‘I thought I would be that one series wonder’
The name Mithali Raj is synonymous with Indian women’s cricket. In a rapidly changing environment, she has been the constant in the space. With 21 years of international experience, over 300 matches under her belt, and closing in on 10,000 international runs, she is the last link between the amateur and professional era. Having started off as a precocious teenager with truckloads of talent, over the course of the next two decades, Mithali wrote and rewrote records that have seen her establish herself as one of the greatest batters of her generation.
The year 2020 has forced Mithali into hibernation. Having retired from T20Is last September, the 38-year-old hasn’t played any international cricket since the ODI series against West Indies in November 2019. This is only the second time in her career she has not donned her beloved blue for an entire calendar year – the last time being in 2001. However, the India ODI skipper has kept herself busy through this period of inactivity, drawing motivation from the (postponed) ODI World Cup in 2022, a tournament that is likely to be her last chance at getting her hands on that coveted trophy – the only thing missing from what is an otherwise distinguished resume.
In a free-flowing interview with Women’s CricZone, she talks about her sources of motivation, the evolution of the women’s game, how she has managed to keep pace with the changes, her captaincy career, and more.
You’ve had an incredibly long international career – 21 years and counting. What’s kept you going this entire time?
I believe that if I am playing international cricket, if I am playing any format or any level of cricket, I want it to be [at] my optimum best. I mean, irrespective of whether it’s domestic or international it never did matter to me. If I am getting on to the ground, I have to be my best and that was something that has always been the factor which inspired or motivated me to keep training for all these years despite a few issues or factors which at times can play in your mind.
Was there ever a time that you simply felt like you had enough of playing cricket and wanted to walk away? How did you get through those phases?
I did have few times, few issues which did play on my mind. One was way back in 2007 when I didn’t have a good series of Australia and New Zealand (Quadrangular series at home) where [in] seven innings I did not cross 20-odd runs. It did play on my mind back then. That is the first time that I’ve ever felt that I should stop playing.
The second time was 2009. Before leaving for the World Cup I was struggling with the knee injury. It was quite some time since [I sustained the injury] in 2005, but I think injuries always drain you emotionally, more than the physical pain that it gives. I was at that stage where I had given everything, I tried everything, but nothing was working to get me injury free. I thought after the 2009 World Cup I would hang up my boots and probably get into another field. So, these were a couple of times which I felt I was almost at the brink of quitting cricket for various reasons.
The first time I think my mother was someone who helped me to sort of get over it, and the second time in the 2009 World Cup… I guess that was the first time that Star Sports actually televised few games of the World Cup and I saw the sort of response that I got as a player and the acknowledgment from the greats of the game in men’s cricket. They were doing the commentary so you felt nice. I felt nice that on some level you are being acknowledged and appreciated for your work. So, I thought let’s give another two years to the game and see where it’s heading. I continued to play and during that period of taking various injections, tried to get things going. Now I am in a position that, I wouldn’t say pain-free, but I am definitely like 80 percent better than what I was in 2009 with the swollen knees.
So, we can thank the likes of Alan Wilkins and Wasim Akram for keeping you on the field in 2009!
Maybe. [laughs] I think some credit should go to them for the sort of commentary they’ve given, and a lot of positivity has come from that World Cup just not for me as a player, but for women’s cricket. I think 2009 was the beginning of where we saw it in 2017.
The sport has obviously changed a lot since you made your debut in 1999. How have you consistently adapted your skillset to the changing demands of the game?
I think someone who’s seen me from ‘99 to now would see a lot of change in my stance. Pretty much once in two-three years you see a different changed stance, different setup. I’ve never had a backlift before, but I’ve come to have one now because I understand the speed of the women bowlers have improved and increased from, say, around 100-105 [kmph], to now 128 [kmph]. So, you change your setup according to the current demands of the game.
I used to play with a heavy bat back then. Now, I’ve come to a lighter bat because I know that the bowlers are capable of bowling bouncers. They do have the strength to bowl those nippy and fast bouncers so you have to be able to play square of the wicket as well. So, as time progresses and as you keep playing matches with the best teams – playing with Australia, playing in Australia, playing in England – you know that you have to adapt to the different conditions. Your game has to be fundamentally so strong that you are able to adjust. As you play matches you know where the sport is going and accordingly you try and tweak your game to be relevant in the current standard of women’s cricket.
