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Fans have the luxury to pick their favouritest male cricketers, and go starry eyed and giggle and ramble their adoration away. Mithali Raj is focussed on Katherine Brunt instead.
There’s a job to do – to hit whatever the English pacer throws at her, out of the park. And no amount of Tendulkar or Dhoni or Kohli-love or posters on walls, can help the Indian captain when Brunt charges in and snarls away.
A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do — get India started in their World Cup campaign against England at Derby, and Mithali won’t be distracted to let Brunt come in the way. “I’ve always had a rivalry against her. She’s always charged up when she sees me come out to bat. I don’t know how this rivalry started, but it’s always very hardcore when we’re up against each other. I want to do well against any bowler I face, but yes, it’ll be nice to score some runs off her. Or many runs. Sixes to give back to that glaring,” Mithali had said, hours before flying out to her 5th World Cup, third as captain.
The 33-year-old reckons it’ll be her last 50-over Cup, but she’s incredibly centred on the task at hand. “I’m aware this will be my last, but I don’t want to enter this World Cup piling pressure on myself. I can’t let weight of expectations bog me down,” said the skipper who’s been playing for India since her teens. “I want it to be special irrespective of the result. I am very calm and confident and not at all under pressure,” she added.
The last world cup was difficult. India hosted the edition and it imploded into a nightmare, as the home team failed to even qualify for the Super 6.
“It was a huge disappointment. We were given the best platform, but we couldn’t perform,” she said. It had been personally rough after critics tore into her saying runs didn’t come off her bat as they should have. An unfortunate sequence of matches as a big opportunity was missed – something people haven’t stopped reminding her of.
And then there was her self-inquisition. “I always had this reputation of great consistency till then. But when needed, the runs didn’t come. People forget sometimes that it happens,” she said.
For most Indians, great World Cup memories are the balmy 2011 evening at Wankhede, or grainy reruns of the 1983 title at Lord’s. “I don’t really watch much men’s cricket, so it’s tough to pick a memory though obviously Mumbai was a big moment for Indian cricket,” she said. What she recalls vividly is her own World Cup run to the finals from 2005.
“In 2005, New Zealand were the strongest team that year and we ran into them in the semifinals in South Africa. They were brilliant, and nothing pretty much was expected of us. It was a very close rain-interrupted game. I’d scored a 90 odd after recovering from a torn ligament injury. When we fielded, every dismissal was referred to the third umpire and it was a thriller. You remember such days better, there’s something magical about them. There are many bad days in cricket and you remember the pain and the hurt, but this game always makes me happy,” she said.
Aggressive brand of cricket
The preparation for this World Cup started last year for Mithali. Since the West Indies home series, the batsman has worked on her conversion rate, even as she promises the team will unveil a new aggressive brand of cricket not seen before in Indian squads.
“In the last few years, we’ve got everything we’ve asked for, and there is nothing to complain about,” she said, adding, “We’ve prepared well, so frankly there are no excuses now. It is important to showcase a fearless brand of cricket, and get people to watch us,” she stressed.
Much has changed since the first time Mithali went to a World Cup. “Women cricketers are revelling being on TV, we enjoy the whole idea of playing our matches and them being televised. We’re comfortable in our skins, not worried about comments, and even happy to be on television. We enjoy it rather than dread it,” she said.
There’s changes in the attitude too. “Earlier, it was considered, that the more serious and focussed you look, the better player you are. You had to be stern looking all the time, and look intense. That’s completely changed. Girls want to have a bit of fun now, they want to play good hard cricket and be seen enjoying it. We don’t have to look like it’s a punishment. It’s cricket – we should enjoy it, right?” she said.
When she headed to UK, Mithali had packed the kitbag meticulously – including a rin gong keychain she’d picked at Dharamshala. She’d just finished the Percy Jackson series on her Kindle but book that stayed with her was a travelogue When The Road Beckons.
The journey starts with dealing with a certain Katherine Brunt. Her favourite punch-bag on opening day.