Mithali Raj: Confidence to Take on the World
November 14, 2018
India’s record-breaking female captain Mithali Raj is more than just a cricketer, she’s the spokesperson for a new generation of women in India.
Just before the 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup, a reporter asked the Indian captain Mithali Raj who her favourite male cricketer was. “Do you ask male cricketers who their favourite female cricketer is?” she replied, more than a little put out. And fair enough. Mithali is, after all, the most prolific batter the female game has ever produced; arguably the best ever. Who cares who her favourite male player is?
Having represented her national team for the last 19 years, she is regularly in the media, promoting women’s cricket, or standing up for female players’ rights. Since so many young Indians love her and adore cricket, she has a very powerful voice indeed.
When Raj debuted for India in 1999, aged just 16, few fans back home in her cricket-mad country knew much about women’s cricket. Some weren’t even aware that the nation had a female team. These days Raj is so famous in her homeland, however, that she can’t walk down the street without being recognised.
"Do you ask male cricketers who their favourite female cricketer is?"
In that 1999 debut, Raj scored a century, still the youngest female international to reach that coveted milestone. Since then she’s played (at the time of writing) 281 times for India, and 155 of those as captain. She’s also a three-time World Cup finalist. In July 2017 she became the leading run-scorer, ever, in women’s international cricket.
It was only by chance that she played cricket at all. As a child, dancing was her passion. But her father, keen to rouse her from her bed in the morning, signed her up for a cricket coaching camp. Her talent was evident straight away. After just a year, her coach suggested that she would not just represent India in the future, but that she would break many records. She trained hard as a youngster, putting herself through six-hour coaching sessions, sometimes in the fading evening light, sometimes in the narrow corridors at her school, so she could learn how to hit the ball straight back at the bowler – a must for a top player back then. Like the great Australian Don Bradman, Raj honed her hand-eye coordination further by practising hitting the ball with a narrow stump, over and over again.
Now in the twilight of her career (she thinks she has a couple of years left in her), Raj is a household name across India. Last year the BBC included her on its list of the world’s most influential and inspirational women. Indian film company Viacom 18 Motion Pictures is making a biopic of her life. Her autobiography is due out at the end of 2018.
She may be a famous celebrity, but Raj prefers to see herself as a spokesperson on important issues. In particular, she tries to reverse the popular perception back home that cricket is not a sport for women. She advises parents to be open-minded enough to give their daughters the space to pursue their dreams. And she believes female cricketers should be paid the same as males, but only when women draw similarly large crowds. That will start to happen, she thinks, when women’s cricket appears regularly on television.
"My message to women is that it’s important to be self-reliant and financially independent, as that gives you the confidence to take on the world."
In June 2018 Raj attended a United Nations event on gender equality in Mumbai. “Cricket has always been a male-dominated sport, but things have changed only recently after the World Cup,” she said of last year’s event in which India were runners-up. “I’ve started seeing many girls playing cricket now. My message to women is that it’s important to be self-reliant and financially independent, as that gives you the confidence to take on the world. Once a woman is confident, she is capable of emotionally supporting herself. Everybody deserves to be successful and have a shot at fame.”
The female Tendulkar?
Mithali Raj is so good that she has often been compared to Sachin Tendulkar, India’s cricketing god. During a 25-year career, Tendulkar played 664 times for India, scored 34,347 runs and made 100 centuries. He averaged 53.78 in five-day Test matches and 44.83 in one-day internationals.
Women play fewer internationals than men, and most of their games are one-dayers, or T20s (twenty overs each). At the time of writing, Raj averages over 50 in one-day and Test cricket, the mark of a great player. She has seven centuries to her name and 54 half-centuries. Tendulkar occasionally bowled a bit of part-time spin.
So does Raj. Sunil Gavaskar, India’s first batting mega-star in the 1970s and 1980s, doesn’t like the idea of Raj being compared to Tendulkar. He believes Raj’s own example, particularly her longevity and resilience, is inspiration enough. Shanta Rangaswamy, India’s first ever female captain, says that Raj is by far the best batter ever in women’s cricket.
Originally published in issue 19 of Populous Magazine. Subscribe for free to receive a copy.