'Double century was just a dream`

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

SHE had some regrets initially when she quit lessons in classical dancing and carried a cricket kit around her shoulders to report to the Keyes High School ground, to hone her batting skills. It meant she had to get up early in the morning. But it paid off when Mithali Raj, 19 years of age, did India proud by crafting an innings of 214, the highest ever in women's Test cricket.

In just her fourth innings, Mithali distinguished herself with a feat she never dreamt of. In terms of the sheer number of runs she scored, it was a stupendous effort but as her mentor, former star Diana Eduljee pointed out, it was the maturity of her batting craft which stood out. More than the runs she made and the impact the knock had on the team as a whole, it was Mithali's spirit which emerged as the greatest gain from India's otherwise dismal tour of England.

"I didn't even think I was good enough to hit a century. So double century was just a dream. Of course I'm glad I gave my mates reason to celebrate because we had all been feeling depressed after the tri-series disappointments," said Mithali Raj, author of a brilliant world record in the Test at Taunton against England.

Imagine, Mithali would have been a classical dancer had she pursued her interests in Bharatanatyam. "She was a very good dancer" Leela Raj, the proud mother of Mithali said from Hyderabad. Now it is bowlers who dance to her tune on the field.

If she was a good dancer, why did she take to cricket? For two reasons. One she was good at cricket. And her mother wanted to rid Mithali of her habit of rising late. "Believe me, none knew of any cricketing talent in my daughter. I used to drive her out in the morning with her brother (Mithun) mainly to get her out of the bed. She was lazy I must say and we all were early risers. She would go along with Mithun, until she gradually developed a liking and we all are indebted to Jyoti Prasad, who told us that more than Mithun we should encourage Mithali. Rest I would say was my daughter's hard work," said Mrs. Raj.

So, the early lessons in cricket came from Jyoti Prasad and Sampath Kumar. These two gentlemen shaped Mithali's career and then the young cricketer was lucky to attract the attention of Diana during the Rani Jhansi tournament at Chennai. Mithali was 17 and playing for Air-India, she cracked a fluent half century. It was the year Diana was retiring from active cricket. "I was on the lookout for someone who could strengthen the Railways batting in the mould of Rajni Venugopal. I wanted someone who could craft and Mithali offered that hope. I spoke to her and she responded positively," recalled Diana. Mithali's switchover from Air-India to Railways was a good move and soon she was set on the course to make a name for herself.

For a girl as frail as Mithali, it would be tough to visualise her knocking a double century. Self-belief is one thing but to translate it into a reality needs a lot of character. That she displayed it at a crucial stage and in foreign land speaks of Mithali's calibre. "I'm very, very happy for Mithali. She got the right encouragement once she came to Railways. I always had confidence in her abilities but I must say she did surprise us all with this big innings. I expected her to get a century but this double century was a pleasant reminder that she is capable of bigger deeds," said Diana.

"This knock was for Diana," gushed Mithali. On the eve of the Test at Taunton, Diana had called up seamer Sunita Singh to wish her well. "Mithali happened to be in Sunita's room and I spoke to her too. Mithali was keen to bring me something from England but I told her nothing would make me happier than a century in the Test. Mithali promised to get one," said Diana.

Mithali walked out and made history, erasing the previous best of 209 not out by Karen Rolton. At the end of 598 minutes, Mithali had faced 407 balls and struck 19 fours in a marathon knock of 214. At the end of the innings, once she took off the pads, Mithali rushed to a telephone booth and called Diana. "You wanted a century, I've brought you a double" she spoke softly as Diana was moved by the gesture.

"Diana madam had been very helpful all along and my first thoughts went to her. Of course none can take away any credit from my parents and my brother for they encouraged me all the way," said Mithali.

Diana rates Mithali as high as Belinda Clark of Australia. "She (Belinda) is an all-time best and Mithali has the potential to be one. She could be somewhere close to Shanta (Rangaswamy). Mithali looks as dependable as some of our best cricketers from the past," praised Diana.

Mithali is considered to be adept at playing the waiting game. Her temperament and patience happen to be her strong points even though Diana would like Mithali to improve her fielding and also be quick on her feet when running between the wickets. "She looks frail, but she can bat the entire day. She has amazing determination I must say," said Diana.

Mithali made her debut in the one-off Test against England at Lucknow this year and four innings after her first Test appearance she found her way into the record books. Humble to the core, she shared the limelight with "Hemlata (Kala) and Jhulan (Goswami)." As Mithali pointed out her double century would not have been possible without the support of Hemlata and Jhulan, who guided her in getting to the coveted mark and then past the distinction of Karen Rolton.

"It was indeed thrilling. We had gone through a terrible period in the tri-series and the team was feeling down after some of the remarks about our calibre. It felt good to bring some joy to us all," said Mithali.

Remembering the scene at the county ground in Taunton, Railways coach Vinod Sharma said "Mithali made us proud. She played a flawless innings and brought cheer to the dressing room. She did look nervous when she neared the double century mark. When she walked back, Mithali was given a standing ovation. She is such a shy girl that we had to force her to lift her bat and acknowledge the crowd's gesture. She is very humble."

A surprise waited Mithali from her mates. A stump was collected and all her mates wrote individual remarks to make it an unforgettable piece of souvenir for Mithali. "It was so thoughful of them," said Mithali, who has no regrets now of becoming a cricketer. Dancing remains closer to her heart but the bat is now her best friend. And why not? She is the latest star in international women's cricket.