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Mithali Raj – Celebration of the Queen of Indian Cricket | Sportstar – cover story

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Jhulan Goswami had just checked into her room. It was the evening of December 7, 2005 and it was certainly a happy moment for her. She had claimed her first five-wicket haul against England at Silchar that morning, leading the Indian women’s cricket team to a convincing 10-wicket win.

While she was freshening up, the intercom in the hotel room rang.

Hi Jhulan, this is a call from the BBC† Congratulations on your five wicket haul. We’d like to interview you over the phone over the next hour, said a woman’s voice at the other end.

Jhulan spoke to the BBC ccorrespondent from London for a few minutes and then called the coach and the team manager for permission.

And an hour later, Jhulan did her very first interview with the… BBC† As the interview was about to end, she heard someone giggle on the other end, but didn’t respond. She ended the interview, walked out of the room to meet her colleagues and only then realized that she was being tricked by her dear friend all along. Mithu Mithali Raj!

jhulu couldn’t believe all this while actually speaking to Mithali, Sudha Shah, who was the team’s coach at the time, reminisces.

On the way back to the team hotel, Mithali and a few senior members of the team had decided to play a prank on Jhulan to make her first five-wicket flight memorable, and Sudha was part of the plan too.

So as soon as she entered her hotel room, Mithali called jhulu, claim to be BBC correspondent. At that time, the technology was not advanced, you didn’t have a smartphone, so jhulu believed she was actually talking to the BBCwhile it was Mithali who was on the other side, Sudha says.

It was banter and the team was like a happy unit, so such jokes were taken in the right spirit. Mithali wanted to give a surprise to jhulu and that’s why we were all there

That’s Mithali Raj for you, a thorough professional on the pitch and a happy, cheerful person off it.

READ | Mithali: ‘The decision to quit was never impulsive or emotional’

Watching her from her international debut in 1999, Sudha admits that Mithali has become an icon over the years because of her ability to identify talent and also build a team. She was a confident leader. When she broke through to the team in 1999, she was the youngest member of the squad and very shy. Although she was a powerhouse of talent, she would be calm and quiet, but gradually she emerged as one of the most sought-after cricketers and rightly so, says Sudha.

The journey of Mithu going to Mithali Raj was not easy. Coming from a middle-class Hyderabad family, Mithali made her presence felt in junior-level cricket, eventually earning a spot on the Indian team for its tour of England.

At the time, the team was led by Chanderkanta Kaul who was known as Chanderkanta Aheer in her playing time. Chanderkanta fondly remembers those moments when a young girl went to camp with the seasoned activists.

For us Mithali became Mithu† Soon after, everyone started calling her that. I knew her personally and had been to her home, met her father and he told us to take care of his daughter, Chanderkanta says.

By the time Mithali reached the team, Chanderkanta was 27 and had already spent six years on the track. So for her it was important to put the youngster at ease. When she made her debut, I already had a lot of experience, but she was the youngest on our team. She was very quiet and when she started hitting she seemed very quiet, but in there she had a fire. We were surprised with her percussion and we knew this girl would go far, says Chanderkanta. She was like Rahul Dravid, no one could get her out…

READ | ‘Mithali looked very calm, but inside she had fire’ – first captain Chanderkanta Kaul recalls Raj’s debut

By their own account, women’s cricket at the time only had a manager and coach who traveled with the team, and there weren’t that many people. Women’s cricket was still not covered by the BCCI and despite the challenges it was a happy unit. Our batting division was solid. In that tournament, the openers Mithali and Reshma Gandhi got off to a good start and then we had people like Anjum Chopra, me, so we knew we were building a team for the future, Chanderkanta added.

After the baton was passed to her, Mithali made sure to take the Indian women’s cricket team to greater heights.

But what distinguished Mithali?

Her dedication and will to excel, says Hemlata Kala, a former India captain and former chairman of the national selection committee. Hemlata, who has known Mithali since her junior cricket days, believes Mithali always went the extra mile to achieve her goals. If the practice session was in the afternoon, most of us would wake up a little late and then get on with our day. But Mithalis day was supposed to start at 5 am. She would do her fitness training and then hit the nets. She has done that throughout her career, Hemlata says. Her work ethic was very different from all of us. Another important aspect is that she is very level-headed. Despite being such a legendary cricketer, she made it a point to listen to everyone. She was always approachable

Mithali and Hemlata shared a good bond as the two played together for the Indian team and the Railways. That partnership worked even when the latter was the chief of the selection committee, while the former was the captain.

