The epitome of solidity and an embodiment of batting grace, the one-day international skipper of Indian women’s cricket team needs no introduction whatsoever. However, when you hear her name, the words simply start flowing inadvertently and suddenly you are awed by the phenomenal feats this great ambassador of women’s cricket has achieved over the last 20 years. We are talking about Mithali Raj, who recently graced the Female Cricket Podcast during which Vishal Yadav engaged in a heartfelt tête-à-tête with the Padma Shri recipient.
Excerpts from the Podcast
When was the last time you spent April-May at home?
I think it was around 2008, I don’t remember exactly, but yes before 2009 for sure. It was that year when we did not have cricket for a good five to six months in a row. I recollect that time when I actually went to my place of employment for three months and learned the office work. Though there was no cricket, I was training and doing my regular fitness. However, this year’s break has definitely been one of a kind when we are forced to stay at home.
How happy are your parents seeing you at home?
(Chuckles) Honestly, my parents were very happy to have me home for such a long period of time. They are not really used to me being at home for a good 20 years now. So at the start of the lockdown, my mother was actually elated to have me around, but after a month or so, she became querulous. She complained, “In the first month you were good” and then subtly she hinted, “Hope things get better soon and you are able to go out and practice.” (Smiles)
We have heard that your mom is a foodie. Did she make anything new for you during this lockdown?
My mom is a vegetarian and I and my father are meat-eaters. Though she prepares non-vegetarian food for us, I and my father are not very experimental with the kind of food we eat. We eat to live and not live to eat (smiles). There is one thing that I used to love a lot and that was chocolate. I had a sweet tooth. But now if you offer me chocolates I would definitely turn it down.
Talking about cricket, how did your parents support you when you were growing up as a school kid and cricketer?
I used to wake up very early in the morning and train between 5 am and 8 am. Then I would attend school, which was followed by evening practice. My mother every day used to get fresh food at the ground and school so that I could get the home-made healthy food. I share an amazing bond with my mother. She is my friend first, my mother later. About my father, I would say, actually he was the one who wanted me to take up cricket. Cricket was not something that I took up on my own. He has always been critical of my performance but at the same time a solid pillar of strength. Apart from my parents, my brother and I share a very mature relationship.
Though he was neglected a bit by our parents due to my cricket, he never brought that up between us. I remember during one of the England tours when I was short of runs he called me up to discuss my game and I felt better.
How were your early days in cricket?
At the age of 10, I was selected to play for Hyderabad U-16 and U-19. Three years later in 1995, I was picked up in the senior team. I performed well in the domestic circuit and in 1997 I got a call for India camp. I was among the probables selected for the 1997 World Cup by the end of the camp I was the first stand-by for the World Cup. The very same year I lost my coach (Late. Mr. Sampath Kumar). It was a very emotional thing for me. I was just around 14 years old back then and it was difficult for me to go through that phase. The India camp helped me shift my focus and I became emotionally strong.
Tell us about your international debut in 1999?
I made my ODI debut against Ireland in Ireland. Though that day deserved excitement from my side, I was rather nervous. My nervousness overtook my excitement. The internal pressure to perform well for India made me nervous. There were many thoughts going through my mind, like, my coach, who passed away in 1997, should have been around to see me don the India colors. After my coach’s demise, it was my father who coached me and I wanted to do well for him. Fortunately in my debut game, I scored an unbeaten century in a winning cause.
A year later you played World Cup for India, however, you were ruled out of the competition due to typhoid after the first three games. What was going through your mind then?
The selections for the World Cup and my 12th standard board exams clashed. My parents asked me, “What do you want to do?” I answered, “I want to give my boards.”
My mother, who always gave more importance to academics than sports, to my surprise, said, “Boards happen every year but World Cup comes once in four years.”
Hearing those words from my mother I decided to go for the World Cup selections and made sure that I gave my best shot to be picked up not only in the squad but also in the playing XI. Unfortunately, after the first three games, I was down with typhoid and I was ruled out of the competition. At that time I started thinking about my future and the question that haunted me was, “Will I be picked up for India again?”
When you were picked up for India you were still studying. How did you manage academics and cricket together?
Honestly, it was a tough task. At home, my father and my mother looked at my academics from different perspectives. My father was fine with me scoring passing marks as he understood that it would be difficult for me to manage both academics and cricket equally well together. On the other hand, my mother insisted on getting a first-class.
