didn’t seem liked a bad idea.
But, something changed during the World Cup.
The International Cricket Council had taken over women’s cricket from the International Women’s Cricket Association. For the first time, World Cup games, some of them, were broadcast live. Unlike the previous editions, the 2009 tournament grabbed eyeballs, sponsors and there was decent coverage in the press as well. Women’s cricket slowly but surely gained a following—and Mithali Raj.
“Mamma, I don’t want to retire now. I want to continue playing,” she told her mother over the phone from Australia. “Give me two more years.”
“Have you fallen in love with someone in Australia? Are you seeing someone?” Leela Raj asked her daughter.
“What? You never gave me the time for it!” was Mithali’s response.
Living daddy’s dream
Falling in love wasn’t the only thing Mithali didn’t have the time for, as she went about perfecting her strokes and stance since she was 10. There was no time to be pampered by parents, no time for sibling rivalry, for hanging out with peers, for bunking classes, trying on her first lipstick or sneaking a romance novel into bed.
Her coaches spotted Mithali’s exceptional talent early on. They convinced her father, Dorai Raj, a former Indian Air Force officer, that it was his daughter, and not his son who had the makings of a cricketer.
Coach Sampath Kumar’s dream was to see Mithali in an India jersey ahead of Sachin Tendulkar. He promised the Rajs he would make it happen, all he wanted for them was to get young Mithali to the ground whenever he’d ask for her.
And, Mithali’s life changed forever.
Between school, cricket, and Bharatnatyam, her first love that she had to let go, Mithali channelised every bit of energy her young mind and body could. Suddenly, the 24-hour day seemed too short. Her father’s obsession meant that cricket dominated dinner-table conversations as well. Mithali badly needed to let out some steam but didn’t have the luxury.
In 1997, 14-year-old Mithali got a call-up for probables camp for the World Cup that India was hosting but the joy was short-lived.
Her coach, Kumar, was killed in a motorbike accident. On the first day of the camp in then-Calcutta, Mithali cut a lonely figure. Kumar’s death left her numb. There was no one to talk to, as most of the players were double her age. The final blow came when she didn’t make the team.
Mithali retreated into a shell and immersed herself deeper into cricket, a game she didn’t love was now a source of comfort and escape. Already a voracious reader, Mithali found a companion for life in books.
While she had a ringside view of the changes that women’s cricket was going through, Mithali missed out on a normal life.
Does she regret the regimented life, where she was always somebody else’s project, someone else’s assignment? Where life was always a to-do list and where there never was a Plan B.
No, says Mithali. For almost half her career, cricket was a burden. Her parents’ sacrifices made her put cricket first—she felt she owed them that.
Her parents agree they were hard on her and missed seeing her grow up. Every time she returned from a tour, Mithali would have grown up a bit more, says her mother.
But since 2009, when Mithali really took to cricket and started enjoying the game, a lot has changed. Her trophy cabinet is creaking with silverware, the record book has gone fatter and more importantly, Mithali wants to play on.
Staying fit is one way of prolonging an already storied career. Perhaps it also has something to do with her journey – from being the youngest member of the team at 17, Mithali, who turns 36 next week, is the oldest in the current squad.
Now that women’s cricket has found its place in the sun, Mithali’s life is a lot more hectic. When she returned to India after leading the team to the final of the World Cup that they lost to the hosts England, Mithali didn’t get time to unpack for weeks. Her parents, conservative and peace-loving Tamilians, had given a string of TV interviews by then, talking about their daughter. They can’t take it anymore. There are times when they lock up their Hyderabad home on a match day to keep prying journalists away.
Name and fame have come to Mithali very late in her career. But both Mithali and her parents have made their peace—you can’t have it all.
If what you can have helps you give back, nothing like it. Even as the debate rages over her exclusion from the final of the last week’s T20I World Cup that ended disastrously for India, there is no disputing Mithali's place in women's cricket. She has fired up hundreds of young girls to don India colours. And has inspired million others to chase their dreams and that is something the Rajs will always be proud of, and India, very grateful for.
Even as the debate rages over her exclusion from last week’s T20I World Cup semi-final that ended disastrously for India, there is no disputing Mithali's place in women's cricket. She has fired up hundreds of young girls to take up cricket and inspired million others to chase their dreams. And, that is something the Rajs will always be proud of, and India, very grateful for.
(Suprita Das is the author of Free Hit: The Story of Women’s Cricket in India)
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