The first time I saw Mithali Raj was after the end of an Indian team training session at the Bandra Kurla compound in Mumbai ahead of the 2013 Women’s World Cup. She had just emerged from the dressing room after a batting stint. Some of her teammates were still stretching and cooling off on the grass near the border. The team manager, in a mixture of affection and hopeful request, asked them to join the group. She had to ask a few more questions in the same tone, before Mithali finally sauntered over to join her teammates.
Aside from the handful of fans who had gathered, even some of the Indian players had a hint of awe in their eyes when Mithali arrived, occasionally running a hand through her still-wet hair and bearing the aloof disdain that was only too whose sole presence at the top has never been questioned. She knew she cried kings, the others knew she cried kings, only each side had different ways of conveying that reality. Prima donna status was well-deserved into the 14th year of what was by far the finest career for an Indian batter.
At the nets of the Cricket Club of India got to see the ability responsible for the status a few days later (imagine seeing Sachin Tendulkar bat for the first time in 2003 but that was the fate of women’s football back then ). Mithali faced spin from some young male bowlers. That full step forward that brought her just inches off the ground; this signature hat, close to the top of the bat, almost obscuring the face to create an optical illusion; the exquisitely high elbow that couldn’t be missed even from the pavilion, and the dead-straight racquet that choked ball after ball. You can’t think of a more hypnotic forward defense in the game. You could watch it on a loop and it wouldn’t lose any of its rehearsed grace.
Mithali’s genius lay in turning what seemed to start as another forward defense into a cover drive at the last moment, with a twist of the racquet that would send the ball purring into the gap. There was absolutely no violence in her game, even her flicks and straight drives were more check-shots; she could have been in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s or 90’s. In that sense, their hit was truly timeless (except for the shortest format, but more on that in a moment).
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Mithali scored 7805 ODI runs. To understand how far ahead of her predecessors and peers she was, consider that second on the Indian list, Harmanpreet Kaur, has yet to go past 3000 and third, Anjum Chopra finished at 2856. Mithali has been used to operating in a league of his own for so long that the friction starts to make sense towards the end.
There’s another aspect to the build-up of fear that played out in dressing rooms and letter wars: the punishment her body endured over the course of representing India 333 times. She was not even 17 years old when she made her international debut in the last century. After announcing her retirement at the age of 39, she said she considered retiring when Rahul Dravid did. That was a decade ago. The first half of her career was built in a far less glamorous setting, amid unrestricted train travel and extremely basic accommodation. Time catches up faster when there’s a grind off the field too.
Not that anyone could ever get used to playing with pain, but by the second half Mithali had at least gotten used to his presence. Once she did a hundred and collapsed on the physiotherapist’s table, unable to speak and in tears because of pain in her knees. After the match, she returned to do cautious laps across the floor. Backward. It took time and patience, but the routine helped make her legs less stiff and the pain a little more bearable. She still threw herself around the field for cover, often landing hard on practice wickets and continuing to shake a battered body.
She has been the last woman to stand in the middle countless times since she was a teenager. Maybe it was her way of dealing with the responsibilities she had borne for two decades, maybe it was her way of mostly keeping to herself, but some teammates who shared dressing rooms with her for years had no idea of Mithali as a Person. Not only would she wait for her turn to bat, but she’d also regularly curl up in a book after playing in her hotel room. It was a perpetually curious mind, trained to find answers on its own, constantly searching for sustenance, and even ready at 3am for discussions about the meaning of life.
The increased attention and rewards following India’s 2017 World Cup final did their part to prolong her career. It was long overdue and long wanted; As recently as 2014, after 15 years of her career, she had sarcastically remarked why anyone was looking at her while the attention was on men’s football. With that, however, the last traces of dilettantism disappeared. If anything, she retreated further into her secure cocoon. She also worked harder than ever on her fitness, becoming noticeably slimmer and stronger.
No appreciation of Mithali’s career will be complete without considering the controversies surrounding her batting position and batting rate in T20s. It was a format she initially despised and never really warmed to. She had learned her cricket in the early 90’s and simply did not have the tools this burgeoning format now needs. Forget batting, at her best, she barely batted a ball in the air, other than rarely hitting the ground. In conventional cricket, her artistry was always more than enough. Now it might even become a burden at times.
But for someone who had carried the party with a bat and led it for most of her career, the criticism felt like a personal attack rather than the respect and admiration she was accustomed to. Former players, who they felt didn’t know what it meant to win, publicly asked questions about their hit rate. It was too great an insult to digest. She would balk at the mention of the term “strike rate” at press conferences. She felt that despite her unparalleled contribution to Indian cricket, she was unfairly singled out.
It was almost as if the world had banded together against them after two decades of being in awe of their presence. The sun of a great career should not have risen like this. But even the biggest of them mostly don’t end with a climax. At the very least, this one leaves us with the highest elbows, straightest bats and most intriguing forward defense.