A reluctant cricketer to start with, nothing could stop Mithali Raj from succeeding and becoming Indian women cricket’s biggest role model. Her journey began in Secunderabad, where the budding Bharatnatyam dancer switched to the sport with help of a coach who replaced cricket balls with stones, flinging them at her in practice, and a strict father who set high standards
For many years, the distinct roar of the Ideal Jawa motorbike engine was Mithali Raj’s alarm. As a 10-year-old, a groggy Mithali reluctantly pulled herself out of bed to join her father Dorai Raj and older brother Mithun when they rode to the St John’s Cricket Academy grounds in Secunderabad at 4 am. She wished she was her grand parents’ age, since that would ensure that she, like them, would get undisturbed morning sleep.
Mithali often wondered what she was doing at a cricket coaching camp. Once in a while the ball would come rolling towards her. She would throw it back towards the nets, without much interest, more like a chore. Her father, Dorai Raj, a sergeant in the Indian Air Force, knew what he was doing. He was trying to instill discipline in his daughter. Raj Sr didn’t want Mithali to spend the morning lazing, a habit that he suspected was creeping into his young girl.
Mithali would find ways to kick boredom. She would pick a bat, and if and when someone was free, ask for throw-downs. During one such half-hearted hitting session, the sharp eye of the coach at the academy, former First-Class cricketer Jyothi Prasad, saw the innate talent in the young girl. Mithali was a natural, she was hitting the ball straight. Prasad referred her to the late Sampath Kumar, a coach who groomed two women’s teams in Secunderabad. The father was delighted, he thought Mithali would get hooked to the game. He was wrong.
“I was forced into something I didn’t like,” Mithali says about cricket.
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It sounds strange since the girl who grew up hating cricket is now the captain of the Indian women’s team. She also happens to be the face and voice of the neglected arm of the BCCI. At the National Cricket Academy for the team’s pre-tournament camp, she knows that her team has an outside chance to hold aloft the silverware. A spot on the podium can change the profile of the sport that lacks gender parity at several levels. This isn’t a dream. Earlier this year, the Indian girls defeated the mighty Autralians, defending champions in the shortest format. Not a one-off game, Mithali and her girls pocketed the series.
Years back, Mithali’s dreams were different. Cricket was not part of that. She wanted to be a Bharatnatyam dancer. “I was good at dance and that is something I always enjoyed, it was my interest. Cricket was something which I was pushed into so…,” her voice trails off.
Once coach Kumar took Mithali under his wing, she had no time to even think of mastering the mudras.
“The coach was a hard taskmaster. In the night he used to make me run, round after round. Also he wanted me at the ground well before sunrise. His idea was that when the sun comes up you should be ready for batting. When the bowlers come in, you can bat immediately and get extra time in the nets. I used to bat for two hours at a stretch. After practice, I would have breakfast at the ground and change at the ground for school. My dad used to drop me to school,” Mithali says.
After school hours, Mithali trained under coach Kumar at the Keyes High School in Secunderabad. She managed to spend an hour brushing up on her school lessons after which lights were out by 8 pm.
Like most women cricketers, Mithali also grew up facing boys in the nets but coach Kumar was not one for mollycoddling. The boys, most of them age-group cricketers, were instructed not to hold back. The faster they bowled at Mithali, the greater the appreciation they received from the coach. Once when Mithali was unable to connect while trying to cut and pull using only a stump as a bat, the coach picked up another stump and hit her on her calf. If she was slacking during a catching session, the cricket ball was replaced with stones which were hurled at her. If one of her hands turned blue, it was tied up behind her back and Mithali had to complete the catching drills with the other.
“With a stone you naturally use soft hands to catch it. At that time I was angry with the coach. I used to think how can he treat me like this. This is just too much. But today when he is not around, I know that if I have played through pain it was only because of him. I have had a recurring knee injury since 2005. My knees used to swell up like potatoes,” Mithali says.
Father Dorai Raj recalls those tough days. “Sampath Kumar told me your daughter will play for India by the time she is 14. I was surprised and did not believe it was possible because Mithali was already about 11 years old. But the coach told me it will happen if the family and Mithali are ready to make sacrifices,” Dorai Raj says.
By this time, Mithali, then only 14, was included in the probables for the 1997 World Cup. She was named in the stand-by list for the tournament, but the prodigious progress she had made and the prophetic words of her coach, who had foreseen an India cap, had an influence on her career choice.
Very soon, she had to totally give up on her dancing. “I enrolled myself into dance classes even before cricket happened. I invested eight long years and it was not easy to give it up. My dance teacher too felt that I must choose between playing cricket and dancing. My parents would give their opinion but ultimately they would leave it to me,” Mithali says.
After days of dilemma, Mithali took up cricket full time.
“I had already reached a high level in cricket so I decided to continue playing. I stopped dancing, though it was something I really loved,” Mithali says.
