Imagine being thrust into captaincy two games before the biggest tournament of your life, and then leading your team very close to the top of the world. In a sentence, that was the beginning of Mithali Raj’s captaincy career. Just before the World Cup of 2005, India captain Mamatha Maben was injured mid-way through a seven-match series when Australia took a 4-1 lead. Mithali, the team’s vice-captain, was handed the reins.
“As a first-time captain I was full of nerves in the World Cup,” she told Women’s CricZone. “I had senior players around, and didn’t have any expectations of myself as captain.” Her first match as captain actually came in March 2004, stepping in for Maben for a game. It made her the then third youngest player to lead her team in ODIs, at 21 years and 94 days.
Now, the first two ODIs against Sri Lanka each brought milestones for Mithali: In the first, she went past England’s Charlotte Edwards to register the most appearances as captain in ODI history (119). And in the second, she went past Edwards again, this time becoming the captain with the most wins (73).
“I gradually developed experience reading matches, reading my own teammates more than opponents. As a captain, I need to know how and when I can use them. I’ve made mistakes, it’s not a clean slate, but those gave me experience.”
She is more than her win-loss percentage, a statistic so loaded with variables it is almost worthless. Even so, at 62 per cent, she is surpassed by only four Indian captains and none of those led in more than 20 matches. Among the ones who did, her record dwarfs that of Jhulan Goswami (25) and Anjum Chopra (28). Those low numbers might make it look like captains were changed every harvest, but keep in mind that women play far fewer matches a year than the men, so twenty matches could mean a large chunk of a World Cup cycle. Now apply that same calculator to Mithali’s record and marvel at her longevity.
Count also that she has had to navigate the quagmire that is Indian women’s cricket, especially soon after the class of 2005 moved on, the BCCI took over, the face of the game changed. “It was a very difficult phase. I was performing but my performances were not enough to pull the team through. there were times when a lot of people told me to give up captaincy, it wasn’t doing any justification to me. I felt it would be selfish of me to think that way. That’s when you need someone to hold onto the reins stronger,” she said. But the decision was taken out of her hands in 2008; she was sacked after being the highest run scorer on a tour to England, where India failed to win a game.
In 2012, when her replacement, Goswami, was relieved of the job, Mithali was passed over and Anjum Chopra made a comeback straight to the captain’s chair. Only after that experiment failed was Mithali reinstated the same year, with teammates very different from her last stint. The first time, Nooshin (Al-Khadeer), Jaya (Sharma), Hema (Hemalata Kala), Neetu (David) were in the team. Then in 2012 again I had a very young side. Punam (Raut), Harman (Harmanpreet Kaur), this batch. That time as a captain I was much more mature and was able to deal with these youngsters.”
An important shift in the latter half of Mithali’s captaincy is a greater osmosis. “I led India in different stages: with a lot of seniors, having players my own age, now a lot of youngsters, so now I think is a phase where I’m trying to mould them, share my experiences, and prepare them for a time when I might not be around and they should be confident enough to stand and perform for team.” My own memories of her are of a hands-off captain. But with the players of this generation, a deliberate attempt to communicate more has been noted.
There have been more stratagems than blunders, but in terms of criticism, one wonders why the selectors have not moved on if Mithali will not play the 2021 World Cup, as she has indicated in multiple interviews. Maben described her as “Not a natural captain, but she has since grown into the role and is very professional about her captaincy.” Mithali herself polished her skills every chance she got. “I interacted a lot with men cricketers wherever I trained with male coaches.” Her domestic captaincy of Indian Railways allowed her more time with nearly the same set of players. “That helps me to choose when the situation demands certain player… Indian Railway played a huge role in making me the captain I am today.”
Which player, which over, which fielding position, which batting order. Questions of change with a constant at the centre: Mithali herself. Even now, when the captaincy of the T20 side in the hands of another, there is an association, almost an identity of Mithali Raj as the captain of India. Even if she gives up ODI captaincy to allow her successor to grow into 2021, commentators will return to her imprint on the team and in their minds- as a captain who took the team to two World Cup finals. Her legacy is perhaps the continuity, the consistency and the constancy she has provided. Future captains, from India and abroad, will struggle to match up to that.