What’s been the most difficult thing for you to change in that regard?
When I started playing, I didn’t have enough exposure in terms of the matches that we played. One series in a year, it doesn’t really help giving you the exposure you [need] to work on your game because you are pretty much trying to score runs straight from the first game… One match you get, and you are trying to find that form and straightaway find that rhythm; you have to find that momentum. Back then, if I had a good series, I had to wait for another year to get into another series. So, the momentum was constantly broken and that was a challenge for me back then.
One of the main features of your career has been the fact that you haven’t experienced too many major form slumps. What, in your opinion, has been the secret to that kind of consistency?
I guess it comes down to the sort of approach I take to every game. If I got out without scoring for three-four innings, I am really quite hard on myself that I haven’t scored runs. And again, runs doesn’t mean that 30 or the 20s or the 40s. Nothing less than 50 is what runs is for me, and that is how I have been trained from the beginning.
I remember my coach, late Sampath sir, I remember him saying that whether it is a tennis ball or cricket ball whether you are playing on matting, on turf wicket, whether you are playing a club match or an international match, it doesn’t matter. All he wanted is each time Mithali walks in [to bat], she scores a 50. There has to be runs from my bat.
Also, I think I am quite competitive. Lot of people think, if you follow my face or behaviour you think ‘okay she is a little soft’ and stuff like that, but internally I am a very competitive person. You know, even today if you bowl a tennis ball, I wouldn’t want to get out on a tennis ball! I just don’t want to get out, irrespective whether it’s [in the] nets, where I play for fun on [the] streets, it doesn’t matter. I think that has really helped me to sort of continue to have that approach every game – despite scoring a hundred, next match I want to score again. That hunger has always been there in me.
You’ve previously said that you started off as a reluctant captain. Have you come to enjoy that role now?
I don’t know if I have ever enjoyed that position because it is quite challenging. It does take a lot out of you emotionally also. There are so many times I have found myself on crossroads in terms of my sensitivity, in terms of a lot many things. There are times when I had to take decisions that I otherwise wouldn’t have, but for the betterment of the team I had to… times when I was helpless, when I really wanted certain players to do well, but I couldn’t do much. So, there are lot of things as a captain, I would say, that were quite challenging – more challenging than enjoyment! But I personally feel that my career as a captain, and as a player has run parallelly. Maybe I would have captained around 14 years and that is [more than] half of the years I have played international cricket. I think it is probably my second skin.
Captaincy has helped me as a player, as a person, because when I was a young captain, I was very ruthless. I thought people should be very professional in terms of when they come to play, they just have to play and be prepared to do anything. Over the years, with a lot of mistakes, reading books, and getting a different perspective, I have understood that one not necessarily has to be so ruthless, but has to learn to be compassionate towards their teammates, to give an ear to what your teammates have to say. So, [in] that sense, I have learnt empathy. I have learnt a different angle to leadership which has helped me a lot.
We’ve seen how the role of a coach has changed at international level – from someone who largely only teaches technique, to someone who needs to be a good man manager. In that sense, do you feel the role of a captain has also changed since you first took over?
Well, back then we just had [a two member] support staff. We just had the coach and the manager with us. Later on, we started to have a bowling coach, a fielding coach, a fast bowling coach. It does make the job of a captain very easy with the current support staff where you are already given certain plan, [and] the captain has to be aware of it. As a captain you don’t have much to do. Whereas earlier it was pretty much – I did a lot of homework back then because we didn’t have much of videos of the opponents, video analysis was not happening back then. So, I used to go on to the internet, follow the scores and with what little I understand, [figure out] who’s in form, or when they are scoring runs, what are the partnerships. That’s how I did my homework as a captain back then. It was quite taxing, but that was the need of the hour. Now, you have videos. You have the players talking with the experts, so when you go on to the ground, all you have to do is have the bowling changes and the field set in the right way so that you follow whatever the instructions have been given.
