In a game dominated by male cricketers, Mithali Raj has created her own identity.
Ever since she made scored a century on her ODI debut in the year 1999 at the age of 17, she has made India proud with her achievements. Be it scoring a double century against England in England in a Test in the year 2002 to winning the Arjuna Award in the year 2003 to captaining India to World Cup Finals in the years 2005 and 2017 to winning the Padma Shri in 2015 to becoming the highest run scorer in women's international cricket, Mithali has seen it all.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Mithali opens up about her career, her achievements on and off the field, changes in women's cricket in the last few years and much more.
Here are the excerpts from the interview:
Q: How did you get into the Gentleman's game? Was it your childhood dream?
Mithali: My father wanted me to become a cricketer. He wanted me to pursue sport. It started as a hobby. I enrolled in an academy during summer vacations along with my brother. The coach who was coaching my brother noticed the promise and talent in me and he told my father that I could pursue cricket as a career and guided me.
Q: You were a Bharat Natyam dancer. How did you choose cricket over dance?
Mithali: I continued both for a bit. There was a point when I made it to the probables of the 1997 World Cup squad. We used to have monthly camps. I missed various dance classes and was falling behind in the group. At that time the dance teacher advised me to choose any one field and then I chose cricket over dance.
Q: You tasted success at a very young age in cricket when you scored a century on your ODI debut against Ireland in the year 1999. Talk us through the said innings.
Mithali: I was nervous because of the expectations as it was my debut. I do not remember much about that innings now. The first international innings is always special for every cricketer and I am happy that I scored a century.
Q: You have captained India to two World Cup Finals. One in the year 2005 in South Africa and the most recent in England in 2017. How different were the teams which you led during both the finals?
Mithali: In 2005, I had ex-captains playing under me. In the year 2005, we were under Women's Cricket Association of India. There was not much coverage. Matches were not televised. The 2005 World Cup was my first tournament as a captain.
In the 2017 World Cup, I was the senior most member of the squad. I had a lot of youngsters under me. We now play under BCCI. The matches in 2017 were televised. Personally, I was much more matured as a cricketer and captain in 2017.
Q: The 2017 World Cup was indeed a special one for the whole nation and the team really performed well and ended up as runners-up. How disappointing was it to lose the finals?
Mithali: We were quite gutted on the loss in the finals. We were so close to winning a World Cup. It took a while for all of us to get over the defeat.
But the way we played in the World Cup, it changed the perspective of the people in India towards women's cricket. The time has come to move on and start preparing for the upcoming matches and tournaments. The World Cup defeat is now a thing of the past.
Q: Has the discrimination between men's cricket and women's cricket reduced after the success of the Indian Women in the 2017 World Cup?
Mithali: Yes. Largely because the way we played in the World Cup and the standard of cricket played by each team in the World Cup. The way ICC has managed to promote the event on social media has helped.
BCCI is also taking initiative of organizing more series and India A tours. All these things help in reducing the disparity between men's cricket and women's cricket.
Q: The 2006 tour to England was special for India considering the Indian Women's team won its first ever Test and series against England. Since then Indian women have not played much Test cricket. Any specific reason behind it?
Mithali: ICC at the moment is emphasizing more on ODIs and T20s as these formats will promote women's cricket and generate more revenue. There may not many audiences for Test cricket for women. Even for men's cricket at times, there are not many people who watch Test cricket.
Ideally, any cricketer who would to play Test cricket for their country as it really challenges their skills. But considering the revenue and making women's cricket more marketable, then the shorter formats are the way forward. Hence most of the boards are not very keen on Tests for women.
Q: Will women's IPL materialise in India?
Mithali: It will. It might still take a couple of more years as India still does not have the pool of cricketers.
Until we have a pool of domestic players, maybe not as good as international players, but they should be good enough to compete. The difference between the domestic players and the international players should not be very evident for the IPL. For that to materialise, it will take some time.
Q: The T 20 World Cup for women is scheduled later this year in the West Indies. How do you think the team is shaping up for the mega event?
Mithali: Considering the T 20 format, Indian women still have a long way to go. But the preparation is in place.
We played T 20s in South Africa and then a tri- series recently against Australia and England. The Asia Cup is scheduled in May and then we have a tour of Sri Lanka where we play T 20s. So we will have played many T 20s before the World Cup.
It will not be very easy for India in the T 20 World Cup. At this moment, we are a very good one day team. We have a lot of areas to work on in T 20 cricket and these issues will have to be addressed before the T 20 World Cup.
Q: You have the distinction of scoring the most runs in women's international cricket. What are your future plans?
Mithali: Right now as a player I am concentrating on each series. Of course the T20 World Cup is definitely on my mind. After the T 20 World Cup I will re access and then see how long I can continue playing for India.
Q: You were awarded the Arjuna Award in 2003 and the Padma Shri in 2015. It was a proud moment for all of us. Can you please share the experience
Mithali: I did not expect the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri as I was pitted against men cricketers.
I received the Arjuna Award when we were under WCI and not BCCI. I was really surprised to receive the Arjuna Award way back the year 2003.
In 2015 too I was pitted against men cricketers I thought I would get it. It is fortunate to be recognized by the Government and a reward for your hard work.
Q: How do you keep yourself fit? What is your fitness routine especially during off season?
Mithali: During off season, I give importance to fitness. I work more on building strength which will help me in extending my career.
At this stage of my career, I prepare according to each series. Depending on the opposition, I work on my fitness.
Favourite cricketer: Sachin Tendulkar and Neetu David
Favourite Cuisine: I am not much of a foodie. I enjoy home cooked food.
Favourite Movie: Chamber of Shaolin. It is a very old martial arts movie.
Hobbies apart from cricket: I do sketch at times. Sketching is something I would like to pursue if I get more time.
Favourite Opponent: I always enjoy playing against Australia and England as they are considered the top two teams in women's cricket. I also enjoy playing against Pakistan because there is so much pressure during the India Pakistan game which is usually not there when you play other teams.
Your source of inspiration: It varies. However, the constant source of inspiration has been my parents.
Any message to young girls who want to take up cricket as a profession:
This is the best time to take up sport as a career because it is viable and there is so much happening in women's cricket at this point of time. The people now know a lot about women cricketers and the national squad. Under BCCI, if you play well, you can get contracted, play for your state and earn a living by playing the game of cricket. Earlier there was no recognition, no money. But now it is exactly opposite. A young girl can definitely take it up as a career. To be successful, the fundamentals will always remain the same i.e. hard work. Always remember that women's cricket is a separate sport by itself and it should not be compared to men's cricket.
Mithali signs off by saying that she is very happy that people have accepted women's cricket in India. She hopes that the audiences will continue to follow women's cricket and encourage the team in future endeavours.
:Published 30 Apr 2018, 17:27 IST