I remember once during my graduation days I stood third in the college and my father refused to believe it (smiles). Conversely, my mother had a very plain reaction as she just said, “I knew you would do it.”
There were also times when I happened to study for one subject and appear for the exam of the other (chuckles).
Back to cricket again, in 2002, when you played just your third Test match you scored a double century against England. How was that feeling?
In England, we had a two-match Test series. The first match was washed out and we all were relaxing in our hotel. Nooshin and I were watching a men’s game on TV and one England batsman was on 190-odd. I asked Nooshin, “What does it take to hit a double century?” She just said, “Even you can hit a double century. Just leave the balls outside off.” I was thinking to myself that I was struggling to score in ODI, how I would score a double in Test. In the second Test, to my delight, I scored 214. I was mentally and physically tired after that innings. Back then we didn’t have any physio. We just had a coach and a manager. I remember Neetu (David) and Nooshin (Al Khadeer) getting rock salt from the restaurant, putting it in the tub of water, and helping me to relax. We players looked after each other and in doing so we shared an amazing camaraderie.
Which teammate of yours gets annoyed very easily?
During my early days for India, I would say Hemalatha, Neetu, and Nooshin really get annoyed on the ground easily. From the current team, it is Jhulan, especially when she is bowling and somebody drops a catch off her bowling. Sometimes Harman also gets annoyed quickly but off late I have seen her manage her emotions very well.
Which of these cricket roles you will never like to don after you retire? Options: scorer, umpire, ground curator, administrator
I would definitely not like to be an umpire. I don’t think I will be able to stand on the ground and not play cricket. Also these days the umpires are at risk of getting hit with the ball, so I would be better off the ground. As an umpire, if I give a wrong decision, I will get a fair share of abuses which I probably don’t want (smiles). I think scoring will be interesting as it keeps you in the game. Also, I don’t mind becoming a ground curator. It is a very unique job. For that, you need to have good knowledge about the wicket. Being an administrator will be intriguing too since I will get the chance to do something good for women’s cricket.
If you meet your 16-year old self today what would you tell her?
I would tell her to ease a bit and ask her to savor the feats more than be nervous. Also from somewhere, I would like to have some memory of my debut match, something like a television clip or anything.
Which is your favorite cricket ground?
There is not a particular favorite ground as such because in women’s cricket we do not play a high number of matches on say a particular ground. But if I had to pick one I would choose Taunton (England), where I scored a Test double century. I think it is a lucky ground for India in general.
If you could meet one sportsperson from other sport who would it be?
Which app do you use the most?
WhatsApp and Webster’s dictionary
Which is the one superpower that you would like to have?
I would want to have the superpower to vanish and transport myself at different places in a matter of seconds and also I would like to have the ability to fly and swim (because I can’t swim) at the same. It will be beautiful to see the world from the sky and from the ocean.
Which is that one food item that you can eat for 365 days of a year?
On which player would you like to play a prank on?
Amita Sharma. She was a prankster during our playing days. If I get a chance I would like to play a prank on her.
Which cricket record would you want to own?
I would like to own the record for the highest run-getter in women’s cricket. Though I hold it currently, I would like it to be my own in the future as well.
Which adventure sport would you like to try after your retirement?
Skydiving and whale watching.
Which is your favorite holiday destination?
It would be New Zealand. Though I have been there many times as a cricketer, I would like to go there as a tourist. There are a lot of tourist attractions, including adventure sports and water sports. Also, the people in New Zealand are very warm. Even if they recognize you as an Indian player, they will let you enjoy your privacy.
Which is that one place you wish to visit immediately after the lockdown?
Cricket ground (smiles). I have not run for over two months. I would like to have a good run immediately after the lockdown.
What would you like to be remembered as?
I would like to be remembered as a player who has played international cricket for one of the longest times.
What is the one skill that you would like to borrow from any other player?
I would like to borrow Neetu David’s left-arm spin. Whenever I meet her, I say, “Thakur ye haath mujhe de de”. I think if I had her left-arm spin in my repertoire I would be the best all-rounder in the world.
Which is the one fast bowler that you would have liked to face?
I would have liked to face more of Cathryn Lorraine Fitzpatrick (Australia). She was the world’s fastest bowler during her time. She had a short run-up but she bowled fast and had some lethal bouncers in her armory.
