Mithali Raj wants the spotlight to be back on cricket

Women's CricZone Staff
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Mithali Raj, Radha Yadav book India their semis ticket

Mithali Raj in action. ©ICC

Mithali Raj has said that it is time to move on from the controversy surrounding her and focus on preparing for the upcoming tour of New Zealand in late January next year.

Mithali, who won two player of the match awards against Pakistan and Ireland with twin half-centuries in the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean, was not considered for the semifinal against England despite being available. It was for the first time since she established herself as the leading player of the Indian team that Mithali was benched. India lost the semifinal, which led to many experts feeling that Mithali’s steadiness at the top of the order could have helped the team do better.

Once the team returned to India, Mithali met Rahul Johri and Syed Saba Karim, BCCI’s CEO and GM respectively, and expressed her disappointment about Ramesh Powar, the coach, and Diana Edulji, one of the two members of the Committee of Administrators. In his response, Powar too was quite scatching about Mithali, and both the letters written to BCCI were leaked out to the media, spillaring into a major controversy.

Mithali took to Twitter to say that it was the darkest day of her career, and it automatically garnered a lot of public support. As a consequence of the controversy, Powar’s three-month contract which expired on November 30 and was eligible for a 12-month extension upon favourable review was not renewed.

BCCI advertised for the vacant post of head coach, and Powar was one of the late applicants after Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana, India’s T20I captain and vice-captain, wrote separate letters supporting the coach. Harmanpreet made it clear that the decision to bench Mithali in the semifinal was a collective call of the team management, which included the coach, captain, vice-captain and Sudha Shah, the travelling selector.

An ad-hoc committee of Shantha Rangaswamy, Kapil Dev and Aunshuman Gaekwad nominated Gary Kirsten, WV Raman and Venkatesh Prasad in that order as their choice of replacement on December 20. Since Kirsten was ineligible because of his role as Royal Challengers Bangalore’s head coach in the Indian Premier League, BCCI named Raman as Powar’s replacement.

A day after that the Hemlata Kala-led selection committee and Mithali met in New Delhi for a squad selection meeting for the tour of New Zealand. Harmanpreet Kaur joined the meeting through a video conference from Australia. Mithali, as was expected, was retained in the T20I squad, and continued as the One-Day International captain.

“The way things panned out was obviously not in a very good taste. It affected everybody in a different level, in a different way. I can only say that the last few days were very stressful for me and my parents. And also for people around me, especially the way it panned out,” Mithali said at the promotional event in Kolkata on Friday (December 21). “Now I am sure things are settled and we should give more spotlight on the sport, on the players and in the team.”

The controversy made a lot of headlines, and put women’s cricket in spotlight. Mithali, however, felt that it was not the right way for the sport to be under attention.

“It definitely did put women’s cricket in the spotlight which was not needed. When you talk about non-cricketing issues and not the team, the focus goes away from the sport,” she said. “Now that we have a tour, it’s time that we move forward.”

In her letter to BCCI, Mithali had stated that she had no issues with Harmanpreet, playing down speculations about rift between the duo. She retained her stance, saying that small differences in a “huge and big family” can happen.

“When the 15 individual players come together with the support staff, it’s a huge and big family. And usually in a family there will always be a difference of opinion. Everybody will not have the same kind of perspective. There will be issues and it does happen,” she added. “These issues are secondary to us... Not even secondary; these things do not even come in the list of priority. But when we take on the field, we are ambassadors of the sport. On the field, we are one unit, we come as a team. We are there to give our best and perform as a unit.”

New Zealand is a special place for the Indian team, with many significant firsts having taken place here. But their last tour to the country was in March 2006 when they lost 1-4 in the ODI series to the hosts. They have not yet played a T20I in New Zealand. Only Mithali and Jhulan Goswami remain from the last tour in the squad now.

“We last toured there in 2007 (2006). Only Jhulan and I from the current team were part of the last tour. For many in the team it will be a first tour. It will be challenging. We should give more importance on the preparation. The priority will be to getting the team together,” she said. “The upcoming tour will be important. It’s part of the ICC Championship one-dayers and there’s a point system in place. It’s important for India to garner as many points as it will help us in 2021 World Cup.”

India are placed fifth with eight points in nine games in the Championship, and need to finish among the top four teams to avoid playing qualification for the 2021 World Cup which will also be held in New Zealand.

This will be Raman’s first assignment with the Indian team, and Mithali said it was important to give the new coach time to settle down. “It’s very early to comment on him. I had met him briefly at the National Cricket Academy. We have to support him and look forward to build a team.”

India’s first ODI is on January 24.