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Mithali Raj, the ‘Captain Cool’ who reads Rumi, is India’s new sporting icon

india Updated: Jul 30, 2017 09:30 IST
Aasheesh Sharma
Indian women's cricket team captain Mithali Raj poses for Hindustan Times in New Delhi, after her return from the 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup.

Indian women's cricket team captain Mithali Raj poses for Hindustan Times in New Delhi, after her return from the 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup.(Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO)

What could the abridged teachings of a 13th-century Iranian mystic and the fiery prose of an India-born English cricket captain have in common? When you have the most prolific ODI run-scorer in the world poring over their words on a sylvan cricket ground as she waits for her turn to bat, the authors don’t appear so unrelated any more. Television images of Mithali Dorai Raj, 34, the celebrated Indian cricket skipper plonked on a plastic chair nonchalantly reading a well-thumbed edition of The Essential Rumi and turning the pages of Nasser Hussain’s autobiography Playing with Fire, unaffected by the turbulence of the ICC Women’s World Cup around her, were making headlines much before the Women in Blue knocked out six-time-champions Australia en route to a famous final against England at Lord’s.

This was, of course, before the Indian team missed the Cup by nine runs. But they won a billion hearts with the feisty manner in which they took the fight to the English at the Mecca of cricket. We lost at Lord’s, really?

The result didn’t appear to affect the broadcaster’s ratings (similar to the IPL, if you must know) or the full house at the stadium (26,500 tickets sold, the most for women’s cricket at the venue) or more spectacularly, the frenzy that the team’s rapturous homecoming has unleashed.

Mithali Raj reads The Essential Rumi ahead of her innings during the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 match between South Africa and India. (Getty Images)

A few years ago, bemoaning the lack of media coverage of women’s cricket, Indian captain Mithali Raj had famously said: “There are generally no reporters at our matches, either to see our team’s performances, or my dimples.” Well, now they are triggering a mini-stampede among scribes and fans alike.

On a muggy July afternoon outside Delhi’s Rail Bhawan, 600 raucous supporters could be heard shouting: “Mithali, Harman, Punam…we are proud of you.” Inside, close to a thousand were standing on tables and chairs trying to zoom in on the players with their mobile phones during a felicitation by the Railways. What if we had actually won? It wasn’t just journalists stepping over each other’s toes to get a sound bite from the finalists, everyone wanted a slice of their reflected glory. First stop, the sports minister’s residence, then the BCCI felicitation at the Taj’s rooftop restaurant, then mingling with fans at Rail Bhawan and then, well, the Prime Minister might also like a quick word with Mithali & Co.

Mithali says she hasn’t witnessed scenes like these in her entire international career. “We played equally well in the 2005 World Cup [India lost in the one-sided final to Australia] but this time round, the excitement seems to have exploded. Then all our matches were not televised and unlike this year, there was no social media or the ICC working round-the-clock to market the tournament. This is a huge differentiator, but we are loving it,” she exclaims as she is interrupted for the 11th time by a selfie-seeker during our interview.

“Mithali is a calming influence on the dressing room full of young players. Her vast experience and sheer presence are invaluable... ,” says Shubhangi Kulkarni, former captain

It must be the Internet, then. On Sunday, a few days before ‘Mithali Raj husband name’ was the most searched in India trends (she is single, for the record), the Indian skipper got her own emoji-filled hashtag on Twitter and an illustration of “Bat like a girl” began doing the rounds of social media.

Eighteen years after playing for India, does Mithali still need validation from her 164 k Twitter followers to be recognised on the street? No, she also happens to have made the most runs in the ODI game in the world (more than 6,000), has led the team for more than 100 matches (the most ever) and is the first Indian woman cricketer to have been named player of the year by Wisden (in 2015).

Punam Raut, the doughty batter from Mumbai who impressed everybody with her ability to occupy the crease in the World Cup, says she grew up idolising Mithali much before she got to play with her in 2009. “Playing alongside a batting legend is an honour. Over the last eight years, I have learnt innings preparation from Mithali didi, among other things. The way she carries her bat through is something I want to do,” says Raut.

