Mithali Raj: The 'sleepy' girl who changed Indian cricket forever

By Deepti Patwardhan
Sports writer

Published
India's Mithali Raj bats during the Women's Cricket World Cup match between South Africa and India at Hagley Oval in Christchurch on March 27, 2022.Image source, Getty Images
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Mithali Raj has announced her retirement from international cricket

When legendary India batter Mithali Raj announced her retirement on Wednesday, it not only brought an end to one of the most decorated careers in Indian cricket but also one of the most influential stints in the sport.

In a career spanning 23 years, Raj represented India 333 times across all formats, scored a world record 10,868 runs and became the first Indian captain to lead the country to two World Cup finals.

But the legacy she leaves behind goes well beyond mere numbers. The first woman to make it big in a predominantly male sport, she helped girls across the country nurture a dream.

"I set out as a little girl on the journey to wear the India blues as representing your country is the highest honour," the 39-year-old Raj wrote on social media as she announced her retirement.

"The journey was full of highs and some lows. Each event taught me something unique and the last 23 years have been the most fulfilling, challenging and enjoyable years of my life."

Discipline has been the bedrock of her longevity and it is strange to learn that Raj was introduced to the sport because she was too lazy.

To make sure she didn't develop the habit of sleeping in till late, Dorai Raj, who was in the Indian Air Force, would make his daughter accompany her brother to cricket training at the John's Cricket Academy, Secunderabad.

Image source, Getty Images
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Raj has been the lynchpin of India women's cricket for more than 20 years

While she would spend most of her time sitting by the boundary and completing her homework, Raj would at times pick up a bat and start knocking around.

A coach at the Academy, Jyothi Prasad, was impressed by her technique and referred her to Sampath Kumar.

A positive appraisal from Kumar, who coached two women's teams in Secunderabad then, set the wheels in motion. Even though her passion was Indian classical dance, Raj started on a journey her parents chose for her.

Her cricket training began at four in the morning and could sometimes consume six hours of her day. A batting purist, Kumar would make Raj practice batting in the narrow corridors of her school and make her bat with a stump to make sure she was middling the ball.

"Sir used to hit me with a stick if the ball touched the walls," she explained in an interview to Cricket Monthly in September 2016. She didn't have time to attend family functions and was discouraged by her grandparents for pursuing what was a "boys' sport" back then.

Those hours of focused, intense training laid the foundation of one of the most technically proficient batters India has ever produced. Raj has not only scored runs by the bucket-loads, she has done so with a 'correct' technique.

A special talent, Raj was fast-tracked through the ranks. She was selected for the Andhra Pradesh team when she was just 13 and won her first India cap at the age of 16 in 1999. Raj announced her arrival with an unbeaten 114 against Ireland in her India ODI debut at Milton Keynes, England.

The Indian went on to become the most prolific scorer in ODIs, with a record 7,805 runs at an average of 50.68. She has also scored seven consecutive 50s, which is a record in women's cricket.

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Raj remains India's highest run-scorer in women's T20 internationals, having retired from the format in 2019

A lynchpin of the Indian batting line-up, Raj was handed captaincy in 2005. Later that year, she led India to their first-ever World Cup final.

Raj's achievement is even more impressive given that women's cricket was still an amateur pursuit when she first made her mark.

Women's cricket languished in neglect and obscurity, while their male counterparts reaped in riches and fame. India's female cricketers did not have access to facilities, coaching structure or even proper domestic structure. Players would have to graduate straight from pitch mats to international wickets.

With Raj at the forefront, Indian female cricketers constantly waged a battle on the system while fighting better-funded, better-trained rivals.

A reminder of that is Raj has played only 12 Test matches in her 23-year career. She scored 214, then the highest score in women's cricket, in 2002 to guide India to victory over England in Taunton. After that, she played five Test matches in the next four years, and none in the next eight.

Raj was once asked to name her favourite male cricketer. She shot back with, "Do you ask male cricketers who their favourite female cricketer is?".

Image source, Getty Images
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Raj is the only India captain, male or female, to have led the side in two World Cup finals

For more than 20 years, Raj was the face and voice of Indian women's cricket.

Most of the players in the current team grew up watching her, idolising her. Not only for her batting exploits, but also for her gumption.

During her tenure, the sport has taken significant strides. The Board of Control for Cricket in India, the richest cricket federation in the world, brought women's cricket under its flag only in 2005. It wasn't until 2016 that female cricketers were given central contracts.

But it wasn't until 2017, when India made another World Cup final under Raj's captaincy that the country truly woke up to the exploits of its women's cricket team.

The matches were televised and India was hooked onto its favourite pastime all over again. India lost to England by nine runs at Lord's in the 2017 final, but they won over hearts.

"It was an honour to have led the team for so many years," Raj wrote on Wednesday. "It definitely shaped me as a person and hopefully helped shape Indian women's cricket as well."

She changed the game forever.

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