The first time I saw Mithali Raj was after the end of an Indian team training session at the Bandra-Kurla Complex ground in Mumbai ahead of the 2013 Women’s World Cup. She’d just emerged from the dressing room after a batting stint. Some of her team-mates were still stretching and cooling down on the turf close to the boundary. The team manager, in a mixed tone of conspicuous affection and hopeful request, asked her to join the group. She had to ask a few more times, in the same tone, until Mithali finally sauntered over to join her team-mates.
Leave alone the handful of fans gathered around, even a few of the Indian players had a hint of awe in their gaze as Mithali arrived, running a hand occasionally through her still wet hair, and carrying herself with the detached disdain that only belongs to those whose sole presence at the top has never been questioned. She knew she was cricketing royalty, the others knew she was cricketing royalty, only both sides had different ways of transmitting that reality. Into the 14th year of a career that was already by far the best for an Indian female batter, the prima donna status had been well-earned.
At the Cricket Club of India nets a few days later, one got to see the skill that was responsible for the status (imagine seeing Sachin Tendulkar bat for the first time in 2003, but such was the lot of the women’s game then). Mithali was facing spin from some young male bowlers. That full forward stride, taking her just inches above the ground; that characteristic hat, close to the top of the bat, almost hiding the face to create an optical illusion; the exquisitely high elbow that was unmissable even from the pavilion, and the most dead-straight of bats smothering ball after ball. One cannot recall a more mesmeric forward defence in the game. You could watch it on loop and it would lose none of its studied grace.
Mithali’s genius lay in converting what would seemingly begin as another forward defence into a cover drive at the last instant, with a twirl of the bat 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 belonged to the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s or the 90s. In that sense, her batting was genuinely timeless (barring the shortest format, but more on that in a bit).
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Mithali scored 7805 ODI runs. To appreciate just how far ahead of her predecessors and peers she was, consider that the second on the Indian list, Harmanpreet Kaur, is still to go past 3000, and the third, Anjum Chopra, ended on 2856. Mithali was used to operating in a league of her own for so long that the friction towards the end starts to make some sense.
There is another aspect to the build-up of the angst that would play out in dressing-room discord and letter wars: the punishment her body took over the course of representing India 333 times. She was not even 17 when she made her international debut in the previous century. After announcing her retirement at the age of 39, she said she had considered retiring when Rahul Dravid did. That was a decade ago. The first half of her career was constructed in far less glamorous surroundings, amid unreserved train travel and extremely basic accommodation. Time catches up quicker when even off the field is a grind.
Not that anyone can ever become used to playing with pain, but in the second half, Mithali had become used to its presence at least. She once made a hundred and collapsed on the physio’s table, unable to speak and moved to tears by how much her knees hurt. After the match, she returned to carefully walk laps around the ground. Backwards. It took time and patience, but the routine helped make her legs less stiff, the pain a bit more bearable. She would still throw herself around on the field at cover, often landing hard on practice wickets and jarring a battered body further.
From her teenage days, she had been the last woman standing in the middle on countless occasions. Perhaps it was her way of managing the responsibility she carried for two decades, perhaps it was her nature of mostly keeping to herself, but some team-mates who shared dressing rooms with her for years had no idea about Mithali the person. It was not just while waiting for her turn to bat, she would regularly immerse herself in a book after play in her hotel room too. It was a perpetually inquisitive mind trained to find answers on its own, constantly seeking nourishment, up for meaning-of-life discussions at even three in the morning.
The increased attention and rewards after India’s 2017 World Cup final finish played their part in extending her career. It was long overdue and long desired; as late as 2014, 15 years into her career, she had remarked sarcastically why anyone would look at her while the attention was focussed on the men’s game. But it also meant the last remaining traces of amateurism disappeared. If anything, she retreated further into her secure cocoon. She also worked harder than ever on her fitness, and became noticeably leaner and stronger.
No appreciation of Mithali’s career will be complete without factoring in the controversies surrounding her batting position and strike-rate in T20s. It was a format she initially despised and never really warmed up to. She had learnt her cricket in the early 90s, and just did not have the tools this upstart format now required. Forget slogging, at her best, she’d barely hit a ball in the air, unless rarely chipping down the ground. In conventional cricket, her artistry was always more than enough. Now, it could even become a liability sometimes.
But for someone who’d carried the side with the bat and led it for a majority of her career, the criticism felt like a personal attack, instead of the respect and admiration she had been accustomed to. Former players who, in her mind, hadn’t known what it was to win were asking questions publicly about her strike-rate. It was too much of an insult to digest. She’d bristle up at the mention of the term ‘strike-rate’ at press conferences. Her sense was that she was being unfairly singled out despite her matchless contribution to Indian cricket.
It was almost as if the world had ganged up against her, after being in awe of her presence for the preceding two decades. It was not the way the sun should have come down on any great career. But even the greatest of them, more often than not, do not end on a high. At least this one leaves us with the highest of elbows, the straightest of bats and the most mesmeric forward defence.