I don’t know… I mean, both are good, but at some level you know with having so many experts the growth of a captain – I feel that you don’t get that… You don’t get to make so many mistakes. Basically, you don’t get that exposure. Lucky for me that I could do all of that back then and today even if there are certain strategies which we pre-plan and if it doesn’t work, I know that I have few more which I can instantly turn to on the ground. Thanks to those experiences which didn’t work out back then helps me today. But I think it is always good to have the experts. With the way women’s cricket is going, there’s so much of improvement in the standard. I think, it makes sense to have the experts like the bowling coach and the fielding coach to help you out in preparing better for the tournaments. Now, your game is there [on TV] for everybody to dissect, so you need to always keep working on it.
What has been your most satisfying period or moment in your career as captain and as a batter?
I have so many moments. But as a batter I think every knockout game where you know the match is very crucial and I am able to score runs and win the game for my team is something that has always been a satisfying moment for me.
As a captain, I think the performance of the team in the World Cup, in both the (2005 and 2017) World Cups, is something I would say was a great experience. I think the 2005 World Cup gave me confidence that this team can achieve better things provided we work on a lot of aspects. Until then we knew we were somewhere figuring in the fourth or fifth of the world’s best teams, but the 2005 World Cup made us realise that we can compete, we can be in the top one or two positions provided we work on it. So that was quite a moment for me as a captain. And, of course, the Test win against England in 2014 – with eight debutantes and playing the format after so long! I think that was far more challenging.
In both the World Cups you mentioned, there were similarities in the side’s campaign – both in the lead up to the tournament and in the tournament proper. Which campaign is closer to your heart?
I would say both! Because it was a very similar journey throughout the World Cup. In both the World Cups, I think, the practice games India fared very badly – we batted as though we were not there to play in the World Cup [laughs]. Then, getting into the World Cup, we started well and suddenly in between we lost [a] couple of matches. Even in 2005 we lost to New Zealand in the league game and then we played them and beat them in the semi-final; similarly, in 2017, we lost to Australia in the league and beat them in semi-finals. Also, the woman of the match every game we had different players, so that showed that it was just not one player [contributing] all the time, but there were other players who stepped up when it was required to play that crucial knock or get those crucial wickets. It reflected that the entire team was working towards one goal or one vision – to reach the final…. I wouldn’t be able to pick one. For me, both have been a very similar experience as a batter and as a captain.
You’ve gone from being the youngest member of the side to now being the guardian of the team. What kind of conversations do you have with the younger players coming through, especially the batters in the group?
Well, sometimes the questions are related to the skill aspect or to the technique aspect, so I usually give them my own suggestions or advice. Generally, I would tell them that… For me growing up I never had social media, I didn’t have that sort of a distraction, but in today’s time it is part of an athlete’s life and we need to accept that. It is important to connect to your fans because you are not only playing for yourself. Social media is just not a medium for you to promote yourself, but it is also a medium to connect to your sport globally. It is important as ambassadors of the sport to use it wisely, and at the same time understand [that] at the end of the day you are an athlete, and you need to perform because everybody likes a person who is performing. It’s [important] not to get carried away by the success, but keep working because there’s always somebody or the other catching up with you. I would tell the young players that it’s important to enjoy success, but at the same time continue to work hard. That goes hand in hand.
I think the growth as players is very individual. I mean, I can share my experience but it is up to them to experience that growth, learn to fall and rise on their own. It is a very individual thing and I wouldn’t like to get into that. It’s everybody’s personal growth. They will have that growth [on their own]. A lot of people told me about Shafali (Verma) – she’s young, but you know… I think give her time. Give her some age. She’s 16 years old. By 20, with the sort of talent she has, she will learn with age, with time, with matches. I mean we need to give such players some space for their individual growth.
Looking back, as a 16-year-old, did you ever dream that you would achieve all these incredible things – close to 10,000 runs, two World Cup finals, a double century in Tests?
I only thought I would be that one series wonder! (laughs) That was what was running in my mind when I played my first series in in ’99, because after the hundred (against Ireland on ODI debut), the next three games I didn’t score. Then, I didn’t get to play in the Test match. So, I thought ‘okay, I am just that one series player who just fades away’. That was what was in my mind as a 16-year-old. I really never thought I would end up playing 21 years of international cricket. Sometimes even I feel how did I even manage to come so far!