Mithali Raj: The great woman cricketer of India

The incredible achievements of Mithali Raj, who has become only the second woman to score 10,000 international runs, must be viewed in the backdrop of the utter indifference of the cricket officialdom, media and fans towards women’s cricket. The 38-year-old Mithali has battled official apathy for most of her career and kept herself motivated to go on and score heavily since making her international debut as a 16-year-old.
The reference point for India and 10,000 runs in cricket will always be Sunil Gavaskar. He was the first to reach that imposing landmark in any format, in 1987—that achievement then being compared to climbing Mt Everest gave it an added aura. Mithali Raj on Friday climbed her own summit, becoming the first Indian to complete 10,000 runs in women’s international cricket. Her 36 in the third one-day international against South Africa took her to 10,001, making her only the second in the women’s game to reach the mark. Only England’s Charlotte Edwards is ahead of her, with a career-high 10,273 overall runs. The 10,000 landmark is a tribute to a player’s longevity and consistency. That is what Raj pointed out after her achievement was tempered by the Proteas beating India to take a 2-1 series lead.
Technically sound and a classical cover drive among her favourite shots, Raj and her teammate Jhulan Goswami are the last remaining links to an earlier, the more amateur era of women’s cricket, where the game was run in an ad-hoc manner and matches were few and far between, and now, with its professional set-up, TV rights, T20 leagues and stress on fitness.
Mithali has inspired multiple generations of women to come into the game, and has captained India with distinction, including taking them to a World Cup final in 2017 where she scored heavily. Yet, the Indian women’s team going without a game for a year in 2020 during the pandemic phase despite having reached the T20 World Cup final shows a lot more needs to be done.
 The Indian cricket board (BCCI) has always been male-centric. After the International Cricket Council (ICC) took over women’s cricket too, BCCI was the last of the top-eight cricket-playing nations to take women’s cricket under its wing. Over the years, India’s women cricketers got central contracts and gained greater visibility, but it still is an uphill battle for the women. For instance, Covid wiped out one full year off the professional lives of India’s women cricketers — after the team reached the final of the 50-over World Cup last year, they didn’t play international for a whole year.
Sport is a great vehicle for social mobility, and for improving health parameters and raising incomes. It’s a terrible idea to keep one half of the population shut off from the benefits of sport. In India, a very large number of girls are still not allowed to go out to play, study or seek employment. Mithali and her ilk in different sports are doing a great service to the nation by inspiring girls to take up sport. 

 

- Prabhakar Purandare

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