26 June 1999 to 26 June 2019. 20 years of Mithali Raj.
It was the first match since the Indian team’s exit in the 1997 World Cup semifinals against Australia who went on to win the cup in Kolkatta. After a clinical bowling display to restrict Australia to 123 but a cluster of run-outs let India down as the Australian team won by 19 runs to reach the finals.
The disheartened Indian team then didn’t play any matches for a year and on June 26th, 1999, they took on Ireland in a one-off ODI against Ireland during their tour to England.
On a bright day, India was asked to bat first by Ireland’s Miriam Grealey. Both the teams went in with a few debuts, India had four- Mithali Raj, Reshma Gandhi, Rupanjali Shastri, Hemlata Kala- whereas Ireland had two-Lara Molins, Isobel Joyce.
Despite all the debutants, the eyes were all set on 16-year-old Mithali Raj as this was her first international match. The youngster has always been a prodigy. She even made it to the 1997 World Cup probable list, she was just 14 at that time.
On the other hand, her partner, the Wicket-keeper Reshma Gandhi had the pressure as well, blame the superstar, Anju Jain.
Both Mithali Raj and Reshma Gandhi started off slowly, and they steadily built the partnership. After overcoming the initial nerves, the duo started to score quick runs, and thus India went on to make 258 without losing the wicket, which is a record partnership involving two debutants even now in the Women’s ODI cricket. Mithali Raj made unbeaten 114 while Reshma Gandhi made 104*
In return, the Indian bowlers were economical giving away only 97 runs in the fifty overs. Purnima Rau picked up four wickets while the debutant Rupanjali Shastri grabbed two wickets.
India then went on to win the ODI series against England by 2-1 whereas they drew the only Test match. Despite the great show in the first match, Mithali Raj failed to impress in the first two ODIs of the England series by scoring just four in the two innings she played. Not making justice to her talent, Mithali Raj was raring to go in the next matches for which she had to wait till November of 2000, the Women’s World Cup, where India took on South Africa in the first match. Mithali’s unbeaten 69 helped India to win convincingly. What followed was some extraordinary display of batting for her age, and she didn’t make a single digit score for the next ten matches in which she stood unbeaten in three matches and had 20+ scores in almost all of them. This then became a habit for Mithali Raj. She was there for the team whenever it needed, setting up the tone for the other batters to go on with their game. Well, the numbers say so.
Mithali Raj loved pressure more than anyone else in the world and she is the best when it comes to chasing. At an average of 114.05 in successful run chases in ODIs, Mithali Raj stands apart from all the cricketers in the world irrespective of the gender who had played at least 20+ such innings. In total, she has an average of 64.6 while batting second and just 44.11 while batting first.
Averaging 52.8 in the home games and 50.4 in the away games in ODIs, Mithali showed that the venues, the conditions, home or away game nothing matters for her. All she knows is to watch the ball and make it kiss the bat, and she consistently keeps doing the same for 20 years now. She maintains her fitness such that she plays and runs equally as her teammate, the youngster Jemimah Rodrigues who wasn’t even born when Mithali debuted.
If we keep digging at the number of records she holds, this write-up will not be enough. More than the records, she played the finest part in revolutionalizing the Women’s cricket, helped millions of kids to pick up the bat, stand up for themselves among the crowd.
We must credit Mithali’s father who wanted her child to be busy, took her to the coaching class. She was a sleepy child and lesser did she know that even after 20 years, she would continue to play and inspire the world and make it better for women by proving people wrong in so many ways. If not for Mithali Raj, tons of cricketers whom we love would be doing a different job and not playing cricket right now.
Thank you, Mithali for everything.