On 26 July, when the Indian women’s cricket team returned to India after playing the ICC Women’s World Cup in England, they were mobbed outside Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. This was a first. A large press contingent waited alongside fans to welcome the team, which had just endured a heartbreaking end to a fantastic tournament.

India lost to England by nine runs in the final at Lord’s on 23 July. On the way to the final, India, led by captain Mithali Raj, beat England, Pakistan, the West Indies and Australia and, in the process, fired the imagination of a cricket-mad country.

“I didn’t expect it," says Raj, who turns 35 this weekend. For someone who had spent the majority of her 18 years in cricket in relative obscurity, the contrast was surreal. “We arrived in batches. The first landed at 3am. We were not prepared for this. I landed at about 8 in the morning, with a few girls from the team. When I walked out, I couldn’t see anybody, just the camera flashes."

It’s October and we are seated under a canopy at the clubhouse in the National Cricket Academy section of the Chinnaswamy Stadium complex in Bengaluru. Raj, just out of a 2-hour training session, is dressed in sports gear paired with hipster-red Raybans. The sunglasses never come off. A steady stream of players and officials stop by, hoping for a quick selfie. Raj is detached, unfazed by the attention.

But she is raring to go. “I’m starting my (domestic) season in December," says Raj. “Obviously, I want to be fit. I don’t want to harp on past glory. I know the coming years will be even more challenging. Even in domestic tournaments, I’m going to lead a very young side. You need to be the best example that you can for the younger lot. If I still want to play the highest level of the game, I have to be fit enough to take that challenge."

The expectation now is that the team’s strong showing at the World Cup will help create a strong future for women’s cricket in India. In a first, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is setting up an organized calendar for women’s cricket. The team starts its domestic season this month. Raj will play a one-day match as part of the senior team in Hyderabad on 6 December. On 24 January, the team will leave for South Africa, their first international tour since the World Cup. They will play three One Day Internationals (ODIs) and five Twenty20s (T20s) from 2-24 February. The last three T20 matches will see the women’s team playing on the same days as the Indian men’s team, which will also be touring South Africa during that period.

The World Cup was a turning point, says Raj, the highest run-scorer in women’s ODI cricket and the only female cricketer to surpass the 6,000-run mark in ODIs. “After the women’s committee was set up, the BCCI has been taking more interest in women’s cricket. It is keen to organize more tours, improve the quality of matches. The last three or four years have seen a real improvement."

In 2016, for the first time, India hosted the International Cricket Council’s Women’s World Twenty20 tournament (it ran simultaneously with the men’s tournament). Perhaps this helped spark interest in the women’s game.

“Since then, things have slowly started to change, because the India matches were televised," says Raj. “People started to watch the whole team, player profiles were broadcast, they started to see us the way they see men’s cricket."

Mithali Raj’s parents at their home in Secunderabad
Mithali Raj’s parents at their home in Secunderabad

The beginning

Mithali Raj was born to air force officer S. Dorairaj and Leela Raj in Jodhpur on 3 December 1982. She grew up in Hyderabad in a joint family, and was introduced to cricket at the St John’s Cricket Academy in Secunderabad, where her elder brother would go for coaching.

“What I remember from my brother’s training days is that my father used to be cleaning his two-wheeler and I used to sit there and finish my maths sums, waiting under a tamarind tree. Every time the ball crossed the boundary I would throw it back to the fielder," Raj recalls. “I picked up a few things then watching the boys play."

Cricket-mad Dorairaj has his own version of events: “Mithali was a lazy girl. She used to cry while getting up every morning. Every day used to start with crying. I was fed up and wanted to do something about it and put her into a healthy routine." Dorairaj would carry a sleeping Raj to her brother’s cricket training sessions at 5.30am—he had a carrier on his bike.

Jyothi Prasad, the coach at St John’s Cricket Academy, and Dorairaj happened to be school friends. “Jyothi said, ‘Since your daughter is anyway coming to the academy, she might as well play the game.’ She picked up the skills in no time. It was Jyothi who asked us to concentrate on Mithali instead of our son Mithun."

Prasad, who used to observe Raj, handed her a small bat and urged her to play for 10-15 minutes every morning. “He was the first one who gave me a bat," says Raj. She was 9.

In many Tamil families, boys take lessons in the violin or mridangam, and girls learn to sing or dance. The Rajs were no exception. Mithali learnt Bharatanatyam for eight years before dedicating herself to cricket in class X.

Classmates at the Keyes High School For Girls thought she was far too boyish. “When you start playing a sport, obviously your physical appearance starts changing," Raj says. Her school, she says, was immensely supportive of her career in cricket.

“Initially, dance was very difficult to let go because I pursued it for so long," says Raj. “It was a decision that needed to be taken. I couldn’t sail in two boats—cricket and dance." But it was a big sacrifice for the young girl. “I was very inclined towards dance as a child. I enrolled myself, I wasn’t pushed into it. It came very naturally to me. I wanted to be a dancer. Cricket was obviously my father’s choice."

