Former Indian women’s cricket team captain Mithali Raj said goodbye to cricket last week after a 23-year-long cricket career. She quit as the leading run-scorer in women’s international cricket. Apart from her “Bradman-esque” contribution to women’s cricket, she’ll be remembered for all that she has done to bring the women’s game into the mainstream in India. Mithali spoke exclusively with NDTV. Here’s an excerpt
Rica: Mithali, for half of your life you have been in camps and packing your bags. Has it sunk in that there are things that you may not have to do anymore now?
Mithali: I think my routine definitely has changed. I don’t have to now get up early in the morning and plan my day or plan a week or plan the preparation for the next series. In that sense, yes, the life has slowed down a little bit and there is time for a lot many other things which I could not pursue, when I started playing cricket.
Rica: Do you have any plans of getting back to Bharatnatyam?
Mithali: I don’t know, I might just probably give it a try, but right now I have not really thought much about going back to dance. It’s been a very long time when I switched from dance to cricket, but when it comes to reading, sketching, these are certain things that I’ve really enjoyed over the years but never could get much time to invest in those things. So maybe I will try to take them up as a hobby.
Rica: Mithali, at what moment did you think that it was the right time to let go of a 23-year long career? Was it after the loss in New Zealand?
Mithali: No, when it came to my retirement, I was very clear a couple of years back itself that World Cup will be my swansong. There were a few interviews in which I had already mentioned that.
I needed to deal with the emotion of the disappointment of the last game in the World Cup. And I didn’t want to take any decision being overwhelmed, especially such a big one. I had to take some time to deal with that. Then I went to the T20 domestic tournament. I felt that I didn’t have the sort of intent and passion, which with all these years have gone to the ground. I’ve never missed domestic, but this time around I just didn’t feel the right kind of emotion to go on the ground. I didn’t play the domestic and I felt that it was time to make my retirement official. But, it was there on my mind for a couple of years. It was just a matter of accepting it and dealing with it, and then probably make it official.
Rica: Now that you’ve finished your career, if you were to sit down and watch your innings, which of the matches you would like to watch once again.
Mithali: I think all those important innings, may be the ones in the 2017 World Cup. I’ve had few very good innings. In the 2009 World Cup, I remember 40 odd runs made against Australia, a match-winning one. It’s just unfortunate I don’t have some of my best innings because back then it was not televised, so we didn’t even have videos about it. But yeah, these are the few innings which I would have loved to watch.
Rica: Mithali, in the mountain of your ODI records. What gets lost is your 214 in Test cricket- the highest score by a woman Test cricketer. Do you have recordings of it?
Mithali: I don’t have a recording of it, it’s just the memories that I carry, and a bit of what my own teammates, who’ve been around telling me. So we remember it from their perspective. They tell me how they found my innings, so that is, what is there about the 214 knock.
Rica: What amazes me about you time and again is that you played more cricket than Sachin Tendulkar did, averaged nearly as much as Dhoni in ODIs, your win percentage as a captain is more than Sourav Ganguly. Let me ask you which is your favorite Mithali Raj stat?
Mithali: You just asked me a question that I wasn’t prepared for. I think 7000 odd runs in ODIs would be a good one.
Rica: And you have overall 10,000 international runs. Taking India to the 2017 World Cup final that was held in England must have been special. Emotions were running high when you were going out for that toss at lords. Can you walk us through the feelings of that day?
Mithali: In 2017 we created a buzz in India from the first game. In England we weren’t aware of much about the reactions at home. That was because social media was very new back then and I’m not someone who is very, active or addicted to social media. So back then even i didn’t know much about getting onto twitter. We played well, when we reached the final, thought that we got another opportunity at making the sport in India popular.
In 2013, the World Cup India had hosted before this one, we did not qualify for super six. When we reached the finals of the 2017 world cup, i told the girls i think we have a shot at making the sport big in our country. But then i knew that most of them had never been part of the 2005 world cup. It was the first final and all of them were nervous. For me, it was a different experience. I was walking in for a toss in a packed stadium at Lord’s.
