Mithali Raj was just 16 when she broke into the Indian women’s team for the tour of England. A promising youngster from Hyderabad, she had already made her presence felt at the domestic level, but a national team call-up still seemed far away.
But in the summer of 1999, it was a dream come true for the youngster. Mithali went on to make her debut against Ireland along with Reshma Gandhi and interestingly, both the openers scored unbeaten centuries to ensure a 161-run win for the touring side. While Gandhi remained unbeaten on 104, Mithali was not out on 114.
While Gandhi just played one more ODI after that, Mithali emerged as one of the legends of the game in a career spanning 23 years.
But as the two youngsters made their debut at Milton Keynes on June 26, twenty-three summers ago, the then Indian team captain Chanderkanta Kaul had the best seat in the house. She watched the proceedings from the pavilion and was impressed with the way both went about their business.
On Wednesday, a while after Mithali announced her retirement from all forms of cricket, sitting faraway at her residence at Hounslow in London, Chanderkanta was nostalgic.
“We had told Mithali and Reshma to just go out there and stay at the crease. But we also told them to not take things easy and just bat on… Both played really well, and we did not get a chance to bat. It’s been a long time, but I still remember those moments,” Chanderkanta told Sportstar .
Known as Chanderkanta Aheer in her playing days, she was one of the most stylish batters of her time. A regular member of the Indian team between 1993 and 2000, she featured in 31 ODIs and five Tests and led the team with elan when it won the series in England.
Chanderkanta remembers the time when ‘ Mithu’ – as she fondly calls her – first joined the squad. “For us, Mithali became Mithu. Soon after everyone started calling her that. I knew her personally and had been to her house, met her father and he told us to take care of his daughter,” she said.
By the time Mithali made it to the team, Chanderkanta was 27 and had already spent six years in the circuit. So, for her, it was important to make the youngster feel comfortable. “When she made her debut, I already had a lot of experience, but she was the youngest on our team. She was very quiet and when she would bat, it looked as if she was very calm, but inside there she had a fire. We were surprised with her batting, and we knew this girl will go far,” Chanderkanta said. “She was like Rahul Dravid, no one could get her out...”
By her own admission, in those days, women’s cricket only had a manager and coach travelling with the team, and “there weren’t so many people”. Women’s cricket still hadn’t come under the BCCI and despite the challenges, it was a happy unit. “Our batting department was solid. In that tournament, the openers got us good starts and then we had people like Anjum Chopra, me, so we knew that we were building a solid team for the future,” Chanderkanta added.
“It was an open environment. It was fun with Sudha Shah as the coach. All of us wanted to give our best. The media wasn’t that active and as a captain, I was calm and cool. My focus was totally different – it was about how I could keep the team together and how we could communicate better,” she said.
“We did not think too much about politics. Our focus was to get into the team and perform to the best of our abilities. We did not like too many complications and we knew that we could answer our critics with our game.”
Even Mithali had a similar approach in her playing days – she would let her willow do the talking. While they would be in touch regularly, Chanderkanta remembers the last time she met Mithali and the gang during the 2017 World Cup in England. “Whenever they are here, we connect, and I go and watch them play. But after 2017, I haven't met anyone because there were restrictions. I remember we went to watch the practice match against Australia, which they lost, but the coaches and managers wouldn’t allow them to meet anyone. So, I haven’t met them in person after that, but we have been in touch…”
During her days as the captain, Chanderkanta wanted to build a solid team for the future. And Mithali has taken India’s women’s cricket team to greater heights and a happy Chanderkanta for her ‘youngest teammate’.
Shabaash, Mithu !