EXCLUSIVE – The Only Thing I am Looking at Right Now is The World Cup, I Want to Get That Trophy: Mithali Raj
From one bio-bubble to another. From Lucknow to Rajkot. India women’s cricket ODI captain Mithali Raj is not allowing herself to relax at the age of 38 years. From leading India in the ODI series against the visiting South Africans last week, Mithali is back playing the domestic tournament. “I cannot afford to relax. I want the team to win the trophy. I want to build the team so that when I leave, I want to leave the team with a good set of players. I am going to play for another year,” Mithali told news18.com in an exclusive chat.
Mithali said that the 2022 World Cup to be held in New Zealand in March-April will be her swansong, bringing to end a glorious career that is in its third decade. “The 2022 World Cup will be my last appearance for India,” Mithali told this website on Wednesday.
During the series against South Africa, Mithali became only the second women’s cricketer to accumulate 10,000 international runs. She now has 10,125 runs from 230 international innings, emulating England’s Charlotte Edwards, who scored 10,273 in 309 international innings.
In this free-wheeling interview, she looks back at her career, the pain she went through that even made her even contemplate retiring long ago, the heartbreak of finishing the 2017 World Cup as runner-up and the desire to bring the 2022 World Cup title to India.
How does it feel to be only the second woman to score 10,000 runs in international cricket?
It feels nice. I have definitely come a long way. I have seen women’s cricket evolve from the 1990s to what it is today. I feel fortunate to be playing in the current phase. It is just an honour to be in that bracket. It definitely has not been easy. It did have a lot of sweat, challenges, turmoil. When I look back, I look at my journey in a very happy way. I have always enjoyed scoring runs. It did not matter to me which level, what opposition or where I was playing. As I started playing cricket very young, it was drilled into my mind that each time I picked up a bat, I had to score runs and they matter. I have always been very competitive and looked to score runs each time I walked in. There’s nothing greater than wearing the India jersey and performing because I see that as my way of serving the country in my own capacity.
You are in your third decade of your career. Your career highs are well documented. What have been the tough moments you had to endure?
Of course there have been a lot of challenges. When I started international cricket, the international series were not so regular. We played one series in a year, then there was a huge gap for a year or two. Even if I scored runs and gained momentum in one series, it was discontinued due to that break. Again, I had to develop that momentum whenever we played the next series. It was not like I was carrying that momentum from one series into the next. That has been my challenge for most part of my career. Women’s cricket in India came under the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in 2006. After that, there has been an increase in international cricket in a calendar year.
Of course, there were a couple of injury scares that I thought of retiring. I was suffering from pain physically. Before BCCI accepted women’s cricket in 2006, we did not have the facilities like we have today in that National Cricket Academy (NCA) where you have the physios and trainers understand your injuries to put you through rehab. There were a couple of times when I was actually contemplating retirement.
I played the 2005 World Cup with a ligament tear. I keep telling people that Smriti (Mandhana) had a ligament tear and was still able to compete in the 2017 World Cup because she was in the NCA for a good seven-eight months. Whereas, if any other player was in that position before the BCCI merger (with women’s cricket) happened, she would not have even played the 2017 World Cup. That is a huge difference for any player. The players are now looked after well by the BCCI. When you go to the NCA, you are looked after well. That is something I had to face. With the support from my coaches and parents, I was able to get through that phase and am still continuing to play the sport.
Honestly, I did not see myself playing for so long. Because the injuries are not just the physical injuries that you endure. Every day, day in and day out, you are emotionally drained. Each time it gives you so much pain, and you know you have matches to play. And you know you are playing with so much pain. The regular trips to NCA and the support system I had really helped in recent times.
Overcoming these tough challenges, how did you keep yourself going? How tough are you mentally?
I was also at a point of a breakage mentally. That is why those thoughts of quitting the game came to me. At some point, I was not able to take the pain. It was not just on the cricket field. I found it difficult to perform my daily chores. My mother has seen me go through the pain at home and she wondered why I had to push myself as I may be suffering for a lifetime. When these things happen, you think ‘should I quit?’ I could not take it anymore. I pushed my body to the maximum. I used all my resources mentally and physically.