Keeping Score
  • Mithali has scored 6190 runs, the most in the world in ODIs. Mithali was the first woman to go past 6,000 runs.
  • She was 16 years and 20 days when she hit her first ODI century in 1999. Mithali is the youngest centurion till date in women’s ODIs.
  • She has scored 49 half centuries, which is the most by any international women cricketer. She waltzed past the previous record set by England’s Charlotte Edwards, who has 46 fifties from 191 games
  • Mithali’s average in women’s ODI is 51.58, which is the best among women cricketers who have played more than 100 ODIs.

“She is Miss Indian Cricket,” raves former Indian great and Arjuna Award winner Shantha Rangaswamy. “For close to two decades, Mithali’s dedication to the game has made her a role model. She hasn’t let anything come between her batting and her. To retain that unwavering focus since her teenage years is not easy.”

The daughter of Air Force officer Dorai Raj and homemaker Leela, Mithali took to cricket at the young age of 10 at her father’s behest. She gave up on Bharatnatyam, her first love and picked up her first cricketing lessons at Secunderabad’s St John’s school. At the age of 14, she was named among the probables for the 1997 World Cup and has never looked back.

According to former Indian leg spinner Shubhangi Kulkarni, what gives Mithali an edge over many of her contemporaries is her mental strength and calm countenance, something that has elicited comparisons with Captain Cool MS Dhoni. “Even as many of her peers hung their boots, her determination stood out. The way she bounced back from a knee injury a few years ago, shows how strong she is up there.”

But Mithali says the reputation of being cool is not something she has acquired recently. “I have always been like this. I want to keep a check on my emotions while on the field.”

“The way she is going,I won’t be surprised if Mithali is in the reckoning for the 2021 World Cup. Maybe 10,000 runs are on her mind,” says Diana Edulji , former cricketer, India

Comparisons with male cricketers — she has also been likened to Sachin Tendulkar for their records and longevity — have two sides to them, says Mithali. “On the one hand, being compared to Sachin is an absolute privilege. I don’t think I’ve achieved even half of what he did for the country. On the other, being a woman cricketer, I want people to know me for my own identity. I would rather not be compared to a male cricketer,” she asserts. Now where have we heard this before? “Would you ask the same question to a man?” Mithali had shot back at a reporter asking her to name her favourite male cricketer, during a media event before the World Cup. “I believe it wasn’t the right platform for a query like that. On the occasion, the question sounded irrelevant, even frivolous,” she says.

Diana Edulji, an icon of women’s cricket in the country, says Mithali has always taken delight in smashing preconceived notions. “With her form and fitness, she may be in the reckoning for the 2021 World Cup. She has always liked to defy convention. What’s the big deal if she reads a book on the sidelines?”

It so happens that Mithali likes to read, a lot. “I’ve been a voracious reader for as long as I recall,” that dimpled smile makes an appearance. “I don’t know what the big fuss about reading during a World Cup game is about. It makes me less nervous while I wait to bat. Since ICC norms don’t permit a Kindle, I carry a book along. There may be some anxiety in the dressing room and that may become contagious. But I am a spontaneous person and I don’t want to plan my innings before I step out on the field. I want to stay in the moment.”

And at present the team and their skipper appear to be savouring what a commentator called Indian women-cricket’s Chak De moment. Along with a few ‘cheque de’ moments, one may add. The BCCI awarded each player with a cheque of ~50 lakh and the Railways gave Mithali an out-of-turn promotion. Income parity, a sore issue for many women’s cricketers may be round the corner and a BMW awaits her when she reaches home in Hyderabad.

Where is the room to read Rumi during this champagne hour? “Reading Rumi helps me see life from a non-cricketing perspective, it teaches me how to look at things philosophically,” she explains with all the elegance of a boundary hit through cover. We’ll be ruminating over this for a long time, Mithali!