Girl genius: Mithali at home in Hyderabad with her parents
Girl genius: Mithali at home in Hyderabad with her parents
One of the greatest batsmen of the modern era, Mithali Raj opens up about her life in cricket
"12pm, Gymkhana Grounds," reads a text from Mithali Raj. "You're well before time," I tell her as she gets out of her self-driven BMW a little later and drags two chairs to the boundary rope. "Disciplined life," she giggles. "Army family."
As an eight-year-old, Mithali loved to sleep in. To prevent such lazy habits from setting in, her father, Dorai Raj, a retired Air Force sergeant, dragged her along to her brother's cricket coaching sessions at St John's Academy in Secunderabad.
Mithali would sit by the boundary and finish her homework. Once she was finished, the restless girl would sometimes pick up a bat and hit a dozen balls along the ground as far as she could. Her casual hitting impressed the coach, Jyothi Prasad, a former first-class cricketer. Mithali's swift movements to drive the ball - a step forward before the bat came down in an arc - convinced him that she had potential.
"Even today, she is bad at routes, terrible at registering names. If I give her a list of things to do, chances are she will forget half of it"
From those sleepy mornings in Secunderabad, Mithali went on to become India's greatest female batsman, enjoying a storied international career that is nearly two decades long. Now, along with Jhulan Goswami, she is the last link between two very different eras of Indian women's cricket - one that played the amateur game, fuelled mostly by their passion, and today's generation, who can expect to have professional cricket careers, feature in television ads and get T20 franchise deals.
In December 1997, India hosted a successful Women's World Cup, with about 45,000 reportedly attending the final between Australia and England at Eden Gardens. But the Indian team did not play a single international match for over a year after that. The game was stagnating and steadily losing players, disillusioned by the lack of money, opportunities and recognition. Amid the doom and gloom arrived Mithali, sprightly and ferociously talented. On her international debut, against Ireland in Milton Keynes in 1999 - India's first match since the World Cup - she made an unbeaten 114.
The Taunton double-hundred in 2002 cemented Mithali's reputation as a formidable batsman
© Getty Images
The Taunton double-hundred in 2002 cemented Mithali's reputation as a formidable batsman © Getty Images
Three years later she was handed a Test cap. Expectations were riding high, but "stage fright", she says, took over and she got a duck against England in Lucknow.
Those at the ground were mesmerised not by the runs but the manner in which she made them. Senior players, who had seen her come to India's preparatory camp for the World Cup in 1997 as an unhappy and lonely 14-year old, were awestruck by the confidence of her strokeplay. "How could a puny little girl have strength like that?" thought those who then watched her evolve into a world-class batsman. Mithali insists she has never again been in the same batting zone that she was in on that cold day in Taunton.
"That knock marked her coming of age," says former India captain Mamatha Maben, upon whose dismissal Mithali came to the crease for her epic innings. "We always knew she could bat, but that knock catapulted her to another level. We knew then that here was a role model in the making, one who would inspire the future stars."
"The first time we batted together at adjacent nets, I would often have to be alerted by the bowlers, because I just kept watching her"
For all her precocious talent - Mithali was inducted into the Andhra state team for her first senior nationals in 1995, as a 13-year old, having scored heavily in Under-16 and U-19 matches - batting on a green-tinged surface against a strong England side must have been a daunting task? Not for someone who had the tough initiation Mithali had - much against her wishes.
On Jyothi Prasad's recommendation, Dorai Raj enrolled his daughter to train under Sampath Kumar, the head coach of Hyderabad's two age-group teams. Sampath saw Mithali bat and told her father, "I want the complete trust of you and your wife. I want blind support. I will make Mithali play for the country by the time she's 14." Dorai Raj was not convinced. "I told my wife he was bluffing. It seemed unrealistic."
Sampath's logic was to aim for the stars and hit the moon. If Mithali missed selection at 14, he felt she would make it by 16. "He didn't want to set the bar too low," explains Leela, Mithali's mother. "He didn't want her to get lost amid the academics maze, because back then there was either a career in engineering or medicine. Even if there were other options, our typical South Indian ideology didn't allow us to explore them."
Mithali with fans at the 2016 World T20 in Bangalore
© IDI/Getty Images
Mithali with fans at the 2016 World T20 in Bangalore © IDI/Getty Images
So rigorous was her cricket coaching that Mithali, barely ten, had to make the difficult decision to give up Bharatnatyam. "Dance was my personal passion, but the level of cricket I had reached meant I had to understand my priorities," Mithali says. "My parents invested a lot more time in making me a cricketer than a dancer, so I had to choose cricket."
A normal childhood was out of the question, as her parents asked her to single-mindedly focus on the game.
