On the day one of the greatest cricketers, Mithali Raj, announced her retirement, her father Dorai Raj was a touch worried about what she would do with the newfound free time.
“She goes to the ground daily to train. Suddenly after retirement, she won’t be able to just sit at home. She has been playing cricket for 23 years. I hope her experience and services are used to take women’s cricket to the next level,” the senior Raj said on Wednesday.
Raj, who has worn many hats – coach, guide, sounding board, mentor – knows his daughter well enough to predict twiddling thumbs will leave the now-retired Mithali restless.
Just hours before the Indian women’s team was named for the T20I and ODI tour of Sri Lanka, Mithali announced her decision to hang up her boots via a statement on Twitter.
“I set out as a little girl on the journey to wear the India blues as representing your country is the highest honour. The journey was full of highs and some lows,” Mithali wrote. “Each event taught me something unique and the last 23 years have been the most fulfilling, challenging & enjoyable years of my life. Like all journeys, this one too must come to an end. Today is the day I retire from all forms of International Cricket.”
In her retirement statement, Mithali did talk about wanting to remain connected with the game.
“I would love to stay involved in the game and contribute to the growth of Women’s Cricket in India and world over.”
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What form that will take is unknown currently, but Dorai Raj believes his daughter would be as good an administrator as she was a cricketer.
Mithali’s tally of 7,805 runs from 232 ODIs is the highest in the 50-over women’s game. The next best is former England skipper Charlotte Edwards with 5,992. In all, the long-serving India captain scored 10,868 runs, also a women’s cricket record. Her 214 against England at Taunton in 2002 remains the second-highest score in women’s Test matches.
She got off to a flying start on ODI debut with an unbeaten 114 against Ireland and has been the bulwark of the team for 23 years, despite living with bad knees. In 2009, the injury got so bad that there was a question mark over her future. Yet, Mithali, 39 now, endured the pain and played in six 50-over World Cups, leading the country to two finals, in 2005 and 2017.
Her second final as captain ended in heartbreak as the team lost by 9 runs against England but the close finish at Lord’s had everyone talking about women’s cricket and created a buzz around the team.
In the women’s game, Mithali remains as big an icon as any. Her copybook strokes and watertight batting technique made her a graceful batter. Her footwork was exquisite, her ability to anchor the innings a special trait.
One of the first people Mithali discussed her retirement plans with was RSR Murthy, her long-time coach. He had opined during last Wednesday’s meeting at his home in Hyderabad that Mithali should continue playing for ‘some more time’. But she was convinced this was the right time, the coach said.
“I told her: ‘why not play a series at home and retire?’ But she wanted to make a decision before the Sri Lanka tour. She made the decision today. The next 50-over World Cup is a few years away, so she was convinced this was the time to retire and let youngsters take over,” Murthy, a head coach with South-Central Railway, said.
Mithali’s retirement didn’t come as a surprise. There were calls for her to step aside after India didn’t qualify for the semifinals of the World Cup earlier this year. She had made up her mind that the 2022 World Cup would be her last. “It’s been 21 years of international cricket and I know 2022 is my swansong, the World Cup,” she had said last year.
The final phase of her career was controversial due to the fallout with coach Ramesh Powar during the 2018 T20 World Cup in the West Indies. She was not picked in the Playing XI for the semifinal against England, a game India lost. Her last innings for India was a 68 off 84 balls with eight fours against South Africa at the 50-over World Cup.
Your contribution to Indian Cricket has been phenomenal. Congratulations @M_Raj03 on an amazing career. You leave behind a rich legacy.
We wish you all the very best for your second innings 🙌🙌 pic.twitter.com/0R66EcM0gT
— BCCI (@BCCI) June 8, 2022
For someone who had to be pulled out of bed and dragged to the cricket academy after her father, a sergeant in the Indian Air Force, felt she was getting lazy, Mithali has done well for herself. As a 10-year-old, she would join her father and older brother Mithun when they rode to the St John’s Cricket Academy grounds in Secunderabad at 4 am.
To kill boredom, Mithali would pick a bat at the academy and engage in half-hearted batting drills. Former First-Class cricketer Jyothi Prasad spotted that Mithali was a natural and referred her to the late Sampath Kumar, a coach who groomed two women’s teams in Secunderabad.
“I was forced into something I didn’t like,” Mithali had told this paper.
Back then, Mithali had different dreams. She wanted to be a Bharatnatyam dancer. “I was good at dance. It was my interest. Cricket was something which I was pushed into,” she had said.
Once she got into cricket, Mithali had her work cut out. 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 had said.
Like most women cricketers, Mithali also grew up facing boys in the nets. When she slacked during a catching session, the cricket ball was replaced with a stone. 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. 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.”
Just before the 2009 ODI World Cup, Mithali was on the verge of calling it quits. Her knees were getting worse. But she soldiered on.
Cricket is a dream and when I started off my career I had no idea that women’s cricket existed but the only name ever told or heard was yours @M_Raj03 Di. You sewed the seed for all the young girls to take up this sport and dream big. Wish you the best in life. pic.twitter.com/pWZ9UHcKN3
— Harmanpreet Kaur (@ImHarmanpreet) June 8, 2022
In Australia, things went better than expected for Mithali. She made a lot of runs and the team finished third. “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.”
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The dream of winning a World Cup remains unfulfilled as Mithali walks away from the game. But being an icon for over two decades, inspiring a generation of women to take up the sport and helping increase the visibility of women’s cricket are invaluable contributions.
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