An icon is defined as a person having great influence or significance in a specific sphere as to be worthy of veneration and emulation. Every field of activity has its own set of icons who stand out as torchbearers upholding all that is good in that particular arena. Their actions and achievements inspire numerous youngsters to follow their footsteps. It is widely accepted that the presence of iconic persons is a sine qua non for attracting new blood into all fields.
Mithali Raj, who announced her retirement during the week that went by, is an icon for women’s cricket in our country. Born to parents of Tamil origin in Rajasthan, where her father was working in the Indian Air Force, Mithali took to cricket at an early age, following the footsteps of her elder brother. She was only 16 years old when she she donned national colours for the first time ever in June, 1999, in the One-Day International (ODI) against Ireland at Campbell Park in Milton Keynes. She immediately announced her talent by hitting an unbeaten century (114) and helped India to an easy 161 run victory.
This was the beginning of an illustrious career that spanned nearly 23 years in international cricket, during which Mithali broke almost all the prevailing records in women’s cricket. She has scored most runs in women’s cricket and remains the only batter to have more than 7,000 runs against her name in ODIs. A total tally of 10,868 runs in all versions of the game at the highest level places her in a higher pedestal than all the other women who have played the game. When she reached the landmark of 2,000 runs in T20 Internationals in June, 2018, she became not only the first woman cricketer to attain this but also the first Indian- male or female- to do so. She also has the unique distinction of scoring seven successive half-centuries in ODIs, a feat not matched by any other woman batter.
Given her proficiency with the bat and standing in the game, there was never any doubt that Mithali would be appointed to lead the national side. She was elevated to this post in 2005 and led the side in ODIs and Tests ever since. She also led in the T20 version till she gave way to Harmanpreet Kaur as skipper in 2018. She announced her retirement from T20Is in September, 2019, to focus solely on ODIs and the 2021 World Cup. However, despite leading the side to final of the World Cup on two occasions (2005 and 2017), she could not achieve the goal of being part of the championship-winning team.
Mithali’s batting was founded on sound technique and lithe footwork. She had gone on record saying that the lessons in Bharatanatyam that she took in her childhood helped her to develop her footwork while at the batting crease! She possessed infinite patience and was at home in the longest version of the game as well. Though she started her career in Test cricket with a duck against England at Kanpur in January, 2002, she exacted sweet revenge soon afterwards when Indian toured the Old Blighty during the second half of the same year. In the second Test of the series at Taunton, she scored an unbeaten double century (214), which was the highest individual score in women’s Test cricket till it was displaced by Pakistan's Kiran Baluch (242) against the West Indies in 2004.
It is not that the career of Mithali was bereft of controversies. The advent of Harmanpreet and her elevation to the captaincy of national T20 side for the 2018 World Cup in this format was not taken kindly by Mithali. Matters came to a head when Mithali was dropped from the playing eleven for the semifinal game against England, where India went down tamely by eight wickets after being dismissed for a paltry 112. Mithali made known her shock at being dropped and her manager criticised Harmanpreet for this action. This also resulted in Mathali falling out with Romesh Powar, then coach of the women’s side. Mithali felt that she was being sidelined and not given the regard due to her as a senior cricketer while Powar reported that she was not pulling her weight. Though this issue was patched up subsequently, it laid bare the fault lines that did not lie very deep or far from the surface. It was only after Mithali decided to quit playing T20 cricket in 2019 to focus solely on ODIs and World Cup that this matter could be finally put to rest.
Though statistics and list of achievements throw light into Mithali’s greatness as a cricketer and batter, they do not tell the whole story of her contribution to women’s cricket in India. She started playing when few women played the game and facilities and conditions were primitive. After a good beginning during the 1970s when players like Shanta Rangaswamy, Diana Edulji and Sudha Shah had caught the attention of the followers of the game across the country, women’s cricket slid down sharply in popularity charts. Spectator interest in the sport was abysmally low and sponsors were hard to come by. Women’s Cricket Association of India, which was in existence since 1973, had become an almost decrepit organisation. It was the arrival of Mithali and a group of similarly committed cricketers on the scene during the second half of the 1990s that changed the graph of women’s cricket in our country.
It should be mentioned here that the merger of Women’s Cricket Association with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in 2006 proved to be a shot in the arm for women’s cricket as it solved all financial difficulties faced by them. This also helped to place the entire infrastructure and facilities available with the BCCI such as grounds, pitches, umpires, scorers etc at the disposal of women cricketers as well. It is to the credit of Mithali and Co. that they grabbed this opportunity with both hands and used it to improve the standing of country in the international arena. The age limit tournaments introduced by the BCCI for women also helped to identify and unearth exciting talents from various parts of the nation.
Mithali was also instrumental in attracting more young women to take up cricket. Her persona and her popularity were key factors that lay at the revival of this sport from the turn of the century onwards. She developed a huge fan following and made women’s cricket a glamorous sport. Her poise, grace and good looks combined with success on the cricketing field lent her an aura and won her celebrity status across the country. She did not have any qualms in opening up about her personal life and inform the world that she was comfortable remaining single and did not intend to get married. Her confidence can be judged from the responses given by her to two questions posed to her, which are given below.
Q: Who is your favourite male cricketer?
A: Do you ask any male cricketer who his favourite female player is?
Q: Do you get lots of attention from males?
A: To be honest, I don't really get attention the same way that the men’s team get from their female fans.
Accolades have flooded the regular and social media after Mithali announced her decision to quit. One reporter compared her to Sunil Gavaskar while another named her “Tendulkar of women’s cricket”. However, what caught my eye was the nugget of information forwarded by a reader of this column which said that Mithali played ODIs for 22 years and 274 days while the careers of three longest playing male cricketers in this format stood as follows; Sachin Tendulkar (22 years and 91 days), Sanath Jayasuriya (21 years and 184 days) and Javed Miandad (20 years and 272 days). One knows that straight comparisons between men’s and women’s cricket are fallacious but still this data shows us that commitment of Mithali to the cause of Indian cricket and her pride in her game was second to none.
When history of women’s cricket in India is written, the place of Mithali would be at the same level as that occupied by Don Bradman in Australia - there will be many before and after her but there will be none to replace her.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)