"They didn't give me an idea that there had to be a Plan B. They trained me like a racehorse. I wasn't allowed to see right or left, so I didn't have to deal with negativity, jealousy, insecurities or peer pressure. I didn't have proper relationships with my cousins, because I didn't attend family gatherings, for cricket's sake. Even today I'm not as close to my cousins as I am to my team-mates. I missed out on school excursions, school days, so yes, I have missed a lot of things."
And Mithali's training regimen only got tougher. Apart from six-hour coaching sessions, Sampath made her practise hitting straight in the narrow corridors of her school. "Sir used to hit me with a stick if the ball touched the walls," she says, grinning at the memory today. She would practise middling the ball with a stump, try to pierce the gaps on a field arranged with cones, and perform catching drills with stones so that she could get at the ball with soft hands.
Senior players were awestruck by the confidence of her strokeplay. "How could a puny little girl have strength like that?"
"Sometimes her coach made her train even after sunset," Leela says. "From 6pm to 8pm, at times. His reason was that in this light if she can watch the ball well, just imagine how well she'll fare when it's bright and sunny. Sometimes she used to come home crying. I used to calm her down, but now she tells me that if she didn't have that kind of initiation or training, she may have been a lesser player."
In 1997, just when Mithali was picked for the World Cup probables camp, Sampath died in a motorcycle accident. Mithali remembers going numb when she heard the news. "I felt I had lost more than just a coach. Today, whatever I am is because of him. He shaped my life in a way I didn't see coming. I felt my career was over before it began. It felt like my arms were broken even before the India dream materialised."
Dorai Raj realised he had to step in to help Mithali get back on track. "I dropped her in Kolkata for the national camp. I was constantly in touch, but she wasn't the same girl."
At the 2014 World T20 with assistant coach Devika Palshikar (centre) and coach Purnima Rau
Shashank Kishore / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
At the 2014 World T20 with assistant coach Devika Palshikar (centre) and coach Purnima Rau Shashank Kishore / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Mithali expected to make her debut at the World Cup, but officials felt she might not be able to take the rigours of a global tournament just then. The rejection was hard to swallow for a teenager already overwhelmed by the death of her coach.
"Though I was an extrovert till then, I somewhat became an introvert after coming to the India camp. I hardly used to talk to anybody. In a way, it helped. The more time you spend on yourself, you understand yourself better. My observing skills improved because of that."
In 2000, Diana Edulji, the former India captain, helped Mithali sign with Railways as a clerk on the sports quota. There she met team-mates GS Lakshmi and Rajani Venugopal, older by more than a decade. The environment was competitive. Sometimes Venugopal and Mithali would compete for a spot, but that didn't come in the way of their friendship.
"They taught me everything, right from folding clothes to living out of a suitcase," Mithali recalls. "I learnt from them what it takes to be independent. The Railways team was full of stars, but Diana decided I'll bat at No. 3 and gave me Rajani's spot. That was an honour. Knowing that she was preparing me to take the spot of a Railways lynchpin was a morale booster."
"I don't feel the need to get married unless I find the right man. I am not answerable to anyone"
By 2003 it was impossible to name an Indian XI without Mithali. Which meant a captaincy offer wasn't far off.
"My dad told me in case they asked me if I was ready, just say yes," Mithali says. "Heart of hearts, I knew I wasn't ready. Shanta Rangaswamy was the chairman [of the selection panel]. I'm not sure if she remembers, but I said no. Till date my dad doesn't know about it," she says, breaking into laughter. "That was one of the best decisions. I wouldn't be the captain I was in 2005 had I accepted the job in 2003. I learnt so much from Mamatha."
When she finally became captain, Mithali took India to their first World Cup final, in 2005, after scoring an unbeaten 91 in the semi-final against New Zealand - an innings she rates at par with her Test double-century.
"The pressure was immense. The pressure of the scorecard, the pressure from within, my eagerness to score, made me restless. There were times leading into the game where all I could think of was how I'll go about batting. Then the captaincy bit. On top of that, my knees used to swell like potatoes. I was on painkillers. To come out of that situation was extremely satisfying. Suddenly before the final, for the first time we saw a lot of [media] coverage back home. There was a sense of anticipation."
Mithali with her mother, who gave up her career to look after her daughter's needs
© Mithali Raj
Mithali with her mother, who gave up her career to look after her daughter's needs © Mithali Raj
India lost the final to Australia, but nearly 30 years after they had started playing international women's cricket, a benchmark was set. A bright future beckoned.
Inspired by India's World Cup campaign, 12-year-old Veda Krishnamurthy pestered her father to enrol her for trials at the Karnataka Institute of Cricket in Bangalore. That meant travelling from Kadur, a small town in the Chikmagalur district of Karnataka, that had no cricket facilities.
An added incentive of attending the trials was the opportunity to potentially meet Mithali, who was being felicitated by the academy for her international exploits. "I fought with my friends backstage to present Mithali the bouquet," Krishnamurthy recounts. She describes how mesmerised she was on meeting her idol. "I was shaking. I couldn't believe I was meeting the captain of the Indian team; the best batter in women's cricket."
