Against all odds: the Mithali Raj saga

THE unexpected has suddenly started turning up with great regularity in Indian sport and isn't that fantastic? We bow with great frequency, at our favoured temples of hope but solace, in its measured doses, seems to come from elsewhere. Maybe we need to spread our expectations around, maybe cricket shouldn't be the only dish to order.

The Commonwealth Games were fantastic; the shooters, weightlifters, the hockey team, unfancied people who climbed large summits. The awards they received were appropriate but awards are the easy, and convenient, way out; like an absent parent signing a large cheque on a child's achievement. Real rewards come from nurturing and that is going to be the challenge, so far ignored, in our sport.

Mithali Raj with the Most Valuable Player trophy.-V. V. KRISHNAN

I find it staggering to hear people launching forth on the quality of the opposition as if to belittle the Commonwealth Games achievement. It is a strange society that bemoans the lack of success and then seeks reasons to denigrate it when it arrives. Such societies are condemned to suffer and it is critical that we break out of this. Celebration produces happiness out of which more success arrives and I often fear that, cricket apart, we don't celebrate success enough. Bad news isn't the only news happening at the moment.

That is why, amidst the wrangling over contracts in cricket, we must celebrate a heart-warming achievement. Indian women had a rough time in England having arrived with little preparation and being confronted with wet wickets. The weather took away most of the practise and in the one-dayers the team was caught like soldiers in unknown terrain. They were shot down easily and with little help available they could so easily have become islands of despair and could have self-destructed. They didn't and that requires a lot of character.

What Mithali Raj did on the third day at Taunton was therefore staggering. Don't forget this is a 19-year-old girl playing in only her third Test. When you are new to the world of achievement it is easy to set small targets and be easily satisfied. A century overseas, something her captain Anjum Chopra had achieved, would have been fine reward but she persevered. She admitted to being nervous in the 90s but having got the century she kept going. It is an admirable trait in a cricketer and one to applaud.

There are two stories to the world record achievement. The skill and the aptitude will be documented but it is the other, more romantic but more tragic, that is equally relevant. As Mithali approached her century, the manager Jyoti Joshi, offered her a reward if she got there. "I will give you five pounds if you make it", she said and the line is beautiful and depressing.

There is an innocence in small rewards that affluence sometimes murders. With large rewards you sometimes get the feeling that he that gives seeks to gain as much from it as the person he gives it to. There is an element of pomp that small rewards, in their humility, cannot match. I suspect though, that it is the smaller ones, that get remembered longer. And yet, Jyoti Joshi had to offer five pounds because she could afford no more. Now that is something that must affect us; that the manager of a national team could afford no more than five pounds, less than the cost of a small pizza, to an outstanding achiever.

But as Mithali approached a double, it was only appropriate that the reward doubled as well. And so there was another five pounds on offer. Ten pounds for scoring a world record double century in the year 2002! And because Mithali was partnered in a world record seventh-wicket partnership by Jhulan Goswami, a fine new ball bowler, Jhulan was appropriately offered five pounds as well.

That is all the Indian women's cricket team in England could afford. Given these facilities, if their progress from the start of the tour to the end doesn't stagger people, they don't love Indian sport. We need to do something about this, not because money should be the scale on which to weigh achievement, but because we need to find more Mithalis, more Jhulans, more Anjums, more Neetu Davids.

There is a certain self-respect that financial well-being bestows on people. As a child, the stories I hated the most were of foreigners making fun of Indian cricketers because they didn't have the money to eat and live well. A lot of Indian journalists will tell you similar stories and while I have been lucky to tour in a different era with television, I remember my first tours very well. Foreign exchange was scarce and you had to make do with what you had. Often that meant, politely refusing a dinner with an overseas journalist for fear that he would order a starter, a main course and a wine and divide the bill by two.

With the international quality television that ESPN Star Sports brought, the allowances grew better and the feeling of inferiority vanished. I can see that with this generation of Indian cricketers as well. This must extend, even if over a period of time, to others that represent India. Self-respect is a vital ingredient of success and Mithali or Jhulan or the many others must have it.

The way out, certainly with cricket, is to have a combined administration that allows both men and women the access to facilities. Women's cricket, certainly at the moment, will be a very small cost outflow to the BCCI but it will mean the women will not have to go running around for sponsorship and that they can tour well. The other countries have done it and the time has come for us to do it as well. Immediately.

But till that happens let us share in the achievement. And raise a cheer for our women. It is a very impressive list that includes, among a few others, Anjali Bhagwat, Koneru Humpy, Vijayalakshmi, Kunjarani and now Mithali Raj. Maybe there are many more out there, all charged with the passion of representing India. All we have to do, at most times, is celebrate their success and surely that must be easier than it seems!