While she continues to have a love-hate relationship with the sport she has excelled in, her cricketing talent shone through from the start. “After training Mithali for three months, Sampath Kumar (Raj’s coach at her school in Hyderabad) called me and said your daughter is extraordinary," Dorairaj says over the phone. “She will play for India. She is picking up difficult things in a single day."

Between the ages of 11-13 , she was playing for the Under-16, Under-19 and senior state teams. And she had been training just for a year.

It was only then that Dorairaj began to believe in her. “She was scoring centuries when she was playing for the state team," he adds. “The lower batting order wouldn’t get a chance to play because she would never get out." Raj represented the senior-level cricket team at the age of 12, and India by the age of 16.

It was Kumar’s tough love that set the stage for Raj’s career. “He was the strictest coach I’ve come across," she says. “His training was like martial arts. He promised my parents that he would make me play for India by the age of 14. He wanted me to beat Sachin’s record (Sachin Tendulkar represented India at the age of 16)."

“He was happy that I made it to the 30 probables of the (1997) World Cup camp," she says. “He passed away a day after that." Her father has been a guiding force ever since.

“She still calls me before every match to discuss the pitch, the weather conditions, what she should do after the toss," says Dorairaj.

Mithali Raj autographing bats for students at St John’s Cricket Academy in Secunderabad.
Mithali Raj autographing bats for students at St John’s Cricket Academy in Secunderabad.

Baby of the team

Raj made her international debut against Ireland in June 1999 at Campbell Park, Milton Keynes: She scored an unbeaten 114 in partnership with Reshma Gandhi (104 runs).

“I remember there was a lot of pressure on that debut tour," Raj says. “Everyone expected me to perform like Mohammed Azharuddin, who scored three centuries in his first three matches. I wanted to score some runs to make my father happy."

It has been a lonely journey. “At every level, I started out as the baby of the team," she says. “I didn’t have anybody from my age group to interact with. It was almost like a generation gap. They used to call me kiddo. Most of the time I was left to myself, and that’s how I inculcated the habit of reading."

She has read up on her sport too—the biographies of English cricketer Nasser Hussain and Australian Justin Langer, for instance. She can often be spotted on the grounds reading the works of Rumi.

“It helped me calm down. My approach to the game was very aggressive. I was very young when I was made the captain (at age 22)," she says.

Raj remembers all that her parents have sacrificed for her: the promotion her father had to give up at Andhra Bank (Dorairaj retired from the Indian Air Force in 1984, joined Andhra Bank a year later and worked there till 2009) because that would have meant moving out of Hyderabad. Her mother stopped working to focus on helping and training Raj. They moved out of their joint family home so she would not have to deal with the orthodox prejudices of her grandparents. One-fourth of Dorairaj’s salary from Andhra Bank went towards furthering his daughter’s cricketing career. He struggled to fund her international tours.

By 2002, Raj was a regular member of the Indian squad. She was made vice-captain after two international series. The selectors offered her the captaincy for the first time in 2003. “But I felt I wasn’t ready," she says. “My gut feeling said I shouldn’t be taking it up right now."

In 2005, the selectors, led by Shanta Rangaswamy, offered her the captaincy again. “By then I felt like a core member of the Indian team," she says. “I was in a better space to take up captaincy. The 2005 World Cup was my first tournament as a captain. Before that I had not led any team, even at the domestic level. I was very apprehensive. But we had to fight just to send a team to the World Cup."

Raj led the Indian team to the final of the 2005 Women’s Cricket World Cup, where they lost to Australia. Little did she think that history would repeat itself.

A roller-coaster ride

In the 1990s, when there was neither recognition nor money in women’s cricket, Dorairaj spent Rs25,000 to send Raj to England on her debut tour. “Those days, getting a proper kit and a sponsor used to be a big thing," she says. “Everything was a struggle. Even the support staff was limited to only a coach and manager. We had to struggle to get basic equipment. There was no match fee either." The women cricketers pretty much ran their own show, looking for sponsors.

They also had to fight anonymity. Raj used to travel in trains to attend national camps and was often mistaken for a hockey player by fellow passengers. “People used to identify the kit bags and always assumed I was a woman hockey player. They used to say: ‘Acha, ladkiyaan bhi khelti hain? Do you play with a tennis ball?’"

Injuries can shape the life and career of any athlete. Raj is still troubled by a ligament tear in her right leg picked up in 2005, just before the World Cup in South Africa.

“The BCCI was not involved in the women’s game, so I wasn’t aware of any rehabilitation programme. I tried to sort it out on my own, reaching out to different people. I struggled with the injury until 2010—many of my peak years, I played through injury. It was only after the BCCI stepped in, in 2006, that I became a regular at the National Cricket Academy. The physiotherapists and trainers really worked with me on my fitness and my injury. I prolonged my career because of them."

