Fire burns bright for Mithali Raj, 23 years on
- India captain Mithali Raj's quest for a first World Cup trophy enters its sixth edition as the team leaves for New Zealand for a five-match series followed by the ODI World Cup
It's been 23 years since a 16-year-old Mithali Raj walked out to open the innings for India against Ireland. An unbeaten debut hundred in Milton Keynes laid down an early marker, and as years rolled by, Raj went on to dominate women's cricket like few before and fewer since she got going. The highest ODI scorer in women's cricket of all time, and also the only woman to play over 200 ODIs—the tally stands at 220—the Indian skipper heads into possibly her last World Cup, with the fire still burning bright.
For Raj, 39, this is as much a moment to step back and reflect as it is to lead a young group into the blue-riband event. Having witnessed the painstaking progression of the women's game in the country, her illustrious career refuses to be defined by its record-breaking numbers alone.
Sitting alongside head coach Ramesh Powar in what could be her last pre-departure press conference, a bespectacled Raj looked back at her toil with pride.
“It has been a long journey with a lot of highs and lows. I have had my share of struggles. I think my career has come full circle. The first World Cup I played was in New Zealand (2000) where we played the semis. After all these years, here I am, ready to fly for my sixth World Cup, again in New Zealand,” she said on Sunday.
India, yet to win a World Cup, did come close to lifting the trophy twice. They played the final in 2005 in South Africa and, more famously, in 2017 in England. There were two semi-finals too (1997, 2000), which means in three of Raj’s World Cups, the team made it to the last four.
“I am hoping to play the final and win because winning a World Cup is always special for any cricketer, and I am no different. That is something that has driven me from the time I played my first World Cup and it still drives me,” she said.
India’s last ODI series was in September when they lost 1-2 to Australia. While the team did cross 250 runs in two of the three matches, the strike rates of some batters were questioned. Raj brushed aside the concerns.
“I think too much importance is given to strike rate. In that Australia series itself, if you've seen Beth Mooney, she scored her 50 in 80-odd balls but went on to play a match-winning innings for her team,” the skipper said, referring to the Aussie opener’s unbeaten 133-ball 125.
“I believe cricket is played on situations. When we have to score 250-270, we need to have a healthy strike rate. Having said that, we will not focus just on that. It is important to play an innings to win and build partnerships, and that happens not because of strike rate but because you apply and play according to the situation. Sometimes you have to play fast, but sometimes you have to play to get your team out of the hole too.”
She emphasised the need for the top order to come good.
“It’s important that one of the top-order batters takes responsibility to bat through the innings. There has to be a partnership or two of 50 runs or more for us to score 250-270. It’s very rare that the middle-order or lower-middle order scores the bulk of the runs. It’s important that, as a batting unit, all of us take the responsibility of playing our roles,” she added.
India will play six limited-overs matches in New Zealand, starting with the lone T20I on February 9. The five-match ODI series begins on Feb 11. They will start their World Cup campaign against Pakistan at Bay Oval in Mount Maunganui on March 6.