From dance to cricket it has been a merry waltz

For this gifted cricketer who has stood apart from the rest of the crowd by her sheer brilliance over a decade, it has always been a story of making difficult choices. There was a phase in 1991 when she had to choose between Bharatanatyam and cricket... V. V. Subrahmanyam takes over.

Footwork is something which has come quite naturally for her — she was a Bharatanatyam dancer to start with. So, the success story of Mithali Raj, India's premier women's cricket player, out there in the middle with the willow is perhaps not a big surprise at all.

Not many cricketers — even from men's cricket — can boast of such an impressive record as Mithali does in a career spanning more than a decade. Here are the simple statistics: Eight Tests, 572 runs, 214 career best, 52 avg, 1 x 100 and 3 x 50. And, 129 ODIs, 4076 runs, 49.75 avg, 3 x 100, 32 x 50.

This dancer-turned cricketer from Alwal municipality of Secunderabad has left for another international tour — to West Indies for a one-day series and T-20 games — with an enthusiasm which is akin to a first-timer making the national team.

For someone who set the then world record by scoring 214 in a Test against England in Taunton in 2002 when she was just 19 years old (surpassed by Kiran Baluch of Pakistan who scored 242 against West Indies in March 2004), the 29-year-old Mithali looks at the coming season with great hope and as an extended journey to realise some of her unfulfilled goals — like winning a World Cup. Unlike many of the current crop of women cricketers in Hyderabad who train at the Gymkhana Ground regularly, Mithali and her fellow players did not have that privilege in their early days. They were forced to practise at Keyes's High School, the only saving grace being a regular annual league.

“It was a tough call in those days certainly. But, I am glad that I made it despite these handicaps. In a way, these things also make you mentally tough,” says Mithali, who was first spotted by the late Sampath Kumar as an eight-year old, when she used to accompany her brother Mithun Raj to the St. John's Coaching Foundation.

For this gifted cricketer who has stood apart from the rest of the crowd by her sheer brilliance over a decade, it has always been a story of making difficult choices. There was a phase in 1991 when she had to choose between Bharatanatyam and cricket. “It was definitely painful. But, now when I look back I don't think I made the wrong choice. Obviously, you can't have your feet in two different things,” she says with a proud smile.

Mithali is also a great influence on many youngsters in and around Hyderabad. This is evident by the fact that the current Indian team to West Indies has five from the City — Gouher Sultana, Sunita Anand, Mamata Kanojia, Diana David and Mithali herself. “It is a great feeling to see them in the national team. Should do a world of good for women's cricket itself in Hyderabad,” feels the classy India star.

Not many may be aware that at 14, Mithali played in the Senior Nationals in 1995 and since then she has not looked back.

“I owe a lot to my parents (Dorai Raj and Leela Raj) for taking such a big risk and letting me play cricket and to all my coaches starting from Sampath Sir, Jyothi Prasad Sir (former Hyderabad Ranji fast bowler) to N. S. Ganesh of Andhra Bank and T. Dilip (HCA Academy) now,” says a grateful Mithali.

“Definitely, playing with the likes of Rajni Venugopal, Vanita Viola and Purnima Rau helped me a lot in the formative stages of my career,” says this South Central Railway staff member.

There was also a time when Mithali and V. V. S. Laxman shared a unique record — for having the highest individual scores for an Indian Test cricketer in the women's and men's sections respectively.

Five Hyderabad cricketers— Sunita Anand, Gouher Sultana, Mamata Kanojia, Mithali Raj and Diana David — who are in the Indian squad to the West Indies.-

“Obviously, one of the most disappointing moments for me has been the failure to win the 2005 World Cup (losing to Australia in the final). But fortunately there were moments of great satisfaction when I led India to its first-ever Test series win in England and also won the Asia Cup,” she recalls.

It is a pity that Mithali has played just eight Tests after her debut in 2002 and the last one was way back in 2006. “What can we, the players, do? It is definitely disappointing not to play more Tests. But again, the focus now is more on ODIs and T-20s. Only England and New Zealand are playing Tests regularly,” explains the articulate cricketer.

How has she honed her batting technique? “Thanks to Sampath Sir, sticking to the basics has been my strong point. So all that I try to do is some improvisation when the situations demand,” says Mithali.

What are Mithali's thoughts for the betterment of women's cricket? “We need to play international series as regularly as possible. Now, for instance, we play a series after a long gap. By the time we get the momentum the matches are getting over. And, for the next assignment we have to start from scratch again. It is very difficult for any player, we would love to have more Tests and one-dayers with regularity,” said Mithali. “It is a pity that there are more national camps than international series,” she adds.

“Unfortunately, the much-expected turnaround in this regard after the BCCI took over women's cricket too is not happening,” the former India captain remarks.

What exactly are the strong points of the current Indian team? “I think there is a lot of experience now. Earlier, only two or three players used to be there with real international exposure. Now there are quite a few and most importantly the entire team gels as a unit. The biggest thing is all the girls are very positive in their approach. Everyone is enjoying her role in the team and is keen to give off her best,” says the senior pro.

How does she look at herself in the current Indian team? “Honestly, one thing which has helped me keep my place is consistency. And, you are respected for that by everyone. That in a way also enhances the responsibility. But I always take every series as a challenge and never really dream too far,” explains Mithali.

Interestingly, this wonderful cricketer reveals that since 2009 she has started a critical evaluation of her own game. “This is really helping me,” she insists.

Mithali, who admires Ricky Ponting and Sachin Tendulkar a lot, names her parents, coaches and her employers as the biggest influence on her career.

How has her personal life been? “Honestly, it continues to be good as does my cricket. I'm enjoying every moment of my career — both on and off the field. There is no better joy for me than batting out there in the middle. Hope to keep improving and looking at the West Indies tour as yet another major challenge,” she signs off.