In November 2006, when the Women’s Cricket Association of India (WCAI) was merged with BCCI, aficionados believed that it would catapult women’s cricket into the big time. Nothing of the sort happened. The penury of the WCAI days, when tours weren’t possible owing to funding issues, was replaced by the apathy of the BCCI, though it did help provide access to better infrastructure, travel facilities and accommodation.

“We used to play in grounds far worse than what we play on today," she says. “Despite being on the national team, I had to travel in unreserved seats to attend national camps. It was quite a let-down. After having won a championship, to travel in the general compartment with the trophy next to you—it isn’t a good feeling. But those experiences have made me stronger as a player and as a person."

Sharda Ugra, a senior editor with ESPN Cricinfo, says the BCCI treated women’s cricket like a third-grade set-up. “Women’s cricket got a new lease of life after his (N. Srinivasan’s) exit. Things have largely improved since 2013."

The first set of central contracts for the Indian women’s team were drafted only in 2015. The BCCI introduced two grades—Rs15 lakh annually for each Grade A player and Rs10 lakh for Grade B players.

“Indian women’s cricket needs more opportunities to play," says veteran sports commentator and Mint columnist Ayaz Memon. “That should be the priority. If they don’t play for the next six months, everyone, you and I included, will forget what happened in June,"

Raj currently has a Rs15 lakh contract; it is expected to go up to Rs50 lakh starting next year (an upgrade in the pay of Grade A women players is in the pipeline). “I’m very happy, because I remember when there was no money coming in. But I do feel sad at times for my colleagues, ex-cricketers who did not make any money from the game. There were far more talented players in those days."

Ugra describes Raj as a classical cricketer. “She belongs to the bridge generation between Diana (Edulji’s) squad and the new-age kids," Ugra says. “She’s an old-school player. She has consistently played well for a long time. She was very dignified in the way she handled everything after the team lost the World Cup."

“She’s the only female cricketer whose name is mentioned in everyday conversation," says Indranil Das Blah, founding partner at Kwan Entertainment And Marketing Solutions Pvt. Ltd, a sports marketing agency. “She is someone who has broken the glass ceiling in every sense of the term".

Or maybe not. In August, Raj posted a picture of herself dressed in a sleeveless grey top and sunglasses, her hair left open. She was with close friends Veda Krishnamurthy (a teammate), Mamatha Maben and Nooshin Al Khadeer (former players). Trolls on Twitter attacked her viciously, objecting to a sweat patch.

“I’m where I’m because I sweated it out on d field! I see no reason 2 b ashamed f it, when I’m on d ground inaugurating a cricket academy," responded Raj, who has 407,000 followers on Twitter.

Things got uglier on 5 September, when Raj posted a selfie in a black spaghetti top after a photoshoot. A string of lewd remarks followed, with trolls telling her the photograph was inappropriate because it was “too hot"; asking her “to be an Indian woman"; and wondering why a cricketer needs to be “glamorous".

This time Raj did not dignify the attacks with a response. She has not taken down the selfie.

I don’t want to harp on past glory. I know the coming years will be even more challenging.- Mithali Raj

Looking ahead

Raj hasn’t had much time to herself since the World Cup. Last month, she was on the cover of Vogue with actor Shah Rukh Khan and Reliance Foundation founder and chairperson Nita Ambani; she has attended Unicef events with Tendulkar; she has even promoted women’s cricket with former cricketer Rahul Dravid at a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry gathering. Penguin Random House will publish her autobiography next year.

“Usually, when I come back from tournaments, I sit and have a long discussion with my parents," says Raj. “Tell them all the gossip...what happened on the tour, about the team. I update my best friends. (But) things are very chaotic right now. I haven’t had time to spend with my parents."

Does this new-found celebrity mean she now has a stylist? She’s quick to respond: “C’mon! I’m a sportsperson. I don’t need a stylist."

She was initially hesitant even about the Vogue cover shoot at Nita Ambani’s house. “I wondered whether I’d be comfortable. But I’m also someone who feels that in life one should experience everything, good or bad. You need to experience it once to understand whether you are meant for it or not," Raj says.

Raj has trained herself not to show emotion, whether she is winning or losing. “If she scores a zero or a century, she is the same," Krishnamurthy says with a smile. “When she scored her 6,000th run, I was at the other end. I was hoping for a little nod from her, but there was nothing."

“We have known each other for two years," says Krishnamurthy. “I’ve been playing with her since 2010 but I’ve actually had conversations with her only in the last two years. She is very intimidating, so people are scared of talking to her. It’s very difficult to get a smile on her face."

Raj is determined to play the T20 World Cup next year and the ODI World Cup in New Zealand in 2021. “I understand that I cannot compete with the younger lot because my body has gone through a lot," she says. “But I want to maintain my fitness levels to give myself the optimum chance to succeed."

***

Me, Mithali

■ Mithali Raj loves dal chawal, curd rice and khichdi.

■ Her family has never travelled with her on an international tour.

■ She collects stationery: books, diaries, pens.

■She enjoys watching wildlife and has been to the Jim Corbett and Gir national parks several times.

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