Mithali Raj — after years of toil in international cricket — is looking to fulfill her destiny by leading the Indian women's team to an elusive World Cup triumph.
The 39-year-old will be playing in a record sixth World Cup, spearheading India’s campaign in the championship scheduled to be held in New Zealand in March this year.
Ahead of the team’s departure for the World Cup and the New Zealand series, Mithali, in an exclusive chat with Sportstar , spoke about the team’s ambition and her goals.
“The team which has a lesser number of bad days will go on to win the World Cup. And this will be the focus for us – not to have too many bad days in the campaign,” she says. “This is a big event for us. The 2017 World Cup was a watershed moment in Indian women’s cricket despite us losing the final.”
She is, however, aware of the challenges ahead. “The standard of the game has improved globally over the last four years. Every team has worked hard with the right kind of preparations, trying to build for the 2022 World Cup,” Mithali says. “And it is no different for us. We have been focusing on getting the right combination to win this Cup. Every team will be competitive and obviously, we can’t take any team lightly.”
Mithali, who scored a century on her ODI debut in 1999, is not too perturbed by the conditions in New Zealand, which at times can be quite windy – helping the seamers – but on warm days the wickets tend to be good to bat on.
“Since we are playing a one-day series before the World Cup, that should help us a lot in acclimatising to the conditions,” she says. “The warm-up series should also be a great opportunity to prepare before the World Cup, giving time to plan our strategies. We can work on the composition of the team, what the pacers and spinners can work on, and give the batters the right kind of exposure before such a major championship.”
The captain is optimistic about India’s chances of winning the Cup. “Importantly, having played against England and Australia, though we lost the series, our team looked very competitive. This gives us a lot of confidence as we look ahead,” she says. “On any given day we are capable of putting the best combination capable of beating any team in the world. We do need to work on a few things, but we have a bright chance of going the distance in the World Cup,” the leading run-getter in women’s ODIs (220 ODIs, 7391 runs, 51.32 avg, 7x100, 59x50s) says.
Elaborating on the strengths and weaknesses of this Indian team, Mitahli adds: “I believe the strong point is that we have match-winners who can win a game on their day for India. Yes, we need to be consistent and that is going to be the key. All of us must be so. Even Smriti (Mandhana), Harmanpreet (Kaur), and I are no exception. We must be consistent if we are to win the Cup.”
Stressing the importance of the batters putting up big totals for the bowlers to defend, Mithali says: “Batting is a huge factor. If we batters put up big totals consistently, then that will help India a long way. The wickets are going to be good for the batters and if we bat to our potential, we have a very good chance of upsetting some of the favourites.”
She is happy with the depth and the experience of the Indian bowling attack. “In the last Australia series, fast bowling was a revelation. We have a young pacer in Pooja Vastrakar, Meghna Singh was very impressive along with Renuka. Of course, Jhulan (Goswami) is always there to bank on her vast experience,” the Indian captain says. “In spin, there is a lot of variety with the likes of experienced Poonam Yadav, Rajeshwari Deepthi. Sneh Rana adds to the depth because she is a very good batter too.”
Mithali is banking on the youngsters in the team to play their part in the difficult assignment. “I feel that in any World Cup match, or for that matter in any international game, it is imperative to rise to the occasion on the given day. They must take each game at a time and not think too much ahead,” she says. “When they get a chance to play, the young, well even the experienced, too, will have to give their best on the field. It is a huge tournament, and I would suggest to them to keep things simple.”
She, however, refuses to add much weight to the ongoing debate about her slow strike rate. “My role depends on when I go out to bat. My approach will be different when the team is in a crisis or in a comfortable position when I walk in. So, if the team is in a spot, the first objective is to get it out of that. So, how to win the game is more important for me,” she explains. “I have a task on hand, and I am ready for the challenges, willing to give my hundred percent for the team’s cause.”
Firmly focused on fulfilling her dream of winning the World Cup, she refuses to draw in extra pressure on her team by thinking too far ahead. “There is no doubt that the team and I, personally, badly need the World Cup.
But, again, winning the World Cup is a dream for any cricketer. It is the factor that drives me. At the same time, I don’t see any pressure but look at it as a huge motivating factor,” Mithali says. “It is a great feeling to be part of a World Cup campaign for the sixth time. By the grace of God, my parents, support from the cricketing authorities, my captains, coaches including RSR Murthy sir, K. John Manoj sir (of St. John's Coaching Foundation. Chamundi Sir (former BCCI junior selection panel chairman V. Chamundeswaranath), and support staff, my fellow teammates, I could achieve so much. But, more than any of those records, I want to win the World Cup desperately. Winning World Cup is everything for me. I want to get my hands on the Cup. That would be the most special moment in my career.”
Rating the two final appearances in the 2005 and 2017 World Cups as the high points of her career, Mithali will decide on her future post the World Cup. “Right now, I am focussed on it and hope to come back with the Cup. Let me put off other things till the World Cup is over,” she signs off.