The Raj of Mithali © Getty Images
The Raj of Mithali © Getty Images

Rahul Dravid was in sublime form in 2002. He scored three consecutive hundreds, none better than the epic 148 at Headingley. Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly scored hundreds at Headingley as well. In the previous Test, at Trent Bridge, Dravid had scored another hundred, while Tendulkar and Ganguly were both dismissed in the nineties. Dravid did not stop: he followed it with 217 at The Oval, falling 4 short of Sunil Gavaskar’s 221 — still the highest score by an Indian in a Test on English soil. ALSO READ: India Women beat Australia Women in rain interrupted 2nd T20I at Melbourne, Seal series

There were feats, plenty of them. And yet, just over 300 kilometres away from Leeds, India Women were playing, unnoticed, at Taunton. They led England Women by 138 runs. When stumps were drawn, the hosts were 198 for 6. Had it been a five-day match it was probably India’s match to lose. ALSO READ: IPL for women cricketers good idea: Mithali Raj

India’s 467 revolved around the bat of a teenage genius who broke into the record books with a sublime double-hundred. Mithali Raj’s was, at that point of time, the world record. It has been surpassed only once, by Kiran Baluch.

Mithali has been around for almost 14 years now. Her numbers, 663 runs at 51, are fantastic. She has also played 158 ODIs for his 5,029 runs. Charlotte Edwards, with 5,885 runs at 38.21, is the only other woman to score five thousand runs. Mithali averages 48.82, ten runs per innings more than Charlotte. Her T20I average (36.32 across 1,344 runs) is the highest among all batsmen with a thousand runs.

And yet, her career has been restricted to 10 Tests. That is less than one Test a year. To put things in perspective, it has taken Adam Voges five months to get to that 10-Test mark.

The fault does not lie with Mithali, for India Women did not play a single Test between 2006 and 2014. That is eight years. When they last played in 2006, Mithali had scored 65 and 22 not out in a low-scoring win at Taunton. When they resumed in 2014 at Wormsley, Mithali masterminded the chase with a calm, fourth-innings unbeaten fifty.

Standing tall among Indian bowlers, literally and figuratively, was Jhulan Goswami. At Taunton, in 2006, Jhulan had taken 5 for 33 and 5 for 45. This time, at Wormsley, she had 1 for 20 and 4 for 48.

The Indians had taken off from where they had left. Jhulan was the spearhead. Mithali was the ace batsman and the captain. Jhulan and Mithali, born within eight days of each other in different corners of their vast country, remain their major cricketers.

Just like Mithali, Jhulan has also played 10 Tests — in fact, the same 10 Tests. Her numbers, 40 wickets at 16.62, are phenomenal. Just like Mithali, Jhulan ranks second in ODIs (173 wickets at 20.98).

Neither Mithali nor Jhulan missed Tests due to injury. They did not lose form, for they could not afford to. Missing one match out of ten would mean losing ten per cent of your career, which is 20 Tests for Tendulkar.

Mithali and Jhulan have proved their worth over time, as have some of their teammates. They have played 5, drawn 4, and lost 1 of their 10 Tests. Even that could not influence the Board to organise more Tests. “We attend more camps than matches,” a disgruntled Mithali had told ESPNCricinfo after Wormsley.

It was as late as in September last year that BCCI announced a significant pay raise for India Women — which is still significantly less than what their Australian or English counterparts earn.

MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Ravichandran Ashwin, and Ajinkya Rahane, India’s male Grade A contract holders, earn INR ten millions an annum. Mithali, Jhulan, Harmanpreet, and MD Thirushkamini, their female counterparts, get paid INR 1.5 millions. The women play less, but that is certainly not their fault.

And then, there is the small matter of Women’s BBL…

Not that it mattered to them, for Mithali and Jhulan had formed a new army between them. The hard-working Harmanpreet Kaur (she is, after all, the only one in the squad barring Mithali and Smriti to have toured Australia before) may ring a bell to some, but not the others.

Smriti Mandhana, for example, made her debut at 18 at Wormsley, but by then she was already hailed as the next big thing. Perhaps the only one to match Mithali in lithe elegance, Smriti scored 22 and 51 in a match where the opposition was bowled out for 92 in the first innings. She used a bat Dravid had once gifted her brother for that.

Then there is Shikha Pandey, blessed with immense power and the ability to clear grounds and almost impossible to score off in limited-overs cricket; Anuja Patil, one of those tight off-spinners who can set the field alight with her fielding; frail, deceptive Poonam Yadav, who can mix her leg-breaks and googlies as efficiently as anyone; Thirush Kamini, perfect blend of power and concentration; and Nilanjana Nagarajan, perhaps the most accurate of them all. It is a shame that Preeti Dimri, the only Chinaman bowler to play for India, got lost during India’s eight-year-long oblivion.

