It must have been a terrible feeling, coming so close, and yet, falling that tiny bit short.
To lead your side to the final of a World Cup in your first full assignment as a captain would be more than a satisfactory result for a lot many. Particularly so, when not many expect your team to do much more than make up numbers.
They were just one good game away from reaching a pinnacle not many thought was possible. Of course, they were helped by two washed-out games, including one against the eventual champions Australia, but then again what would sports be without a bit of luck here, and some misfortune there?
Mithali Raj had till then propelled her side so far in the tournament, scoring and scoring, without much to call for support, ending the tournament as the fifth-highest run scorer.
In the final however, it once again became clear why Mithali has been conservative in her approach all through her career, as India slid to a 98-run defeat, having been bowled out for a measly 117 chasing Australia’s 215.
It was not rocket-science for one to conclude how devastated Mithali must have been after the loss.
That defeat hindered the Indian women's team’s foray into popular sports culture of the country, pushing it back to general apathy and disinterest in the public’s mind.
In that 2005 final, you became privy to why that last step remained elusive for years before, and years thereafter.
For a very long part of her career — one that in itself redefines longevity, Mithali has been the lone wolf — the be-all-and-end-all of India’s batting.
Having burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old in 1999, Mithali has virtually played a lone hand since that hundred on debut against Ireland — doing everything that the team wanted — from multiple captaincy stints to trying her hand at opening the innings.
While it is not like there haven’t been quality players from India, there have been so many false dawns that Mithali might not remember what being carefree feels like. Which explains her approach to batting.
And yet, she is now the all-time leading run-scorer in women’s cricket, achieved through limiting herself all these years, holding off her attacking instincts. It only makes one wonder how far Mithali would have gone had she had more support from the batting lineup all these years. If she ever felt more assured about having someone whom she could fall back on.
The team of 2017, in a lot of ways, is a successor to the that of 2005. While the one 12 years ago were viewed as overawed, both by the occasion and the opposition Australia, the present day’s team has already shown that they are made of a different steel — having made their way to the finals by the defeating the very Australian team in the semi-final.
Even though Mithali is still one of the top-run getters in the tournament, and might even end up being the highest-scorer after the final against England, it hasn’t been just a Mithali show all the way. India’s World Cup campaign was kick started by Smriti Mandhana; Punam Raut further held the team together against Australians, and it was Harmanpreet’s hammer that India upstaged the defending champions. This doesn’t mean this team doesn’t need Mithali — it definitely needs her around, but finally, Mithali isn’t central to the idea of this team. The support that she desperately craved for so long, has finally arrived it seems.
This year does feel a lot different in other aspects as well. There has been a renewed interest in women’ cricket all around the world — particularly in India, where women’s cricket has made its way into the public sphere. Be it the television, print or even in general discussions among the public, women’s cricket has become an interesting topic of conversation.
Unlike 2005, when in Mithali’s words, “Nobody really paid attention to the India women’s team,” there is real buzz around this time. The nation, and with it, the entire world, is following the World Cup in unprecedented numbers.
And yet again, not discounting whatever the team has achieved so far, one loss and all of it might wither away for many. For a nation that actually took to cricket after their surprise win in 1983 World Cup (Men’s), the woman’s game also needs something on similar lines, something which Mithali has admitted as well.
Thus, the team of 2017, stands in a situation similar to the team of 2005.
In their captain’s own words before the tournament, the Indian Women’s team, stands on the cusp of a revolution.
Can Mithali, though, start that revolution?