Mithali Raj’s elegant batting has been the cynosure of many eyes since the time she burst on to the scene in 1999 to this day where her efforts have culminated in earning her the prestigious Padma Shri award. It has been an interesting journey of a girl who dreamt of becoming a Bharatanatyam exponent but changed course to pursue cricket at the behest of her parents. But, the grace of the dancer has manifested itself on the cricket field and left the spectators spell bound. She has carried the nuances of her first love into the game that she took up to make her parents proud. “I would definitely admit that dance has helped me a lot in my initial days as a cricketer because I didn’t have to work much on fitness then because dancing for hours is fitness (regime) in itself. And it helped me a lot in my footwork,” she said while speaking to bcci.tv.
While going on to discuss the career which has spanned for over a decade and a half and still counting, Raj reflected on the high points of her career that also brought visibility to women’s cricket in India as well as the challenges that at one point made her consider quitting the game. A humble person, she credits every individual including the young boys who bowl to her in the nets in shape the sportsman that she is today.
What does the honour of receiving the Padma Shri mean to you?
I would definitely say it’s an appreciation by the government for my services to women’s cricket, I see it that way. I acknowledge the fact that they have appreciated a woman cricketer, women’s cricket. Because at one point, women’s cricket was nowhere (on the scene), not even close to any other sport, but now the BCCI has come forward to promote and encourage women’s cricket, and women’s sport in general. So I think it’s a great thing.
Reflecting on your journey what are the things that stand out for you?
It has been a long journey, from the time I have represented India in 1999 till 2015. There have been a lot of ups and downs and a lot of challenges, but I would say it’s been good. From a time where women’s cricket was not under BCCI, and we had WCI a separate board, and since BCCI has taken over I have seen lot of changes in women’s cricket.
There have been some memorable moments during my career so far, like winning the Test. In 2005 we finished as the runners-up in the ICC World Cup and a disappointment like in the 2013 World Cup when we couldn’t make it into the super six. But all said and done, it has been a wonderful journey.
Personally what stands out?
I think the world record (scoring 214 as a 19-year old, highest individual Test score at the time) was definitely a turning point in terms of people knowing me as a cricketer specially in Hyderabad in the state of Andhra Pradesh. Since then a lot of people have been following women’s cricket. After that too there have been the games that I have stood up to perform for India. I think being the runners-up in the 2005 CWC has also played its role in bringing recognition to women’s cricket, because that’s when all round in India people started noticing women’s cricket as it was on the big stage, in the World Cup that we qualified and we played the finals. We had lot of wishes which was something very different. In the earlier editions when we used to go into the World Cup there was nothing much, no hype or anything but after being the runners-up we have seen people having expectations from the team to do well. I think those are things that started the ball rolling for women’s cricket in terms of spreading awareness among people.
What about batting do you enjoy most?
What I enjoy most I think is the uncertainty of the sport as well as batting. Today you score a hundred and tomorrow you end up scoring a zero, it’s like you are not very certain about things and that’s something which is very endearing about it . When I bat I am in a completely different zone. The outside world doesn’t exist for me then. I feel it’s something like a zone where I am very peaceful and very calm. Even if I am pretty occupied in my mind with certain issues that I have, I am used to blocking it off when I walk in to bat. It’s a something like a peaceful place, though the challenges are quite different but that’s something I enjoy.
How did the passion for cricket and batting develop?
I was put into cricket by my parents. It was not my personal choice to be a sportsperson. And from the beginning I played cricket only to make my parents happy. And that has always been the top most thing for me, even today which is to make them proud and make them happy. I played cricket for long time only to make my parents especially my dad very proud. I started to actually mature as a player sometime in 2007-08. It took me that long to actually start accepting it as part of my life and start enjoying the sport. Till then it was only to please my parents that I played cricket. Because all these years I have put so much of hard work into being a good batter that it happened naturally that I started liking the skill which I have been performing all these years. I think with the liking I started appreciating it and I guess I have started progressing as a player who can read her own game better.
How was cricket chosen as a sport for you and how did batting happen?
