Exactly 10 years ago, on August 17, 2002, a 19-year-old from Jodhpur broke Karen Rolton's record of highest individual Test score of 204 and created a new high with an innings of 214. It was only her third Test. Mithali Raj has since grown into one of the legends of the game in women’s cricket and is currently the No 1 ODI batswoman in the world.
In an exclusive interview to CricketCountry's Sudatta Mukherjee and Aayush Puthran, Mithali goes back in time to share her experience and growth as a cricketer, about the progress of women's cricket and also her thoughts about the upcoming World Twenty20 Championship in Sri Lanka.
CricketCountry (CC): Ten years ago, as a 19-year-old, you made history by scoring 214 - the then highest score in a women's Test - at Taunton. What was your feeling on breaking the record?
Mithali Raj (MR): I was too young at that time to actually realise about the record. It was our tour manager who sent a message through the 12th man to tell me that 209 was the previous record. That’s when I realised. Otherwise I didn’t have the faintest of idea. When I broke the record, more than anything else, I was too tired after batting for long. But it always feels good to break any kind of record.
CC: What was the reception on the field, on getting back to the pavilion and when you returned home?
MR: That was the last Test and India really didn’t do very well in the one-dayers, so it was saving grace for us to draw the Test. And the 214 probably overshadowed the bad performance of earlier matches. But when I got back I really didn’t think that I would be received in such a manner because I normally don’t speak too much to my parents when I'm touring, unless it is very important to talk to. Those days women’s cricket was under WCI (Women’s Cricket Association of India); it wasn’t under BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India), so we had to travel by train, where I had a huge reception at the station. It then hit that it is a huge thing and so many people had come to receive me. My mom never comes to receive me, but she came on that occasion. So it was very emotional.
CC: If any Indian male cricketer had broken the highest individual score in Test, we can be sure that the country would have gone nuts and player would have got crores in appreciation. What did you get?
MR: I wouldn’t say that men’s cricket is different from women’s, but I had definitely thought if I would have done under the BCCI banner, things could have been much, much bigger. Because it was under WCI and we were on our own and financially not a very strong board, things didn’t happen as it could have happened if we were under BCCI.
CC: It was just your third Test. What was going on your mind?
MR: As a player I was still very raw in terms of experience, so maybe only thing was it was a Test match and in those day scoring 50 or 60 was a big thing, so we used to think that when I go to bat I should score a half century. But that Test was something very different, there are so many things in the team you know, the composition of the team demanded that I stay there irrespective of what the total is, individual or the team’s is. So it was more of staying there than scoring runs.
CC: You said Jhulan Goswami was a remarkable motivator during your progress. Both of you have been huge success stories of Indian women's cricket. What is like to be idols for many youngsters?
MR: When people come up and say that they want to be like us, it feels in some ways that we get an opportunity to inspire them.
CC: Kiran Baloch broke your record in 2004. What was your feeling on your record being bettered?
MR: I was not disappointed, because I too broke somebody’s record. Probably it would have happened sooner or later. I was never attached to it. I guess it’s nice in a way that the record is broken because it inspires me to play another innings to better that. It never broke my heart because I normally don’t take things to heart.
CC: It has been a long journey since then. Leading the Indian team… becoming the top-ranked ODI player. Who are the people you give credit for your growth?
MR: There are so many people who played a role, some in a bigger way; a lot of people have been there, inspired me and motivated me. Like my parents, the coaches who taught me the game, my friends. And to some extent I would give credits to the critics, because if it hadn’t been for the critics no one would had gone an extra inch ahead. So, in some ways, we should also give credit to the critics.
CC: In the last few years, captaincy has shifted between you, Anjum Chopra and Jhulan Goswami. Do you think such chopping and changing creates unwanted confusion and insecurity in the team?
MR: I can’t talk from the selectors’ perspective, but as a player, for a young team it definitely has to have one captain, maybe for a couple of seasons or so because young players take time to adjust. But if you have a seasoned team where you have more experienced team, you have more seniors than youngsters, that team will adapt more quickly.
CC: Pursuing sports in India is not easy. It gets worse if you are a girl. How was your journey to international cricket?
MR: Initially, I had my set of problems, not from my parents but my relatives because in 90’s cricket was still a sport normally not played by girls. If it wouldn’t have been for my parents, I wouldn’t have played. What happens is that when you start you have to go for a lot of trainings, give lot of time to the basics. The grooming phase is really important. In my early days in cricket, I hardly attended any family functions. My parents had to hear a lot of taunts when they said that I was away in trainings. South Indian girls focus on education and choosing a career in medicine or engineering and not sports. I think it is basically because of my parents, I was moulded in such a way that I’m today. I never wanted to get into sports. I was more into cultural activities. I loved sketching, I learnt Bharatanatyam for eight years. Cricket was something I was pushed into, for a reason, by my parents. So it just happened.
