Former captain of the Indian women’s cricket team, Mithali Raj, retired from cricket last week after a 23-year cricket career. She retired as the leading run scorer in women’s international cricket. Aside from her “Bradman-esque” contribution to women’s cricket, she will be remembered for all she has done to make women’s game mainstream in India. Mithali spoke exclusively with NDTV. Here’s a snippet
Rica: Mithali, you’ve spent half your life in camps and packing your bags. Has it dawned on you that there are things you may not need to do now?
Mithali: I think my routine has definitely changed. Now I don’t have to get up early and plan my day or plan a week or plan preparation for the next series. In that sense, yes, life has slowed down a bit and there’s time for a lot of other things that I couldn’t pursue when I started playing cricket.
Rica: Do you have any plans to go back to Bharatnatyam?
Mithali: I don’t know, I’d probably give it a try, but right now I haven’t really thought about dancing again. It’s been a long time since I switched from dance to cricket, but when it comes to reading and sketching, these are certain things that I’ve really enjoyed over the years, but could never get a lot of time to invest in those things. So maybe I’ll try to pick them up as a hobby.
Rica: Mithali, at what point did you think it was the right time to let go of a 23-year career? Was it after the loss in New Zealand?
Mithali: No, when it came to my retirement, I was very clear a few years ago that the World Cup will be my swan song. There were a few interviews where I mentioned that.
I had to deal with the emotion of the disappointment of the last game at the World Cup. And I didn’t want to make a decision that would be overwhelmed, especially a big one. I had to take some time for that. Then I went to the T20 domestic tournament. I felt I didn’t have the kind of intention and passion that has gone to the ground with all these years. I never missed housekeeping, but this time around I just didn’t feel the right kind of emotion to get on the floor. I wasn’t playing the domestic and I felt it was time to make my retirement official. But it had been in my head for a few years. It was just a matter of accepting and dealing with it, and then probably making it official.
Rica: Now that you’ve finished your career, if you were to sit down and watch your innings, which of the games would you like to see again.
Mithali: I think all those important innings could be the 2017 World Cup. I’ve had few good innings. I remember 40 runs against Australia at the 2009 World Cup, one of which I won. It’s just a shame I don’t have some of my best innings because it wasn’t televised at the time, so we didn’t even have any videos about it. But yeah, these are the few innings I would have liked to see.
Rica: Mithali, in the mountain of your ODI records. What is lost is your 214 in Test Cricket – the highest score of a female Test Cricket player. Do you have recordings of that?
Mithali: I don’t have a recording of it, it’s just the memories I have with me and a little bit of what my own teammates are telling me. So we remember it from their perspective. They tell me how they found my innings so what about the 214 knock.
Rica: What amazes me time and again about you is that you played more cricket than Sachin Tendulkar, on average almost as much as Dhoni in ODIs, your win rate as captain is more than Sourav Ganguly. Let me ask you what 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 a total of 10,000 international runs. Taking India to the 2017 World Cup final held in England must have been special. Emotions ran high when you went out to throw at the gentlemen. Can you guide us through the feelings of that day?
Mithali: In 2017, we created a buzz in India from the first game. In England we didn’t know much about the reactions at home. That was because social media was very new back then and I am not someone who is very, active or addicted to social media. So even I didn’t know much about twitter then. We played well, when we reached the final we thought we had another chance to popularize the sport in India.
In 2013, the World Cup that India had previously hosted, we did not qualify for the super six. When we reached the final of the 2017 World Cup, I told the girls that I think we have a chance to make the sport great 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 they were all nervous. For me it was a different experience. I walked in for a toss in a packed stadium at Lord’s.
I’d played a lot, but not as full as that day, and the kind of euphoria you create 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 vibe and I had to feel that in the 2017 World Cup.
Rica: It was a goosebumps moment. Would you say this was one of the turning points for Indian women’s cricket?
Mithali: It was definitely one of the most significant curves in women’s cricket in general. Even globally I would say, viewership and event following went up after that. It helped keep the sport moving forward.
Rica: Mithali, what do you think will be the next big turning point for women’s cricket in India? Would it win that ICC trophy or the women’s IPL?
Mithali: I think all Indian cricketers are working towards a World Cup trophy in any format be it T20 or someday. We know that one ICC event trophy can do wonders for the sport. You know, even though we’re only one step away, we’ve created a big impact.
I think what would definitely change things is the beginning of IPL for women. It can help to build a strong player pool. It could take a few more years. I wouldn’t say from the outset myself that you know the first year would be women’s IPL, you know, helping the team. But maybe in 2-3 years from the start of IPLK for women, we will see a lot of potential players because every challenger trophy like shefali, have seen kiran. So once the women’s IPL kicks off, you may come across more such stories and see how men’s IPL has contributed to the growth of men’s cricket in our country. I am sure that in the same way it will stimulate the growth of women’s cricket in our country.
Rica: About your career Mithali, I’ve seen you from the moment you started from 2005 to 2015. You spent those years in indifference and maybe despair. What did it take to motivate yourself?
Mithali: There are two factors. When you’re wearing the jersey, when you’re playing for India, you can’t even think of putting in less than your 100%. So that has always motivated me. I know that there are so many expectations of people, that the wishes of so many people support me. There are so many people who have played a part in shaping me as a cricketer and I cannot disappoint them.
I hold millions of hopes when I represent India at major events. So for that, if I have to live up to those expectations, I have to be nothing less than my 100% every time I step into the field. That has been one of the biggest motivating factors. I have never believed in mediocrity and that has always pushed me to work harder.
Rica: If there’s one word I can describe in the way you leave, Indian cricket is healthy. Do you have a word or phrase for it? I mean, you know, a lot of people have talked about your legacy.
Mithali: I think I’m happy from where I started to where I leave the sport.
Yesterday one of them asked me what would be your legacy? I’ve never had the right answer to it, but I can say you know that when I started the first one, the way I was introduced to the sport was at an exclusive boys’ camp where I was the only girl. Then I had to switch camps because they wouldn’t accept girls and the same camp. Today we have about 60 to 80 girls who sign up every year and it was not common in those days for a girl to walk down the street with a kit bag. But in today’s time it is very common. People have accepted that and it is now common to see girls playing cricket in the street. Every academy enrolls girls. There are no exclusive boys or exclusive girls, but every academy is happy to enroll and train girls. So I think I’m leaving the sport in a good space and I’m very sure you know it’s only going to grow into a brighter space from here.
Rica: I know you leave a very happy locker room. Let me ask you this now. In today’s Indian dressing room, is there a young person who embodies the energy of Mithali Raj?
Mithali: Well, they aren’t. They are of this generation. They are not like me. The moment they take a picture they already post it on social media and I am two days late. So they say “didi yaar aap late dalte ho, tag to karo,” (you post these posts so late, at least tag us). Some of them literally pull the handset off me and post on my behalf and tag themselves. So they can’t be me, they can’t be like me. But yes, I try to be like them.
Rica: Well, that’s really sweet to say you’re trying to be like her. Your life story will soon be in cinemas, played by Tapsee Pannu. What’s the best tip you’ve given her? Did you ask her to perfect the cover drive?
Mithali: When she was training, I was busy with my international obligations. So I couldn’t really help her with her training. But I think I did more than just help her, I just pressured her by telling her get your game good, get the cover drive good. They’re all going to look at you. Maybe I put more pressure on her. But I think she did a really good job. She is a very hardworking actor. I am sure and certain that she will win this role.