Mithali Raj: ‘Indian team can look ahead with optimism’

No sportsperson should get stuck at a particular level. The desire to keep improving is what separates the great from the ordinary. I am glad that many girls in my team are showing that essential quality,” says the Indian women’s cricket captain, Mithali Raj.

Skipper Mithali Raj at a function in New Delhi to felicitate the Indian team that finished runner-up in the women’s World Cup recently.   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Mithali Raj has shown us the levels of excellence a woman cricketer from India can achieve with an unbridled passion for the game, determination and the urge to keep improving. In fact, these are the traits that have largely helped the 34-year-old Indian captain become the leading run-getter in women’s One-Day Internationals. And that she has been on the scene for close to 18 years is a record in itself, reflecting her commitment and intense desire to be consistent at the highest level.

 

After leading India to a World Cup final for the second time, Mithali was back in Hyderabad and clearly enjoying the adulations and appreciation from one and all. And to her delight, the Telangana Chief Minister, K. Chandrasekhara Rao, has announced a cash incentive of Rs. 1 crore and a site (about 600 square yards) for a house in the posh locality of Banjara Hills. So, finally, there is recognition for someone who has been a champion cricketer for long despite little support from the system.

In a chat with Sportstar, Mithali shares her thoughts on the World Cup and the future of women’s cricket in India.

Excerpts:

Question: How do you look at the recent World Cup?

Answer: It has been a truly memorable experience for the entire team. Reaching the final itself was a great achievement, given the fact that not many even gave us a chance of reaching so far in the tournament. Hope we will continue to do well in the days to come.

How would you sum up your last World Cup?

Quite frankly, before I left India for my fifth and final World Cup, there was the idea of batting more freely without any responsibility. I just wanted to go out there and enjoy myself. But again, the responsibilities that come with captaincy ensured that I was back in my familiar role — to think of the team’s needs and bat with lots of responsibility.

Was this the reason for the slow starts in the World Cup?

Mithali Raj ... “Before I left for the World Cup, there was the idea of batting more freely without any responsibility. But the responsibilities that come with captaincy ensured that I was back in my familiar role — to think of the team’s needs and bat with lots of responsibility.”   -  Getty Images

 

In a way, yes. The desired consistency, either at the top or down the order, was missing. But fortunately, in each game a couple of players did well, which was good enough to help us post a challenging score and give the bowlers a chance to bowl India back in the game.

So, the bowlers were equal to the task...

I must say they bowled their hearts out in conditions they were not familiar with. Most of them are young and rarely had the experience of playing in England. But I feel they did remarkably well to come up with some impressive performances.

How do you look at your career so far?

I can say I have enjoyed every moment of it, for not many girls in India have the privilege of representing their country. It is always a huge honour for any athlete to don the national colours, and I am no exception.

Yes, there were ups and downs in my career. But thank God and the wonderful support of my parents, coaches, starting from late Sampath Sir to Murthy Sir (R.S.R. Murthy of South Central Railway), family members and well-wishers, I could keep going for so long. I think I should be proud of my career that has lasted for 18 years and being the leading run-getter in ODIs. That is another moment I would cherish whenever I look back at the 2017 World Cup.

There are some who feel that Mithali Raj might just give up after the disappointing loss in the World Cup final at Lord’s...

I sincerely believe that I can keep going for a couple of more years. Well, whether I will be leading the side or not is not in my hands. I want to continue to represent India and contribute to the team’s success, which I feel I am still capable of.

What is your take on the emergence of players such as Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur? How do you look at their evolution?

Again, I feel they are the shining examples of a wonderful future for Indian cricket. They proved on the biggest stage that they can deliver when the team needs them to. There are quite a few — who I don’t want to name as it would hurt the others — who are capable of going a long way. In a way, this Indian team can look ahead with lots of optimism.

Is this Indian team more aggressive than ever before?

Maybe, yes. But again this stems from the confidence they have gained in recent times. For instance, the way we qualified for the World Cup itself was a huge morale-booster. Now, there is a method and meaning in the manner in which the team is approaching its tasks on hand. I would rather say the team is more consistent in getting things right now.

Most of the World Cup matches were played at smaller venues. Why aren’t bigger venues allotted for women’s games? Does this mean cricket is still a men’s game?

(Has a big laugh). But it is the same for all the teams. That is perhaps because of the on-going domestic season in England. Anyway, we can only play at the allotted venues. So we never really gave a serious thought to these things. For us, the goal was to win the World Cup.

So, losing the final was very disheartening...

I would rather say disappointing. It would have been great if we had pulled it off after coming so close. But there are lots of positives, and I would like to take pride in how we performed rather than sulk about the loss in the final.

Following this creditable show, will the BCCI look into promoting women’s cricket? What more needs to be done?

Frankly, it is only after the BCCI took over the game things started looking up. So I am sure there will be some major plans to give women’s cricket a new direction. There will be definitely some steps to ensure that the kind of interest our performance in the World Cup generated is sustained. People who run the BCCI are very clear about what the players need to ensure better days for women’s cricket in the country. So I am confident lots of positive developments will take place in the days to come.

What is that you look for from this Indian team?

Consistency. Otherwise, we will be heading nowhere. There is no point in being talented and not performing. I must say that there is plenty of talent in India. We need to channelise it in the right manner.

So, you look to keep up the momentum...

Obviously. No sportsperson should get stuck at a particular level. The desire to keep improving is what separates the great from the ordinary. I am glad that many girls in my team are showing that essential quality.

What is the message that you want to convey to the fans?

Keep supporting women’s cricket. Be patient and hope for better results.