They arrived in Australia for a series that coincided with the men’s. They would play every match before the men. That was the way to get the crowds to watch the matches, they said.

At Adelaide Oval, Jhulan and Shikha put a stranglehold on the hosts. Poonam got two wickets, but Alyssa Healy smashed her way to a 15-ball 41 not out. Australia Women put up 140 for 5. India had never chased anything more than 127. Outside Asia, their best had been 116. They lost Mithali for 4. The match was as good as Australia’s.

You could not blame the Indians, for they had no time to get acclimatised to a strange country. They were given only one tour match, against Australia Governor-General’s XI. The match was washed out after the hosts batted for four overs. Unlike their Australian counterparts, who had spent the month playing high-intensity cricket in BBL, the Indians were short on match practice.

But they were not willing to put up excuses. Smriti combined elegance with steel to add 55 with Veda Krishnamurthy before both fell in succession. India Women, at this stage, needed 67 from 49 balls. Jhulan was promoted, but she fell for 5 before she could muscle one out of the huge Adelaide Oval.

But there was Harmanpreet, determined, gutsy, nerveless Harmanpreet. When India beat South Africa by an innings last season, she had taken 9 for 85 in the match. The season before that she slammed a 59-ball 77 in the World T20.

Turn your calendar back another season, and Harmanpreet had biffed the English attack to score 107 not out in 109 balls, and followed it with a 100-ball 103. She was leading India at that time, in the absence of Mithali and Jhulan.

Here was an all-rounder, canny, skilled, efficient, and professional. Anuja did her bit, but it in the end it was all about Harmanpreet. Sarah Coyte, known for her accurate bowling, was taken to the cleaners.

There was no respite: the pair added 41 in 23 balls before Alyssa, standing up to the pace of Megan Schutt, found Harmanpreet short of the crease. Her 46 had taken a mere 31 balls. There were still runs to be scored, but Anuja was up to it, and finished things off with time to spare.

Alyssa Healy has seen it all. Few in contemporary cricket know how to win matches the way she does. Her uncle was the fulcrum of one of the greatest teams of all time. Her fiancé was named Man of the Series in last year’s World Cup. As wicketkeeper and ace middle-order batsman, she is a crucial cog in the Women’s XI herself.

She hails from a family of cricketers. She has grown up in an environment of cricket. She is going to spend some more years in the same environment. And yet, Alyssa was forced to admit “they showed us how to play T20 today” in an interview with ESPNCricinfo.

Meg Lanning returned to the team for the second T20I, and found herself in the crease in the first over, for Jhulan had hit timber to send Grace Harris back. Meg stood amidst the ruins with a 39-ball 49, but Jhulan was up to the task with 2 for 16 from 4 overs.

The fielding was electric. When Beth Mooney tried to clear cover off Jhulan, Anuja ran back a significant distance to take a stunner. When Ellyse Perry tried to steal a single, Anuja ran her out with a direct hit. Jess Jonassen ran out Meg, and fell to a well-judged catch by Veda on the deep mid-wicket boundary.

The Australians attempted a desperate late surge, but Rajeshwari Gayakwad, who had given up athletics to pursue a career in cricket, came to the forefront. Last season she had played perfect foil to Harmanpreet during India’s innings win over South Africa Women, finishing with match figures of 59-28-80-5.

It was her turn again. Three decades back Ravi Shastri and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan had used the vastness of MCG to their advantage. This time, it was Rajeshwari. Mithali trusted her over Harmanpreet at the death. Rajeshwari responded by having Sarah caught and Rene Farrell stumped in the space of three balls. Her second spell read 2-0-12-2.

Australia Women finished on 125 for 8 in the 18-over match. India’s asking rate, a round 7, was marginally less than the 7.05 of the previous match. The chase was significantly easier, for Mithali was not going to fail twice on the trot.

Smriti hit two fours in the second over. Mithali responded with four at the other end. The Australians could not break through, and by the time rain brought play to a halt, the Indians had raced to 52 without loss in 7.5 overs. When play resumed they needed 13 from 12. Smriti got a boundary and Mithali two, and India clinched the series with 5 wickets in hand.

The first match was a close victory. This was a resounding one, as has often been the case when both Jhulan and Mithali have struck for India. They continue to go, hand in hand, scripting one victory after another, defying years of negligence and ill-treatment.

As in Adelaide, the men followed suit, with another victory. The margins, 2-0, are the same. The remunerations and press space, on the other hand, are not. The responsibility of that lies with BCCI and with us, the casual or professional cricket-watcher who does not switch to women’s cricket when another channel provides telecast involving their male counterparts.

Not that it matters to Mithali and Jhulan and their gang. They are here to stay. If they are denied an entry, they will probably barge in, for they have done enough to look at BCCI —  and us — in the eye.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)