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BCCI, spare a thought for Mithali Raj and her unsung team

Mithali Raj took India home © Getty Images
Mithali Raj took India home against England © Getty Images

With India Women resuming play in the longer version, Mithali Raj, their quintessential mainstay, masterminded them to a victory at Wormsley. Abhishek Mukherjee relives a woman’s journey in a cricket-crazy country where The Board of Control For Cricket (BCCI) has often ignored the need to encourage growth of women’s cricket.

Mithali Raj is 31, and already a veteran of 12 years in international cricket; take men like Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, and Harbhajan Singh, who are out of the international reckoning, and she has the longest career among current Indian cricketers across genders. Her career reads a mere nine Tests; and the one-off Test against England Women at Wormsley was the first time she has played the longer version since 2006.

Exactly why the Indian Women do not play more Tests is an enigma. Consider Mithali, for example: her career tally reads 626 runs at 52.16 (sixth in the history of women’s test history with a 500-run cut-off and best among Indians with a 500-run cut-off and best among Indians). In the last Women’s Test, she had played, (which was also India Women’s last Test before the one at Wormsley) she scored 65 and 22 not out before Jhulan Goswami, the tireless spearhead of the Indian attack, had routed the hosts with five for 33 and five for 45 at Taunton.

But then, that was not enough, for some baffling reason. Six out of nine Tests Mithali, played have been an only Test. The men, on the other hand, have played nine Tests only in England in the past three years, winning one and losing six (and on the verge of losing a seventh).

The women, on the other hand, have played three Tests on English soil since Mithali’s debut, have won two and drawn two on English soil; they have also won their only Test in South Africa during this period — and had been denied a Test; and when they were finally allowed, it was not telecast, and fans back home had to rely on BBC live commentary. That has been the kind of discrimination dished out to India Women.

But that has never affected Mithali; if it has been a matter of grievance, it has certainly not reflected in her batting; she has come a long way from the baby-faced 19-year old who had smashed Karen Rolton’s record of 209 not out to set a new world record of 214 (Kiran Baluch, 242, is the only one to have scored more).

She is now a veteran, as is Jhulan Goswami, whose nine Tests have fetched her 38 wickets at 16.00; she played her part at Wormsley with four for 48 in England Women’s second innings to go with her one for 20 in the first. Karuna “Karu” Jain, India’s other “senior” (they had eight debutants), did her bit as well, with four catches behind the stumps.

Jhulan was the second female cricketer to be nominated for Padma Shri after Diana Edulji; Mithali’s overdue recognition came during the Wormsley Test (a year after Anjum Chopra). Virat Kohli has been nominated along with Mithali: it had taken Kohli a year to play his ninth Test.

But Mithali is more than that. While Diana was an icon of the era, Jhulan has been the tearaway who ran through sides with ease, and Anjum the blue-eyed favourite, Mithali had carved out a niche of her own: with her performances on field and dignity off it, she has, in a way, been the face of the Indian Women’s team, and more.

If these had aggrieved Mithali, it did not show in her batting. She marshalled her troops, especially debutant Niranjana Nagarajan, as England Women folded for 92; she failed with the bat, but her team managed a 22-run lead, which was eradicated with the loss of a single wicket.

But Mithali kept patience. She rotated her bowlers around. She used Jhulan with care, and as her spearhead kept on denting the English line-up, she found assistance from the other end as well; Ekta Bisht played the perfect foil with a long spell, and India Women were eventually left to score 181; Shubhalakshmi Sharma, having dislocated her shoulder, was unlikely to bat.

Up stepped the debutants Thirush Kamini and Smriti Mandhana, putting up 76 for the opening stand; Mithali found herself at the crease at 82 for two, and some excellent bowling from Kate Cross saw India Women finish the day on 119 for four; Mithali was on a 69-ball 20, and the onus was on her; Shikha Pandey, after all, was making her debut.

They kept coming at her, the English bowlers: runs dried up; fielders moved closer and closer; she did not edge, so they took the slip away; she cut and steered the ball very late, deftly, to third-man; they brought the slip back; Mithali kept piercing the newly opened gap.

The pitch suddenly seemed to have lost its demons. The attention of the fans shifted from The Oval to Wormsley and from television channels to the internet and radio. Mithali kept scoring. They tempted her, but she merely defended or drove them in gaps and picked up singles. She knew she had to be there till the end. She did not go for the big shots. Runs came in a trickle, but they came.

The English shoulders started dropping. Mithali drove in the gap — this time for four — but kept strike with a single. A single next over brought up her fifty; and Shikha finished off things with a boundary off Natalie Sciver to finish things off. As the Indians swamped the ground in joy, the captain flashed a smile of satisfaction: not only had she managed to defeat the English with a bunch of rookies, but had also managed to send a silent message to The Board.

Take the hint, BCCI. It is about time.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter  here.)

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