I had played a lot before, but not as packed as it was that day, and the sort of euphoria that you create when you when people scream and you know when those drums are beating. I’ve always wanted to play once in my life. You know, when i started, i wanted to feel that atmosphere and i got to feel that in 2017 world cup.
Rica: It was a goosebumpy moment. Would you say that was one of the turning points for Indian women’s cricket?
Mithali: It definitely was one of the most significant curve in women’s cricket overall. Even globally I would say, the viewership and the following of events after that went up. It helped the sport keep pushing forward.
Rica: Mithali, what do you think will be the next biggest turning point for women’s cricket in India? Would it be winning that ICC trophy or the women’s IPL?
Mithali: I think, a World Cup trophy in any format, whether it’s T20 or one day is what all Indian cricketers are working towards. We know one ICC event trophy can do wonders to the sport. You know, despite we being just a step from there, have created a great impact.
I think what would definitely change things is the start of women’s IPL. It can help build a strong pool of players. It might take a few years more. I would not say from the beginning itself you know the first year women’s IPL would be like, you know, help the team. But maybe in 2-3 years time from the start of women’s IPLK we will see a lot many potential players because every challenger trophy have seen like shefali, kiran. So once women’s IPL starts you might find more such stories coming out and see how men’s IPL has helped in the growth of the men’s cricket in our country. I’m sure in a similar way it will propel the growth of women’s cricket in our country.
Rica: Talking a little more about your career Mithali, I have seen you from the time you started 2005 to 2015. Those years spent in indifference and maybe desperation as well at times. What did it take for you to motivate yourself?
Mithali: There are two factors. When you wear the jersey, when you are playing for India, you can’t think of putting in less than your 100%. So that has always motivated me. I know that there are so many people’s expectations, so many people’s wishes are backing me. There are so many people who played a role in shaping me as a cricketer and I cannot let them down.
I am carrying millions of hopes when I represent India in big events. So for that, if I have to stand up to those expectations, I have to be nothing less than my 100% each time I take the field. That has been one of the biggest motivating factor. I’ve never believed in mediocrity and that also has always propelled me to work harder.
Rica: If there’s one word I can describe in the manner you leave Indian cricket is healthy. Do you have a word or a sentence for it? I mean, you know, lots of people have been talking about your legacy.
Mithali: I think I’m satisfied from where I’ve started to where I’m leaving the sport.
Yesterday one of them asked me like what would be your legacy? I’ve never had the right answer for it, but I can say that you know when i started the first, the way I was introduced to the sport was in an exclusive boy’s camp where i was the only girl. Then I had to switch camp because they didn’t want to take girls and the same camp. Today we have around 60 to 80 girls who enroll every year and it was not common for a girl carrying a kit bag, walking down the street back in those days. But in today’s time it’s very common. People have accepted that and it’s now common to see girls playing cricket in the streets. Every academy enrolls girls. There is no exclusive boys or exclusive girls, but every academy is happy to enroll girls and train them. So i think i leave the sport in a good space and I’m very positive that you know it will only grow from here into a brighter space.
Rica: I know you leave behind a very happy dressing room. Now let me ask you this. In the current Indian dressing room, is there a youngster who embodies Mithali Raj’s energy?
Mithali: Well they are not. They are of this generation. They are not like me. The minute they are taking a picture they are already posting it on social media and i am two days late. So they say “didi yaar aap late dalte ho, tag to karo,” (you put these posts so late, at least tag us). Some of them literally pull the handset from me and they post on my behalf and tag themselves. So they cannot be me, they cannot be like me. But yeah, i am trying to be like them.
Rica: Well that’s a very sweet thing to say that you are trying to be like them. Your life story will soon be in cinemas, played by Tapsee Pannu. What is the best tip you have given her? Did you ask her to perfect the cover-drive?
Mithali: When she was training i was busy with my international commitments. So i could not really help her in her training. But i guess more than helping her i have only put pressure on her by telling her, better get your game right, get the cover-drive right. All of them are going to watch you. Maybe i have added more pressure on her. But i think she has done a very good job. She is a very hard-working actor. I am sure and positive she will ace this role.
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