Dancing's loss, cricket's gain

IT could have been Mithali's `Raj' in the 2005 World Cup women's cricket championship.

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

IT could have been Mithali's `Raj' in the 2005 World Cup women's cricket championship. But, the team fell at the last hurdle even though it made history by becoming the first Asian team to reach the final of a women's World Cup.

Mithali Raj steered the Indian team to the final of the World Cup.-H. SATISH

The 22-year-old South Central Railway employee has, for a long time, been spoken of as one of the more dependable batswomen in international circuit. And, quite naturally, there were high expectations when the Indians took on defending champions Aussies in the final. Perhaps it was the excitement of being there which cost the team dear, or the pressure of playing in the Cup final which made the Indians stumble in `the' match of the mega event. No doubt, in the end, it was a collective failure — a contrast to the wonderful team effort the team had been putting up till that encounter!

But, skipper Mithali Raj, is not overtly dejected at the performance of the team. "It was a dream come true to play in a World Cup final. Full credit should go to the entire team," she says quite frankly. And, she asserts that there was never any complacency as there was plenty of excitement all around the Indian camp on the eve of the final.

"It was a different match altogether. We were up against a very professional side which has been in the finals consistently," she argues. "It was just the question of not clicking as an unit on the given day. May be, the run outs and the dropped catch of Rolton (she was floored when on 62) could be the main reasons. But, sincerely I will not offer any excuses for the defeat. However we did take a lot of pride in reaching the final. No second thoughts on that," says Mithali.

Well, not many may be aware that had it not been for the initiative of the late Sampath Kumar of APSRTC — a qualified cricket coach — this young articulate girl may have been dancing away to fame by now. She quit classical dancing (Bharatnatyam) to take up cricket. May be fate destined that she would wield the willow and make bowlers dance to her tunes. The one-time world record-holder for the highest individual score (214 against England in 2003), Mithali never let down her first coach. "He was a terrific gentleman. A very respected figure in our cricketing circles. It was he who taught me the basics," recalls the Indian captain.

But, how difficult was the choice — between cricket and classical dancing — for the parents? "There is no doubt that we became convinced after Sampath spotted the natural talent in Mithali and insisted that she would be equally good in cricket too," recalls Dorai Raj, Mithali's father.

"But for me the important thing was once that significant decision was taken, there was no looking back for I had the complete support of my parents," adds the star cricketer.

Can she imagine life without cricket? "I think it is impossible to think along those lines now. Whatever I am, it is because of the game. At this stage, I can only eat, drink and sleep cricket," says a smiling Mithali.

At home with her mother, Leela Raj.-H. SATISH

Were there any inhibitions at least in the formative years when girls of her age would have preferred the indoors and the comforts of a caring mother? "May be, I missed something of that in life. But, I am happy with what I have gained by being a cricketer. Fortunately, there were never any discouraging words which could have deterred me from playing cricket," she explains. "Definitely, I have no regrets in playing the sport," she added. There is always the freedom for someone like Mithali to look up to players like Poornima Rao, the former India captain, who also hails from the same state. "Definitely, there were quite a few women cricketers from Hyderabad whom we always looked up to with a sense of satisfaction and confidence. We had a feeling that if we perform well, we will be recognised. However not necessarily on the same plane as men's cricket. Of course, that is unthinkable," she reasons out.

Having come so close to a triumph after reaching the final of World Cup, do you sincerely believe that you missed a golden chance to script history by winning it? Especially considering that it will be another four years before you really start dreaming big again?

"Definitely, when you realise that the next edition is four years away, the first thing which strikes you is that it is near impossible to imagine the same team (which took on Australia in the 2005 final) to be there again next time. There are bound to be changes as quite a few seniors will most likely make way for youngsters. Even I will be 26 for the next World Cup. And, I must confess there are lots of ifs and buts and it is a fact that we should begin again from scratch. So, it will be a totally different proposition about which we cannot predict or expect anything right now. Except perhaps plan to maintain the current consistency over the next four years by way of playing more and more matches to be in the right frame of mind," explains Mithali.

"Certainly the onus is on the Women's Cricket Association of India to ensure there is a continuity in terms of international matches," she says to a query.

Well, for the time being, Mithali is in the mood to enjoy the touching, if not rousing receptions, on her return from South Africa. She plans to take a three-week break from the game, enjoy her favourite dishes prepared by mother Leela Raj and then plan for the next big assignment of her career.