Mithali Raj: My mother wanted me to become a Bharatnatyam dancer
Avid reader, writer, and yes, the highest run getter in women's ODI cricket, Mithali Raj plays with a straight bat during a visit to the city for a women's forum
When we meet Mithali Raj hours before her session at We The Women, a participatory, open-to-all forum for women at Bandra's Mehboob Studios, we realise that it must take a mental switch — from all-white sporting gear to a black number and stilettos. Nevertheless, she manages to make heads turn. "I'm still getting used to all of this," she smiles, referring to her choc-a-bloc endorsement and celebrity attendance schedule since her team became finalists at the 2017 Women's World Cup. "I love my me-time, so all of this is quite something," she admits before settling into a chat.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
As a young girl, did cricket interest you?
We didn't have a television at home, so I never watched cricket matches. I was lazy. I'd wake up at 8 am for a 9 am class. My father wanted to change my routine and thought it would help if I accompanied my elder brother for cricket practice. When I was nine, I joined the boys' training camp during the summer vacations. It was my brother's coach (former Hyderabad pacer, Jyothi Prasad) who thought I displayed talent, and informed dad, who was of course, thrilled. Mum wanted me to become a Bharatnatyam dancer, though.
What was it like to train with the boys?
It was fun because I was the only girl. But later, I had to work harder; there were no short cuts. If you hit them for a four or six, you knew the next delivery would be a missile aimed for your face. In hindsight, it helped.
How closely do you follow the men's game?
Technically, their standards are far higher, so I follow it closely to improve my own game. To be the best in your field, you need to compete and keep pace with those who are better.
Which male cricketer's brain would you like to pick?
Sachin. Each time I watch a knock from him, there is something new to learn. It's amazing how he remained at the top of his game for over two decades. I like Dravid's work ethic. Once, while training in Bangalore, I didn't realise that he was watching me at the nets. Later, he shared a few valuable tips.
How did it feel when you scored your first international run? And 5,999 runs later, is the feeling any different?
All I remember was the tremendous pressure that continued for a long time. It took me a while to realise that cricket was my destiny. Since I was doing it to keep my dad happy, initially, I approached it as a task. In 2009, at the Women's World Cup in Australia, everything changed. Women's cricket was televised; we had pre-match interviews and wore coloured clothing. The women's game had arrived and was watched by the world. To come in for praise from greats like Wasim Akram was special. I realised that maybe if I tweaked my mindset, I would enjoy the game. And I did.
Did that also influence your leadership skills?
Absolutely. I started thinking beyond batting skills. And later, when I became captain, I learnt that it's vital to bend your ego. The most important thing is to be compassionate, and mould others. Some are born leaders, others, like me, develop the skill along the way. My dad and a few close friends have played a big part here.
Have you faced sexism from an Indian sportsman?
I was reading an interview by a former Indian cricket captain. He was asked if he would encourage his daughter to take up cricket, to which he said that women's cricket was non-existent in India. It made me sad that a man who represented the game at the highest level would make such a comment.
Mithali, Sindhu, Saina, Sania, Sakshi, and many more. Indian sportswomen are making headlines everywhere.
Yes. We always had women sports stars. But they weren't recognised. Media reportage has improved things for women's sport, and yes, sportswomen are more accessible via social media.
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Mithali's Off Day
Me time: I am a loner, and cherish time alone. I sketch, read and write whenever I get an off day.
Books: I carry my Kindle everywhere. I like Wilbur Smith and Walter Raleigh. We can't take the Kindle into the play area, so I usually borrow a book from the support staff.
Food: I can't cook and am happy to be fed!
Bharatnatyam: I gave it up years ago and don't find time for it anymore.