"I want the complete trust of you and your wife. I will make Mithali play for the country by the time she's 14"
Three years on, Krishnamurthy got the chance to bat alongside her role model and get feedback from her, at a net session. "The first time we batted together at adjacent nets, I would often have to be alerted by the bowlers, because I just kept watching her," Krishnamurthy says. "I was distracted, maybe awestruck. From there to now, it's surprising how we've come a long way. Now we are team-mates, and she is a wonderful captain. Off the field, I pull her leg too."
Training in Sangli's only net facility, Smriti Mandhana broke into Maharashtra's U-15 squad as a nine-year-old, the year India made it to the World Cup final. At the age of 11, she was fast-tracked into the state's U-19 side, and at 16, like Mithali, she was an India international. "I picked up the game because of my brother, but Mithali Raj was a big name by then and everyone wanted to be like her," she says. "I realised her star status when I attended my first senior probables camp. To get a chance to open the batting with her in inter-camp matches was worth so much for a junior like me."
In July 2014, in Wormsley against England, Mithali and Mandhana steered a tense fourth-innings chase to win India's first Test in eight years.
Mithali leads the team out for the 2014 Wormsley Test that India won by six wickets
© Getty Images
Mithali leads the team out for the 2014 Wormsley Test that India won by six wickets © Getty Images
Harmanpreet Kaur's first international half-century - a 113-ball 84 in an ODI against England in Mumbai in 2010 - was made in Mithali's company. The two added 90 runs after coming together at 26 for 4. Harmanpreet says being guided by someone who she looked up to helped her settle down in the dressing room.
"Anyone who comes in must feel welcome, just the way I was made to feel welcome early on by a legend like Mithali di," says Harmanpreet, now India's vice-captain under Mithali. "I realised how we've come a long way when we partied in Australia after beating them earlier this year. The seniors and juniors mingled freely. Mithali di was a friend to us. No one looked at her as just the captain. That marked a change in mindset. People became free."
The impact Mithali has had on the next generation nearly didn't materialise. When she was about 25, she began to think her time in cricket was up. The strains of her formative years had begun to take a toll by 2009, and she spent countless hours with physiotherapists because of her knees. Then there was pressure to marry because she was "ageing".
"They trained me like a racehorse. I wasn't allowed to see right or left, so I didn't have to deal with negativity, jealousy, insecurities or peer pressure"
"I was happy I didn't [get married] because I may not have achieved what I did after that. I may have not played this long," Mithali says. "Now that I have become independent in every facet, I don't feel the need to get married unless I find the right man. I am not answerable to anyone. My parents have taken care of me so much that I don't need to go to a third person."
Mithali's parents made sacrifices for their daughter's career - Dorai Raj passed up a promotion because it would have meant relocating to another city when Mithali was first named among the World Cup probables, and Leela quit her career as a manager at an optical products chain to take care of Mithali. They understand now that pushing her into marriage in her mid-20s would have undone all that.
"Of course they have dreams of seeing me married," Mithali says as her parents nod along. "Even though they understand, they still sometimes bow down to pressure from society and relatives. I'm not someone who goes by what society thinks. To each his own life. They are comfortable today because they know I'm not immature. They are happy about it now and have left it entirely to me."
Veda Krishnamurthy and Mithali hold the trophy after beating Sri Lanka 3-0 in a T20 series ahead of the 2016 World T20
© Veda Krishnamurthy
Veda Krishnamurthy and Mithali hold the trophy after beating Sri Lanka 3-0 in a T20 series ahead of the 2016 World T20 © Veda Krishnamurthy
But after nearly 17 years of top-flight cricket, Mithali is finally thinking of life after the game. "My aim two years back was the 2017 World Cup because we didn't do well at home in the 2013 [World Cup]. I felt I should leave when the team isn't dependent on me as player or captain or senior player. Seeing the fitness that I have at the moment, I see myself playing for two to three years."
Her parents are also shifting their focus to her post-retirement life. "Now her mother will want her to finish her post-graduation, let me give it to you in writing," laughs Dorai Raj, who now trains U-16 girls at Andhra Cricket Association's women's wing in Guntur.
Leela is pushing Mithali to work on other life skills. "Even today, she is bad at routes, terrible at registering names. If I give her a list of things to do, chances are she will forget half of it. She can hardly cook. She can be a bit of a rebel at times, so letting her get streaks in her hair was my way of saying, 'Okay, have your way this time, provided you listen to me otherwise.'"
Mithali doesn't mind her mother bossing her around at the age of 33. "She has sacrificed a lot of her time," Mithali says. "She has worked very hard to see to it that I had food on time. I'm that kind of a child who needs her mother around even today, so she took a back seat and decided to become a housewife." For Leela the sacrifices were worth the reward. "Today, my own sisters refer to me as Mithali's mother. There can't be a better feeling for a mother."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.