Pitch Please: Former India captain Mithali Raj on discipline, failure, and the dream to win a World Cup
We give you a glimpse into the mind and journey of the person who brought women’s cricket to the forefront in India.
You’ve heard of the ‘Men in Blue’ and the glories of the gentleman’s game. Today, the world of cricket goes beyond it; it’s also about the ‘Women in Blue’, who chose passion over judgments and labels, whose dreams and ambitions remain undeterred, and who couldn’t be prouder to represent the country. With Pitch Please, a series of interviews that delves deep into stories that lie beyond the boundary, we take you through the journey of the pioneers and the youngest of the lot and give you an insight into their mind and heart.
It was inevitable to begin the series with Mithali Raj—the woman who brought women’s cricket to the forefront in the country. Playing cricket was a happy accident for this girl from Hyderabad. And thank god it was. Speaking to Cosmopolitan India, Raj lets us in on her first inclinations to the game, the challenges she faces, and her purpose and journey that has inspired many generations of young girls and women across the nation to take up the sport. From making her international debut at the age of sixteen to mentoring the Women's Premier League team, Gujarat Giants, Raj would do little to change her journey. I was left love-struck after the conversation. Read on.
Cosmopolitan India: Let's start from the beginning; what drew you to cricket?
Mithali Raj (MR): I was learning Bharatanatyam for eight years before cricket came my way. My dad was from the Air Force and wanted to inculcate the habit of waking up early and being disciplined in me. My introduction to the sport was in an exclusive boys camp, where my brother went. I was the only girl in the academy, and would always get the chance to bat first. I enjoyed the attention, and eventually, started enjoying the sport. Since then, it's been quite a ride.
Cosmopolitan India: When did you decide you wanted to pursue it?
MR: Well, in a lot of ways, the decision was made for me. I started playing very young, and my brother's coach, Prasad sir, saw the talent in me. He told my dad to invest time and energy into making me a cricketer because I could end up playing for India. So, the decision to turn me into a pro was completely my parents'.
Cosmopolitan India: You played your first international game at 16. Take us through that experience.
MR: Honestly, I didn't feel the thrill and excitement of playing for the country or wearing the blue jersey, because back then, we didn't have the ceremonial handing of the cap or a motivational talk from seniors. I had a lot of expectations riding on my shoulders as a 16-year-old. I come from the land of Mohammad Azharuddin, who had scored a triple hundred during his debut series, and I was told similar things were expected of me. When I scored 100 against Ireland, I felt relieved, but if I had the chance again, I would really want to just enjoy my debut game.
Cosmopolitan India: At a time when there wasn't enough attention given to the team, when it wasn’t as glamourous, what kept you going?
MR: I never felt unwanted by the people around me, whether it was my parents, coaches, players, or seniors. I've always been the youngest at every level that I played. I was protected from most of the negativity that one had to face in those years as a women athlete. For me, the priority was playing cricket, going to school, and attending dance classes.
Cosmopolitan India: When you started, was there a system in place for young girls to be selected and play for the country?
MR: The major difference between then and now is the basic facilities available—even as national cricketers we trained on matting and were given training on a turf wicket only before a series. The tournaments we played in depended on the sponsorship the Women’s Cricket Association got; if they got a good sponsor, they would organise an international series else two years would go by and we wouldn’t get to play an international game. But in Hyderabad, we were given the chance to participate in all tournaments. Those games helped me as a young cricketer because we were playing under different conditions with all kinds of players. It helped me grow from a young cricketer into a seasoned cricketer.
Cosmopolitan India: Did you ever feel like speaking up against a cricketing authority, to ask for more consistency or to ask for the facilities to be provided to you?
MR: You can’t really complain knowing your association is struggling with finances and giving the best of the facility in their own capacity. You make the most of whatever you get. Sometimes, they may have a sponsor but could not organise a tournament because the girls had their board exams. I remember, my boards were coinciding with a zonal tournament, which was supposed to be the selection games for the 2000 World Cup. My parents supported me and wanted me to go and play the game.
Cosmopolitan India: What were some of the other challenges you faced?
MR: Travelling was tough—we all were from middle-class families and would often struggle to put things together for an international trip. There was never sufficient time to get over the jet lag, and we had to manage our own meals. But the sport teaches you to adjust and find a way. The priority was playing for India.
Cosmopolitan India: How important is the support of family and friends for an athlete?
