Reign of the Raj: Mithali's double century against England in 2002

Playing her first ever Test series on English shores, Mithali Raj announced her arrival with a majestic double hundred in the second Test against England.

At Taunton, Mithali Raj stayed out in the middle for an incredible 598 minutes.   -  Sandeep Saxena

July and August are inarguably the best times to visit the British Isles. But the six weeks the Indian Women’s team had spent in England and Ireland, had been anything but a vacation, notwithstanding the glorious weather. Two wins against Ireland were all they had to show for the weeks of frustrating toil. The low point had been getting all out for 26 in an ODI at the start of the tour. And now there were only two days left on the tour. Redemption looked unlikely.

But often, it is darkest before the break of a brilliant dawn. And out in the middle on the third day of the final Test match against England at Taunton, a determined young 19-year old, wielding her bat like a rapier one minute, a wand the next, oblivious to the weight of history as the young often are, was getting ready to make her own.

Mithali Raj, who had made a sensational international debut with an ODI century when she was just 16, and earned her Test cap a few months before this tour, was at the cusp of her first Test ton. Playing only her third Test match, and her first against England, Raj had added 144 runs for the fourth wicket with Hemlata Kala. At long last, things seemed to be turning around for the team. Then, with the score at 244 for 3, disaster struck. Kala was run out with her young partner still on 97, and India 85 runs behind.

Over the next ninety minutes, India would lose three more wickets and find themselves with backs against the wall, 32-runs behind with only the tail to come. In the midst of this procession, with a stoicism that belied her age, Mithali Raj completed her maiden century. The celebration was muted, for there remained much work to be done. Walking out to join Raj, was India’s young pace bowler, Jhulan Goswami.

As the wickets had tumbled, back in the changing room, coach Tarak Sinha had sat down with Goswami to give his young ward a pep talk. He had immense faith in her batting abilities, but the last exchange between the two had not gone well. Goswami had been put off by the coach’s parting words: ‘Go save the match,’ and had angrily responded, ‘you want me to save the match after not giving me any batting practice!’

But as she got to the middle, Raj’s tired visage made Goswami forget her annoyance. ‘You keep playing, I will support you. I won’t get out,’ she told her senior partner.

Born and brought up in the outskirts of Kolkata, Jhulan Goswami had witnessed with her own eyes what determination on the cricket field could achieve. Along with a few million other Indians, she had sat in front of the television set for two magical days, mesmerised by two men wielding their willows against all odds, facing up to the greatest Test side in the world.

VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid’s partnership at the Eden Gardens had inspired the entire nation, not least the young Goswami, glued to the sight of her two heroes out in the middle. What Goswami remembered most had been their calmness while they had gone about their jobs, Dravid responding to the Australian sledging with silent dignity, Laxman not seeming to notice it; Dravid perfect with his footwork, Laxman sublime with his artistic ‘bat flow’.

Now, out in the middle, she reminded Raj of that partnership and told her: ‘We have to do it for India….Even if you don’t do it for yourself, do it for the flag.’ Inspired by her partner’s words, the runs began to flow again from Raj’s BDM bat.

Bowling to Raj that day, was Isa Guha, making her debut for England. Guha, now a respected Television commentator, remembers admiring Raj’s cover drives and ‘languid style, very classical.’ But she also recalls that they were not unduly worried, and indeed the English team could have been forgiven for thinking that with six wickets in the bag, they now had the match in their grasp. The smiles on their faces said it all. The hours to follow would show exactly how premature their celebrations had been.

Journalist Jarrod Kimber had written in his book, Test Cricket: The Unauthorized Biography, about Laxman’s innings: ‘Australia first tried to take his wicket driving. He drove, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket pulling. He pulled, they took no wicket. Australia then tried to take his wicket with slower balls. He waited, they took no wicket. …Australia then tried to take his wicket by giving up. He batted, they took no wicket.’

Seventeen months and 8000 kilometres apart, this day in Taunton, Mithali Raj was to emulate Laxman, a fellow Hyderabadi, and play her own Very Very Special innings. Goswami would enact the role of Dravid, standing by Raj like the proverbial wall. For the next few hours, the two young women, fated to become the pillars on which India would build the edifice of a world class cricket team over the coming decades, played the innings’ of their lives.

By the time Raj and Goswami were finally separated, it was the next morning. They had put together a record breaking 157-run partnership for the seventh wicket. It was a ball from Isa Guha that trapped Mithali Raj before the stumps. Guha labeled it ‘pure relief.’ But by then, Raj had played 407 deliveries, sent the ball to the fence all of nineteen times, and stayed out in the middle for an incredible 598 minutes, at two minutes shy of 10 hours, a Test record that remains unbroken two decades on. On the way, she had notched up 214, the then highest individual score in the history of women’s cricket.

Over the next two decades, Mithali Raj would go from strength to strength. In 2017 she became the first player to score 6000 runs in the Women’s ODI format. Leading from the front, she took India to the finals of two Women’s World Cups in 2005 and 2017. She dreams of changing the colour of the medal, from Silver to Gold, when the next World Cup comes around.

In Taunton, that 16th day of August in 2002, there had not been enough time for India to go for a win, but by her incredible act of courage and fortitude, what Mithali Raj had achieved was far more precious - with her 214 lovingly crafted bricks, she had laid the foundations of a bright future for women’s cricket in India.

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