What nickname do you like for yourself?
My teammates used to call me Mithu, Mith, anything that came to their mind. I would rather like to hear my full name: Mithali.
Which player did you like batting with the most?
I enjoyed batting with Hemlata Kala. We had a great understanding. Hema played spinners well, so I used to take the maximum strike for seamers and rotate the strike when there was a spinner bowling from the other end. We had many partnerships at international as well as domestic level.
Do you have any superstition?
During my early days I used to follow some, but with age, I realized that it doesn’t work. Though there is one thing that I and my father practice even today and that is he comes to see me off at the railway station or airport or whatever my port of departure is. Another thing that I do which has now become a habit is that I put my left leg guard first.
Which is the finest book that you have to read so far?
It is actually difficult to pick just one book because you learn different things from different books. But still, if I had to pick one I would choose “Paths of Glory” by Jeffrey Archer. It is based on a true story of a mountaineer, the choices he makes during the crisis, his relationship with his wife, inter-alia. I have read it a lot of times and every time I read I learn something new.
What are some of the headlines that you remember?
“Destined to ‘Raj’” by a local Hyderabad newspaper when I was 13 years old and the other was “Dimple Destroyer” after I played some good domestic innings and had a healthy batting average.
Were you ever sledged?
Yes, I was sledged by Pakistan in 2014 T20 World Cup and once in England.
Which is your favorite innings among 114 vs Ireland on debut, 91 vs New Zealand in 2005 World Cup semi-final, 103 not out vs Pakistan in 2013 World Cup, and 109 vs New Zealand in 2017 World Cup?
I would choose both the innings against New Zealand because those two games were knock out type of situations. We won those two matches and qualified for the final (2005) and semi-final (2017).
Questions from the fans posted on Female Cricket’s Instagram and Twitter
Who is the toughest bowler that you have faced?
Lucy Pearson, a left-arm fast bowler from England and Australia’s Cathryn Lorraine Fitzpatrick.
What do you eat before the game?
I usually eat anything that is simple and light so that I remain fresh on the ground. Apart from that during the game, I munch on sports bars and keep myself hydrated with sports drinks.
Which all languages do you speak?
I speak English, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.
What are your thoughts on the transition of women’s cricket?
With the introduction of contract systems for players, there is a lot of professionalism in the sport. For every department; batting, bowling, and fielding, you have a coach. Then you have physios and physical trainers. Back those days, you did not have all these luxuries. You stayed in dormitories, had more conversations with your teammates, and learned from each other. Now with the advent of social media, the conversations are limited and there is a lesser probability of players learning from each other. Also, there was lesser scrutiny of the game previously, but now with the internet boom, the players have the additional pressure of performing well for the fans. I would say, there are advantages and disadvantages for every generation of players. The earlier generation had its own set of challenges and opportunities, while this generation has its own.
Which was the last online show that you watched on Netflix/Amazon?
The Shannara Chronicles, it is about the destruction of civilization and how three young heroes become Earth’s last hope for salvation when a massive force of demons threatens the planet. It is from the fantasy genre.
You have eight international wickets. Which is your favorite wicket?
I remember one game against Australia when Rumeli Dhar was the stand-in captain for one match in 2007-08. Shelley Nitschke was batting at that time. I was fielding at the boundary and the players who were sitting out were teasing me that I should bowl. So just to add to the fun I started rolling my arms. Rumeli saw me and to my shock, asked me to bowl. The first ball that I bowled I was hit for a six. The next ball I got the wicket. Then came in Lisa and I scalped her the very first ball. I was on a hat-trick. That’s all I remember of my bowling (smiles).
What are your thoughts on Shafali Verma?
She is a talented kid. It is good to see her carry her natural instincts at the international level. There is one thing that she can work on and that is her temperament, but that comes with age, and I am sure she will develop it as she matures in the sport.
How has women’s cricket changed from your debut in 1999 to today?
There are some good athletes and good fielders in the game which were missing in the early days of my career. Apart from that, there have been many amendments in the rules which have pushed the game in favor of the batters. Back then a score of 150-200 was considered to be par, but today even 270-300 is not a comfortable score.
To listen to the complete podcast, click on the following links:
This article was transcribed by Juili Ballal.