MR: It is important women athletes get support from their families. The perspective around women’s sports has changed in the last few years, and parents are open to their daughters pursuing sports. But the general public's perception of women in sports and the comparison with men in sports is very blatant. We have all seen men play sports for a long time now, while women are just starting; to compare them is negating the spirit of the sport.
Cosmopolitan India: Tell us about the kind of remarks or judgments that you have faced as a female athlete and how did you overcome them?
MR: When people would see us with our huge kit bags, they assumed we were playing tennis or hockey, because they thought girls didn’t have the strength or endurance to play a test match. However, today, people know girls can clear the boundary with ease, and it's not one odd six in three games but about four or five sixes in an innings. Women’s cricket now has a standing of its own, where it is able to generate revenue, and it will only improve.
Cosmopolitan India: How was the camaraderie within the team?
MR: We had a different kind of camaraderie. Over a period of time, you start enjoying the group’s company and thriving in it. At that time, we didn’t have phones or social media, so, at the end of the day, we didn’t have anybody but our friends with whom we could vent, celebrate success, and be teammate solid team.
Cosmopolitan India: You spoke about how a team goes through its own journey. What was your vision as captain?
MR: I've gone through different stages of captaincy. During the 2013 World Cup, I was very young. That World Cup was hosted by the BCCI in India, and I thought it was a great opportunity to get women's cricket to the Indian audience. Unfortunately, we didn't do well. So, I did my homework and realised that for the team to get noticed and to get people to sit up and watch women's cricket, we had to play internationally. I just knew the team has to do something big to turn things around in India and that time came in 2017 with the World Cup.
Cosmopolitan India: You mentioned homework—who did you look up to? Where did you seek your guidance from?
MR: My dad has been my constant mentor. I would also discuss with my friends from the cricketing world. I also sought inputs from many coaches over the 22-23 years. But, at the end of the day, I believe, when you play international cricket for a long time, you know your game and you know what it takes. So, you just have to put together the essentials.
Cosmopolitan India: You’ve inspired many generations to watch and take up the sport. How does that make you feel?
MR: I feel very conscious about it. But in many ways, I feel happy because I didn't start playing cricket to change how people watch the sport. Maybe the purpose of my journey as a cricketer was tied to this. There are a few things that I feel I didn't achieve in my journey, but when you say something like this, it overshadows all of that.
Cosmopolitan India: You’re always seen with a book in your hand before a match. What are you currently reading?
MR: Often, I was the only player travelling from Hyderabad, so I took up reading on my journeys. In those days, the Railways teams were very strong so there would be many times when I would get padded up but not get a turn. So, I would read instead of watching the game and feeling drained and pressurised. I wanted to go in with a very composed mind, and reading was a great way to put the nervousness and jittery feeling at bay.
Cosmopolitan India: How did you deal with losing a game?
MR: When you lose a game that really matters, it pinches the captain the hardest because for a captain, the overall performance matters, while the players often look at individual performances. But along with their own performance. But with experience, you understand that if you’re aware, a game always gives you moments that can turn things around for the team. It is important you don't take too much pressure when you lose a game; you play your best and simply accept that the opposition played better. And when we feel we haven't given our best, we know we need to work on our game. But sport teaches you to accept failure as a part of becoming a successful athlete.
Cosmopolitan India: What do you do on your low days?
MR: If I can’t concentrate on reading, I go to a mall, sit in a corner, have a bucket of ice cream and watch people walk by. Just be.
Cosmopolitan India: You're currently mentoring the Gujarat Giants team. What is the one thing you want younger players to know?
MR: I would urge young players to develop a good work ethic because that’s what will help them get over failures. On days when you’re not feeling it, push yourself, because being consistent in your routine helps you stay consistent on the ground. Putting in the hours when nobody is watching you is important.
Cosmopolitan India: Which has been your most memorable innings so far?
MR: The 2005 semi-finals against New Zealand, where I had scored around 90 runs. But the 2014 test match against England was probably the most challenging because within the team of eleven, there were eight debutants, and we went on to beat England even though we played the format after eight years. I also scored a half-century in that match. It was pretty incredible.
Cosmopolitan India: What is the best advice you ever received?
MR: It’s what my mother told me when I was a young rebellious teenager, who didn’t want to play: You have two choices—the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. If you’re disciplined now, you won’t regret it later. She didn’t give me a context to it, but I think it came at the right time for me to realise I rather put in the hard work now and enjoy the future.
Cosmopolitan India: What is your hope for the future of women’s cricket in India?
MR: I think it’s great how WPL has been received by people and I really hope it continues. I would like to see India lifting the World Cup whether it’s T20 or one-day.