But what happened was I started to understand my training set up, tried to be smart about how I wanted to train with the injury, I worked my way through. I was planning to retire after the 2009 World Cup. The extent of the pain was that bad. That was the World Cup in which we came under the International Cricket Council, our matches were televised on television. I saw the happiness in my dad when he saw me bat. Otherwise, nobody really knew how Mithali played. Even my dad had not seen me play for the country. But seeing somebody live on TV was a very different thing. I saw so much happiness in my dad. I said, ‘if this is how it is, let me push for another two years’. How was I going to do it when I had already thought of retiring? That’s when I got back to understanding how I’d like to train. I would push myself in my preparation, in my training like how I would do in matches. So that my pain barrier increases, my body is able to take that and I can still go out there and perform. I would put all that in my training session and see if I could push myself for two years, allowing my dad to actually watch me play for the country. Slowly, there were different ways of doing it. Despite the pain, I actually went out there and played. That made me mentally strong. After a point, your body is used to that pain. It was a part of me for a long period. I always told people what it meant to do anything without pain in my knees. From there, I come to a point where today I am actually the fittest. I have really worked on my fitness. It has got a lot to do with my trainer.
We started literally from the scratch, from the fundamentals for the last six-seven months. I am by far the fittest now than in 2017, 2018 and 2019. My trainer from Bengaluru, Varun Shetty, helped me a lot. When things began to open a bit after the lockdown, I travelled to Bengaluru, and this was before the Women’s IPL in Dubai. During the lockdown, we did zoom classes. I took a bit of risk, trained under him for a month. He told me one thing, “Mithali, you will not retire because you are not fit. You will retire only when you don’t have the desire in you. I will ensure that fitness is not the reason for you to retire.” When there is this person who has given me the confidence, it is also my duty to invest everything into it. I just wanted to be a fit player, and wanted my fitness to be better. Credit also goes to NCA trainer Naresh and the NCA support staff for helping me develop endurance.
Do you still play with the pain?
No, I am in a much better space. My knee does not swell up. Of course, I have taken a lot of injections over the years. However, my knees are holding up well. Training has helped me a lot in strengthening the muscles around the knees.
When you look back, do you think all the pain was worth it?
I would say that the pain made me stronger. I would have preferred that my peak years were without the pain. But, it did help me become stronger that even today, if I have some injury, I am still able to go out and play, I know my body much better. With NCA, things are much better for the players. They don’t have to go through what I went through. NCA makes you understand. Before the BCCI merger, we did not know how to take care, what were the things we should not be doing. Going to NCA, we have been educated, in case of injury, what are the things to do, how to prevent it from getting worse. It is just not about skill. Injury prevention is also something that the players need to be educated with, which we had access only after the BCCI takeover.
Do your priorities change over the years?
Yes, priorities do change. When I got selected for the first time in the Indian team way back in 1999, I was trying to make an impression ‘that I am a good player and I deserve to be in the team’. Once you do that, you become a core member of the team and want to perform every time. I got captaincy at a very young age. I had seniors under me, I had ex-captains under me. The priorities change when you become the captain. After that, there were players who were of my age. Then came a point when players were junior to me. Today, most of them are younger to me. Over the years, the phases also helped. When I had young players under me, I see it as being a semi-mentor now. I understand the players better. From leading a team with seniors, leading a team with ex-captains, leading a team with players of my age-group and now leading the young players, I had so many players under me. I am in a better position to understand the insecurities of a player, their vulnerabilities in my own capacity, I try to give them space, help them iron out issues. I could do it because of the experience of leading so many players over the years, I have also seen that it is not just about leading a team. It is also a lot to do with giving them a platform to flourish, showcase their talent, and also try to build the team because after every World Cup, there are a lot of changes in the side. As the captain, you identify talent, nurture it. A lot has gone in these many years, it has helped me become a better player, a better captain. It has also changed me as a person over time. I see it as me helping them, sharing my experiences with them so that they don’t have to go through the same things that I went through.
As runners-up in 2017, how do you look ahead to the 2022 World Cup in New Zealand?
It all depends on what sort of planning we do from now on. I do have a fair idea we have some series this year. It is also important to get the team together. You cannot have the girls going back home and then calling them again 4-5 days before a series. You want a camp, the team as a group is together. It is important to gel as a unit. Because of the break we had last year, it is important to get the girls together. With quarantine and bio-bubble, it is important to have an environment where the players are dependent on each other for emotional support and for everything. It is more like a family. It is important to have that environment. When you give them that environment, you give them the confidence. Other than the matches, it is important to have camps, identifying players, having a group of players and working on a regular basis so that we prepare well for the World Cup.
In that regard, how did the recent SA series go?
If we don’t have to stress more on the result of the series (India lost 1-4), I think the greatest takeaway is the game time. Having five ODIs is very important. Earlier, we used to have three ODIs in a series. Having five ODIs gave me an opportunity to try new players. It gave me a fair idea as to what I was looking at, what the team requires, where we need to work on. All the players required game time. Am sure each one of us will go back, work on what we need to do as individuals so that when we meet again, we have a different set of plans, we work on different things like training, fielding sessions, running between wickets.