CC: Do you think India is a major force in women's cricket or would it still take a few years to become one of the strongest sides?
MR: It will still take us few years because we have just merged with the men’s cricket. England, Australia has merged much before us. So they have that upper hand and in the first few years England did really well. And the world cricket body, ICC looks up to a team which is doing really well.
CC: What is your view on the kind of attention and money that men cricketers earn today?
MR: A lot of people say that we should also get paid the way men cricketers do, but my views are different. Men’s cricket is doing really well, they are getting the revenue in, they make the game interesting and there are so many people who are ready to pump in money in for them. Just because men’s cricket is earning we can’t expect the BCCI to give us that much money. As a woman cricketer, I should be working towards making the game more interesting. The BCCI, on its part, should take the initiative to promote women’s cricket. If we do well, we will attract sponsors and everyone will be happy. That is the time we too will earn our benefits.
CC: Men cricketers were paid one-time benefits by BCCI. Do you think women cricketers should be provided the same payment?
MR: I really can’t say much on it. But I feel that the way the women’s cricket is a sport is because of our former cricketers. If they wouldn’t have continued it we wouldn’t have got to this point in the first place. So in some ways, yes, we should appreciate the efforts of those who played in the 70s and 80s. It was unnatural for women to come and play any sports, and especially cricket. I think only for this reason BCCI should also come up with some amount for these ex-cricketers.
CC: Has BCCI done enough for women's cricket? If not, what more would you like them to do?
MR: This year has been very good for us because we have played quite a few international series before the Twenty20 World Cup, but usually what happens is that we just get to play one or two series. It gets very difficult for a player to sustain the momentum. We usually play one at the start of the year and one at the end of the year. That’s a huge gap for any player to sustain good form. In four series, a male cricketer becomes an experienced player. In contrast, it takes a much longer time for a woman because we play very less matches.
When there is a World Cup around, we squeeze in series so that the team gets enough practice. But when the World Cup is not there and there is a huge gap. It’s like studying for a week for the board exams. You can’t sit one week before and study for 15 to 18 hours a day and then expect that you would get first rank. You have to study the whole year. That is still not happening. As a player I want more matches to be played.
CC: You guys had a series of defeats. Looking forward, what are the chances of the Indian team of winning World T20?
MR: Honestly, it is a tough call. Because we have two good sides, who have beaten us in the T20 series are in the same pool, Australia and England. So it can be tough but again it is a T20 format, you never know it can change anytime, the best of the best teams lose to weaker sides. But having said I wouldn’t say that any team is a weak side because it is a short format, it can be anybody’s game on that day. And we have beaten Australia in T20. I’m being very positive but we just have to win two games to qualify for the semis. If we do that, from the other pool we have decent teams, team which are pretty much on par with us, that is New Zealand or West Indies, if they qualify. So it could then be a good chance for us. So if we get through there is nothing like it.
CC: Who are your key players for the World T20?
MR: This format has lot of players who can become a key player because it is format in which a quick 20-30 runs can win you match or say one or two wickets in an over. So I wouldn’t say there are main players, but there is Jhulan (Goswami), she is our main bowler. Then there is Niranjana, who has made a comeback and done very well in England. Coming to batting we have Harmanpreet Kaur, the vice-captain, and yes a couple of youngsters are doing very well in the camp.
CC: Looking back, do you think you could have done better than that? Any regrets?
MR: I think right now the only regret is that we didn’t win the England series. It was very much in our hands. It is different thing to beat the No 1 side and at home and that too with a lead of 2-0 we went to lose the series 3-2. Very upsetting.
(Sudatta Mukherjee claims to be a Jill of all trades and mistress of none. She is affable, crazy and a wannabe writer. Her Twitter ID is @blackrosegal. Oh yes! You do know her!)
(While enjoying the small joys of life, rarely has anything mesmerised Aayush Puthran more than cricket. A student of Journalism in Mumbai, he is trying to figure out two things: ways to make Test cricket a commercial hot property and the best way to beat Mumbai traffic. He has a certain sense of obsession with novelty. He might seem confused, but he is just battling a thousand demons within his mind. Nonetheless, he is always up for a light-hearted chat over a few cups of coffee! )