Actually I was in to dance before I came in to cricket. I learnt classical dance (Bharatanatyam) that was the field that I chose because I wanted to be dancer. Cricket happened because as a kid I was very lazy and my parents thought it was wise to put me into cricket; because to play cricket you have to get up early in the morning. Since my dad is an ex-serviceman, he was in the Air Force so we had this disciplinary thing in our house and it was important that he inculcated the habit of getting up early in us. I accompanied my brother for his camps. He has (elder brother) played cricket till the school level. Since it was an exclusive boys’ camp, being the only small girl I used to get first preference everywhere. So, probably as a kid that was a curiosity, getting so much of attention and being given first preference. Also, I was keen and picked up the skills very quickly and once I actually started playing as a professional at the U-16, U-19 levels I was an all-rounder. I used to bowl (medium pace) as well as bat. But then slowly since I started scoring a lot, bowling took a back stage and eventually vanished and now I am purely a batsman.
What happened with dance?
I quit dance in my tenth standard when I was around 14 years old. That’s when I had my boards and in the same year I was in the probables for the 1997 World Cup. Every month we had a camp for 15-20 days, so I could not give much time for dance and I thought it was wise to quit. At one stage I couldn’t continue with both, it was quite tedious. I learnt Bharatnatyam for around eight years.
Initially when I quit, it took me two-three years to (get over it). I had the urge to go back to it. But I knew that I would not be able to give it enough time so it was the right thing to do as my time and focus would be divided and I didn’t want that. But I would definitely admit that dance has helped me a lot in my initial days as a cricketer because I didn’t have to work much on fitness then because dancing for hours is a fitness (regime) in itself. And it helped me a lot in my footwork.
What about coaches and coaching?
My guru has been Sampat Kumar. He passed away in 1997. He was the one who actually taught me all the basics of the game and made my foundation so strong that I am able to prolong my career for so long.
After that I have met a lot of coaches during various stages of my career but one constant mentor for me has been my dad. He has always been around me during the camps, net sessions and whatever Sampat sir used to teach me. Since dad has been around and seen me as a kid picking up cricket, he knows my game. He is the one who has seen me closely as a player so it becomes easier for me to bank on him as a player and discuss my game with him. Though I have professional coaches, I have been coached by various coaches during the span of my career and everybody has their importance but one constant person throughout has been my dad.
How important is mental conditioning and how have you been working on it?
Mental growth is as important as skill. As a younger player you give more time to moulding yourself as a skilled player. But when you start playing at a higher level that’s when it comes into play. It becomes important then under pressure if you are strong that you can take other pressures. You need to be mentally strong and that’s when your skill will enhance after a certain stage.
We follow certain things from the time we start playing and it becomes a habit. Sometimes it’s a person’s nature and sometimes you work on some things. It’s my nature to be very quiet and calm. I don’t let out any emotions. I am not very expressive. So it’s very difficult for the opposition or others to read what I am thinking or going through. At the same time I have made an effort to work on my mental aspect by challenging myself in the net sessions because that’s when we can work on these things which will help us at the competition stage. Also I speak to my dad on how to prepare myself for pressure situations because he knows as a daughter and as a player and is in a better position to guide me.
What have been your biggest challenges over the years?
I don’t think there is anything that has been like a constant challenge to me but yes one issue that has always been a challenge is that each time I go in people always expect me to score runs. When you set a standard of being consistent over a period of time people tend to expect inhuman things from you. And sometimes players need to be allowed to be themselves. Sometimes I wonder how Sachin Tendulkar has accepted (soaked in) so much pressure and played for so long, because at that level the pressure is like a mountain.
Other challenges are of performing and injures also. There was time when I thought of quitting cricket because of an injury. It was playing a lot on my mental side as well on one point. I would give a lot of credit to the physios at the NCA. Because of their efforts in keeping me fit and treating me time and again and sometimes even motivating me to not quit helped me to continue. That’s very crucial as some injuries take a long while to heal and some are career threatening, but then you need to have good people around you to motivate you.
Who would you credit most for your success and why?
I would not say there has been one particular person whose efforts have been very important. Various people have played various roles to make me the player I am. Like my parents who have been a pillar of strength guiding me, coaches at different levels who have helped me with my skills. I had friends who I could bank on when I was emotionally low who pepped me up. Then there are the boys bowling at me in the nets for hours and hours to make sure that I go out there and score runs for the country. Even though all these people have nothing to gain from me they have always given to me. All of them have been kind to shape a player like me.
As captain and senior how do you look at the way ahead for India women's cricket?
As a captain I feel that with these new format introduced by the ICC we have more matches in a year. This team of young girls has been doing well in the last two years and I am hoping that by 2017 we should be in a good position to take up the challenges and pressure of the World Cup and do much better than the last one.
As a senior I find a lot of talent in these young girls. It’s just a matter of matches. Of late we have been playing a lot of matches which will keep us in good stead.