It would take Mithali another decade before she started to enjoy playing the game. During this period she made an ODI century on debut, broke the record for the highest Test score and captained the Indian women’s cricket team to its maiden World Cup final, the 2005 edition. India lost to Australia by 98 runs at the SuperSport Park in Centurion. Though the result didn’t go India’s way, Mithali rose in stature. “The 2005 World Cup was the first time I was leading any side. I had not captained even at the school level,” Mithali says.
“I was around 21-22 and I had ex-captains and senior cricketers playing under me. I didn’t know if I would do a good job. But fortunately, seniors did listen to me and supported me,” Mithali says.
Success didn’t have a bearing on Mithali’s outlook towards cricket, which remained a game she never embraced. The driving force, which kept her motivated over the years, was the sacrifice her parents had made.
“My father declined a promotion at his bank (Dorai Raj joined Andhra Bank after leaving the air force) because it would mean he would have to be transferred out of Hyderabad and my cricket would suffer. My mother would get up at 3 am and cook for me. She would pack my breakfast, snacks and lunch. Both my parents were working and it was not easy for them to plan their life around my cricket career. Most of my homework was done by my mother. I wanted to excel in cricket because of the sacrifices my parents made. Even when the going got tough, I wanted to continue playing,” Mithali says.
A young Mithali found it hard to feel at home in the cricket environment she found herself in. As a 14 year old, during her first national camp before the 1997 World Cup, she was like a fish out of water because most of the players were much older, some of them double her age, and she found it difficult to relate to them.
When Mithali broke down and wailed over the phone to her mother about feeling lonely and wanting to quit the game, her father admonished her for being a cry-baby. After the demise of coach Sampath Kumar in 1997, Dorai Raj took his place in Mithali’s life. The father proved to be as demanding as the late coach.
“First my debut series was total pressure for me because my dad was expecting me to perform. At the end of the day, I had to call my dad and tell him how I performed. If I didn’t score runs I would get a yelling. You are an ‘average player’. On a day when I scored a hundred, he would ask me how my fielding was or how many catches I dropped.”
By the time the 2009 ODI World Cup was upon her, Mithali had decided to hang up her boots after the event. Her knees were getting worse. She even told her mother that she was ready to settle down and asked her to find a suitable boy.
However, in Australia things went better than expected for Mithali. She made runs and the team finished third. But what really mattered was the ‘Live’ telecast of matches. “It was a turning point. People actually saw what women’s cricket was about. The matches were telecast live for the first time. There was recognition for the players and the sport. Personal satisfaction of playing the game was there but at the same time you want people to acknowledge you at some point. And that happened during the 2009 World Cup. I thought to myself that when things have started to look up why should I quit. Moreover, for the first time, I had started liking the game, enjoying playing cricket because there was recognition.”
Mithali narrates a story from a train journey as an example of how not being on television pushed her into the shadow of male counterparts. “I was reading a book which had my name scribbled on the cover. A fellow passenger started a conversation about ‘MithaIi Raj’ with a friend of mine who was travelling with me. This passenger knew that I played cricket for India and other details but he didn’t recognise me even after I put the book down. I was sitting right across him,” Mithali says.
Being seen on television has helped boost the profile of the women’s team. Last year during a domestic tournament in Rajkot the girls had been on a safari to the Gir forest. However, they could not spot a lion. When word got around that Mithali Raj and her teammates were in Gir, the officials organised another safari for them the next morning. “We could watch the lions for 45 minutes. We got a special reception from the forest department officials,” Mithali says.
The perception of women’s cricket has also undergone subtle changes. Girls narrate stories of being at the receiving end of uncharitable comments while fielding on the boundary line. “These days we play at bigger grounds where there is proper security. Nowadays, increasingly the spectators who come to watch women’s cricket are those interested in the game and follow the cricketers. People come to appreciate our game and we are not just a source of amusement anymore.”
But reminders of the prejudice women’s cricket faces surface from time to time.
“People ask us if rules in women’s cricket are the same as men’s cricket. People do ask me if we bowl underarm or overarm. You don’t ask tennis players if you have the same set of rules as the men, do you?”
The winds of change sweeping through the sport has resulted in bigger pay cheques, the odd endorsement or two and access to training facilities which were the preserve of men till recently.
Travelling unreserved by train and sleeping in a dormitory was commonplace. The current team is accustomed to plush hotels and economy class air travel.
Mithali has signed up to promote a sportswear brand while the top cricketers have the security of inking central contracts with the Board of Control for Cricket in India worth upto Rs 15 lakh annually.
The Indian skipper believes success at the World T20 being hosted in India can revolutionise the sport – similar to men’s cricket after the 1983 World Cup win.
“We should be able to seize this moment and make it big. The team has the right momentum going into the World T20. People know the team has done well. And now there are expectations, which we want to live up to during this tournament. ”