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Mithali Raj © Getty Images

As a batsman Mithali Raj holds almost every possible record in Indian Women’s cricket, especially in the limited-overs formats (most runs in both Women’s ODIs and T20Is, to begin with). She had made her international debut in 1999, but shot into fame back in 2002 when she scored 214 — then the highest score in Women’s Tests. At that point Mithali was a teenager. Seventeen years after her first international match, Mithali is still one of the finest batsmen in the world, leads India Women, and along with Jhulan Goswami, is the face of Women’s cricket in India. In an exclusive interview with Abhishek Mukherjee, Mithali Raj tells us about her journey to become a cricketer, her favourite cricketers, and the general future of Women’s cricket. ALSO READ: Mithali, Harmanpreet, Jhulan’s way to WBBL despite BCCI’s reluctance

CricketCountry (CC): To begin with, Mithali, it was an odd choice, taking up cricket as a profession back in the 1990s. There was barely any interest in Women’s cricket in India (not that there is a lot right now). You had to give up on Bharatanatyam, something you loved: at that time did you feel you were taking a big risk by investing in a field that was not big in India?

Mithali Raj (MR): You should ask that to my parents (smiles). They took most career decisions for me when I was young. I became a cricketer because they wanted me to be one.

CC: How did you actually become a cricketer?

MR (smiles): It started with my brother. He used to play cricket in school. Actually, when I was young, I used to go with my father where he practised. I used to stand outside the ground, and returned the ball when it came my way. That was how it started.

When I was eight, I went on a summer vacation where I was the only girl. Naturally they all played cricket, and being the only girl, I got preference when it came to batting.

I later played with the boys in the nets, which helped me hone my skills.

CC: You mentioned that you used to play with the boys. Do you feel playing with men can help improve the standard of women’s cricket?

MR: Of course. See, there is no denying that men are physically superior to women, which is why there will always be a gap. Practising with, say, Ranji Trophy cricketers will definitely help.

Having said that, when it comes to pure skill, I strongly believe we are at par with the men.

CC: You have come a long way from the teenager who once took the world by storm with a world-record double-hundred. Who have been your greatest inspirations?

MR: Oh, there has been no one in specific. My mom has been a constant source of inspiration, but generally I have been inspired by every individual who has struggled on their way to success and come out on top.

CC: There was an 8-year gap during which India Women did not play a Test. What kept you going during this phase?

MR: You have to remember that the gap came after the first four years of my career. Till that point I had only played 8 Tests, most of which were one-off series. So it was not that I was missing something big. In the meantime we kept on playing ODIs, then T20Is came…

CC: Once Test cricket resumed, India won twice convincingly before it stopped again. Do you think Women’s cricket can sustain purely on limited-overs cricket?

MR: See, even Men’s Tests do not get as much attention as ODIs and T20Is. Given the fact that Women’s cricket is not as popular as Men’s, the probability of Women’s Tests becoming a hit is not very high. Maybe that is the logic behind the current model.

Who knows? Once a certain popularity level is reached, Women’s Tests may resume.

CC: There is a stark difference in popularity between Men’s and Women’s cricket, especially in India. Why do you think Women’s cricket does not draw attention it deserves?

MR: I believe that if you need something to be popular, you need to market it at grass-root level. Women are following cricket more than they used to, especially after IPL has come in: why not capture that audience?

Women’s international matches are typically played at smaller venues. They can always promote these matches in these cities beforehand.

The Women’s World T20 earlier this year was promoted very well. If bilateral series are promoted the same way, women’s cricket is bound to get attention. It is also important that all international matches are telecast live.

CC: What is it like, being the senior and sharing dressing-room with youngsters? Is it different from what it used to be back when you debuted?

MR (smiles): When I made my debut I was the only kid in the team. Almost everyone else was nearly double my age, which meant I had to reach out to them.

A lot of the youngsters these days are of the same age-group. They enjoy themselves together, but we talk among ourselves a lot as well. On the ground, of course, we are all equals and professionals.

The culture has also changed. Back then there was a certain difference between the seniors and juniors. You, as a kid, could not go and put your arm around the shoulder of a senior. These days we are a more casual and friendlier.

CC: Your batting has been more aggressive than usual this year. Was this a conscious effort? Has the arrival of Smriti (Mandhana) and Thirushkamini (MD, now Shankar) given you that extra freedom?

MR: Of course. While Thirushkamini has been around for some time, Smriti is very young, but has been consistent. They were very good, to begin with, but I thought it was important that they went on to score consistently.

Once they showed that maturity, I realised I was not under the same kind of pressure every time I went out. In the last two years I have started to open up a bit when I have gone out to bat.

CC: Hyderabad has this knack of honing female sporting icons. You, Saina (Nehwal), Sania (Mirza): is it merely a coincidence, or is this the result of some kind of sporting culture in the city?

MR: It is not about sporting culture. What I can say is whenever any of us has achieved something, we have always received recognition from Hyderabad media and Government. Receiving Government acknowledgement and support play major role in the success of any sportsperson.

CC: There are two major contests coming up, against Pakistan and West Indies. How do you plan to prepare for them?

MR: Right now we have not received official dates for the matches. I hope we get a few domestic matches before that happens. There may be preparatory camps.

CC: From star batsman to successful captain to an ambassador of the sport in India, you have seen it all. Do you plan on taking up a role in promoting Women’s cricket in India?

MR: I do not know how things will pan out for me over the next few years, but once I quit cricket, I will be more than happy if I can play a role.

CC: Your favourite cricketers?

MR: Karen Rolton has to be there. She was a very attractive left-hander. Then there was Neetu David: I think it was my privilege that I played alongside her.

Oh, and Lucy Pearson (smiles). She was tall, 3 or 4 inches taller than even Jhulan (Goswami). She got bounce from that height, and moved the ball both ways. I would say she is the only bowler who has bothered me on a consistent basis.

CC: To round this off, what has been your greatest cricket moment?

MR: There has not been one particular moment. I have batted under pressure several times. Whenever I have played under pressure and have overcome it, it became a special moment for me. And there have been some (smiles).

CC: Thank you, Mithali. It was a pleasure talking to you.

MR: Thank you.

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