There was a lot of talk about the talented Shafali Verma not included in the ODI squad. Is she only a T20 player?
I can’t comment on the selection part of it. She is definitely a good talent. She has shown a lot of improvement from when she made debut for the country to the recently-concluded T20I series. I am sure you will see her getting into the ODI squad sooner than later.
Looking at the one-off Test (in England in June), how eager are you to play in it?
It is a great thing to get a Test in the itinerary. It helps. The top teams should play a one-off Test each time they play bilateral. Last time we played a Test in England in 2014. I was telling WV Raman (head coach of Indian women’s team) that I was handing over eight debut caps that time in England. It was quite a challenge back then. All these girls like Smriti, Harman (Harmanpreet Kaur), Shikha Pandey, Ekta Bisht, were all playing Test for the first time and I had to literally educate them as to how a Test match was played. We don’t have day’s game in domestic cricket. They were quite new to the days’ game. I, as captain, had to tell the bowlers it was not like white ball cricket, these are the variations, you play innings after innings. There is an untimely shower, sudden interruption and how it affects the game, as a batter, how it affects your momentum. We surprisingly won that Test, beating England in England. Thankfully, I wouldn’t have to hand over so many debut caps this time around. These girls now have the experience. You should be playing Tests. That is the ultimate test of your temperament. That is the true form of the sport. We are all looking forward to donning the whites and playing with the red cherry.
Is there a scope for WTC for women or is it still a long way?
It is too early to say that. I would rather suggest that all the boards be playing one-off Test during bilateral series. If we start that, maybe we can think of WTC.
You have played all over the world. Which did you find the toughest to play in?
Recently I was checking on Twitter where all I have scored runs. In fact, I scored the most against England in England conditions. The challenges posed by the conditions in itself is good. As a player, you need to adjust to what is thrown at you, what conditions you face. People say England conditions are the toughest. I have played there, scored there.
Did you find England the toughest?
In terms of playing, not really. Otherwise, the climate, definitely yes. When you are planning, and it is a crucial game, when you win the toss, wonder what to do. You have to consider the weather. The weather is so fickle in England. Those times are difficult to arrive at a conclusion. When I am batting, even if it rains I enjoy batting. It is always nice when you face those challenges because you want to dig deep into your reservoirs and see if you are made for it, whether you have it in you to get through that.
What is left for you to achieve?
The only thing I am looking at right now is the World Cup. I want to get that trophy. That is something that has always been there in my mind. I know my personal milestones are temporary happiness. The ultimate goal is to win that World Cup for India.
How close was the 2017 World Cup final?
I took a lot of time to get over that. It was like a heartbreak. When you have a bad relationship and it plays in your mind like a loop, it was like that for me for a long time to get over that. I guess, 2022 is something I am looking at crossing the last hurdle.
How could things have gone differently in the 2017 final? If you were to face a similar situation, how would you have dealt it differently?
As a bowling unit, I would have changed a few things, a few spells. I did not listen to my instincts. That is something that hurts. If given a second choice, I would go with my instincts. Sometimes what happens is you have an instinct saying to do a particular thing. You also have a think-tank, where you discuss with others, who have a different take. You go with them. You cannot tell where the instinct comes from, it is a gut feeling.
For a moment, think of yourself as a third person. How will you rate Mithali Raj, the batter, and Mithali Raj, the captain?
That is a tough one (laughs). Both batting and captaincy have run parallel in my career. I can’t bring myself to rate myself. I think it is better you guys rate me.
Who did you enjoy batting the most with?
I have had so many partners. I have always enjoyed batting with the lower order. They make things a little lighter for me on the field. I didn’t have to tell them the nuances of batting. I had to tell them to give me strike and stay there. It is a very different feeling batting with the tail. That is a challenge. Having a main batter at the other side, you don’t have much to do but how you want to score runs, how to negotiate the ball. With a tail-ender, you have to think for her and for yourself. You have to manage not only the six balls in an over but also how to play which bowler. You have to even call their call while running, considering they don’t get run out. As soon as a tail-ender comes to bat, I start smiling. Otherwise, with the top-order, I am serious.
I had a lot of good partnerships with No. 4 or No. 5. That is the slot you develop partnerships. I have enjoyed batting with Hemlata KalShe used to come after me (in the batting order), and was a good player of spin. I used to play pacers well.
Is strike rate something you are not really worried about but looking to stay till the end?
People don’t understand that batting is never about strike rates. Batting is about doing the job, playing the role. Batting in ODIs is about pacing your innings and the role given to you. If, say, the team is two wickets down for 25 runs, what is required is consolidation. Once you build a partnership, you can take it from there. When you play in a team, it is important to understand your batting order and which player you are in partnership with at that particular time.