Mithali Raj: The beacon of light who always shone the brightest

Retirements in sport are of two kinds: One which takes the public completely by surprise. The other which makes them feel like the most obvious of decisions had finally been made.

Twice in his career, MS Dhoni shocked the public by announcing his retirement. In the second of those announcements, Suresh Raina provided a double shock by quitting international cricket himself.

On Wednesday, Indian cricket fans understood what the other kind of retirement felt like, after a colossal figure announced her time had come to call it quits.

Sport in India is not much as much remembered for how many compete in a discipline, but for individuals who produce moments of brilliance on the world stage. For instance, not many would be popular with the rules of shooting but everyone would know who Abinav Bindra is and what he achieved in 2008.

In the same manner, women’s cricket in India owing to a number of factors, remained the section of the buffet which not many opted to pay attention to for a long time. But the one player whom everyone knew was Mithali Raj.

And on Wednesday, nearly 23 years since she made her international debut in Milton Keynes, Raj announced her retirement from all forms of the game.

Much like another gigantic figure in Indian cricket-Sachin Tendulkar- Raj, too, called it quits after having played her last game into the fourth decade of her international career. However, you could not get two more contrasting retirements of two gigantic figures in the game.

Yet, Raj’s career deserves to celebrated, for numerous reasons. India’s women’s cricket curve has failed to shoot up in the manner one hoped it would have, in the last decade or more. But despite the various crests and troughs, Raj was there to protect the side both as a batter as well as a leader.

Right from the start, despite the presence of senior pros like Anjum Chopra, Raj showed an appetite for big runs. The first glimpse of it came in 2002, whe she made 214 against England at Taunton in only her third Test match, thereby crossing Karen Rolton’s mark of 209 against the same opposition 16 years earlier.

It proved to be an important knock because it offered a glimpse into the next batting talent in the country and as one senior after another hung their boots, Raj’s responsibilities as a batter in the side went northwards.

At the 2005 Women’s World Cup, she emerged as the team’s leading run-getter with 199 runs in eight matches and led the side to a runners-up finish. A year later, she led them to a historic Test win, again at Taunton.

2006 was a crucial year for women’s cricket in India as the BCCI finally decided to bring the sport under its control. You would have hoped things would improve with more investments, more matches, but sadly that did not turn out to be the case.

By this time, whenever India played Raj had become the key wicket for the opposition. Scoring rates back then had not yet picked up. Any score above 200 was still considered hard to chase and in Raj, India had the perfect player for the situation.

But time waits for none and in 2017, when India arrived in England many felt that this could prove to be last chance for her and her trusted ally- Jhulan Goswami- to stand on the podium as World Cup winners.

And in a tournament of such importance and magnitude, Raj brought her ‘A’ game to the fore. In 9 matches, Raj amassed 409 runs with her most crucial contribution coming in the must-win game against New Zealand in which her century laid the foundation for India’s progress into the semifinals and after the Harmanpreet Kaur blitzkrieg at Derby, the stage was set for the finale at Lord’s.

But it wasn’t to be. A billion dreams were shattered by Anya Shrubsole, whose spell left India nine short. Raj was a picture of dejection, sitting on the sidelines. Many felt that would be her chance to be a World Cup winner.

Yet, owing to multiple factors, she returned for one final shot at the crown in 2022 back to where it all started in 2000- New Zealand. A lot had happened in between with newer players coming in, coaches changing etc. Raj’s own batting style had under scrutiny for her lack of ability to up the scoring rate when it mattered.

When the rest of the world was scoring in excess of 270 regularly, India, largely, remained a 200–230 team both while batting first or second.

Yet, because of the inconsistencies of the other batters Raj remained India’s rock heading into the tournament and at key junctures she delivered the goods, including in-what turned out to be her last international game against South Africa- where her 68 took India to a defendable score.

But like in 2005 and 2017, it wasn’t meant to be for her again in 2022 as the Proteas women chased the score down in a thrilling finish.

The lack of a World Cup winners’ medal, however, should not take away her contribution for the game in the country. As Harmanpreet Kaur wrote on Twitter in her tribute for her long-time captain, ‘You sewed the seed for all the young girls to take up this sport and dream big.’

Her placement of the ball with the open bat face between point and cover point would be missed. Her lofts over mid-wicket when the pressure was on would be missed. Her general calmness as a captain who fields for numerous bowlers would be missed.

The floppy hat, such a rare visual these days, would be missed. India would hope that her legacy is not finished merely as a player and there is an equally successful second innings in the offing, in a few years time.

Until then, Thank You for everything Mithu di.

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