READ | Talent, Determination, Practice – Mithali’s Enduring Success Story

We trusted each other’s opinions and that helped. Mithali had played together for a long time and knew that as Hema from says something about a player, then she must have seen something in her. It was the other way around. That was one of the reasons the team did so well under her, Hemlata says.

At the 2017 World Cup in England, India lost the group match to Australia, despite Mithali scoring 69. After the game, Hemlata, who was on tour with the team at the time, had a chat with the captain about her turns and how she could have scored more.

I told her that running between wickets could have been a little faster and also suggested running faster, moving forward. To my surprise, Mithali sprinted faster in the next match against New Zealand. I had never seen her do anything like this and that shows how much she appreciated every feedback. That was the uniqueness of Mithalis, says Hemlata.

READ | Mithali’s coach Murthy: Glad she’s leaving the game on a high

As the former national selector is speaking, it opens floodgates of memories. I remember one of our coaches telling us at a Challenger tournament on the eve of the finals that Mithalis team is the favorite and she will score a century. As the leader of the opposition, I disagreed and told the coach that we will sack Mithali early, Hemlata says. But Mithali didn’t respond and just said: ground pe dekha jayega† She knew how to respect the seniors and at the same time had complete confidence in herself

Hemlata also recalls an incident when she saw a young Mithali dancing to the tune of a Bollywood chartbuster, Chal Chaiya Chaiya along with her teammates during one of the domestic tournaments. And that defined her character, she was extremely serious about her job but at the same time managed to enjoy quality time.

VR Vanitha got to see Mithali up close during her stint with the Indian team and she reveals, Mithu didic does get angry. But she will never express it to her teammates. If you see her up close, you will realize that Mithu didic is angry, but she only knows how to deal with it

Vanitha admits that Mithali has shaped many careers. I often feel that she has not been given credit as a leader. In the 2013 World Cup, India had a disappointing performance and ensured that the team learned from those mistakes and come back stronger in the 2017 World Cup

She has moved on to the core and if you look closely you will see that many players have come back to the team after performing well in the domestic tournaments because they got the support of the captain, says Vanitha.

Ahead of the 2017 World Cup, the coach was changed and with Smriti (Mandhana) coming back from injury, not many people were convinced she could perform but Mithali put her foot down as she knew what Smriti brings to the team. So, even after a few disappointments, she delivered. That speaks volumes about the captain, says Vanita.

After the lockdown in 2020, Mithali was in Bengaluru for training and Vanitha again had the chance to observe her up close. Even after so many years, she keeps a diary in which she charts every activity. She did intense training and everything it took to be in shape. It was unimaginable that a player of her stature could be so picky about everything, despite playing at the highest level for 23 years, says Vanitha.

While Mithali continues to be an inspiration to the younger generation, Smitha Harikrishna remembers when a young Mithali entered the dressing room and how she has evolved over the years. I played with her on the Indian team and with Air India and she had a lot of talent. We had all heard about her so when I saw her play it was clear that she was a gifted cricketer. It was a pleasure to watch her. You don’t get to see talents, she was in a class of her own, says Smitha.

During the 2000 World Cup in New Zealand, Mithali contracted typhoid fever and had to be isolated. At that time we didn’t have that many facilities for women’s cricket, so we were one big family. I remember she was young and far from home so we made sure she was well taken care of. The coaches and support staff stayed with her at the hospital, and when she got back to the hotel we made sure she got good home food, so some of us prepared rasam Those were different times, but we were one happy unit, says Smitha, who now lives in the UAE.

READ | ‘Mithali Raj was, is and remains the face of women’s cricket’

While she has experienced the highs and lows of Indian women’s cricket, Mithali has always led by example. In her long and illustrious career, a World Cup title might have eluded her, but she has mentored several cricketers who have made it big. As India’s women’s cricket continues to grow, Mithalis’ contribution will always remain significant.

Mithali came in at a time when not many people thought of taking the game as a profession, Mithali inspired generations and it was her consistent performances that encouraged the younger cricketers to dream. Shabash Mithuz

Sources

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