Longevity is an important marker to assess an athlete’s impact. It means she has been successful enough to be relevant for a long duration. She is tough, absorbs pressure tactfully, is usually calm in a stressful environment, is a master at compartmentalising thoughts, does not get affected by things beyond her control, usually finds ways to overcome hurdles and carries her responsibilities without much fuss. Mithali Raj has ticked all the boxes for large part of her career that is closing on two decades.
The duration of her international career is now 19 years and 218 days — the longest among women cricketers. She is the only batter with more than 6,000 runs in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and none of the top ten run-getters are close to her 50-plus average. Mithali will add another feather to her cap when she will become the first to play 200 ODIs as India play New Zealand in the third match of the ongoing series at Seddon Park in Hamilton on Friday.
That it has taken her almost 20 years to reach the milestone paints a picture of an infrequent calendar for the women — Virat Kohli needed less than a decade to reach there, but that’s not the scope of this piece.
Mithali’s journey has had many phases since her century on international debut against Ireland in 1999 at the age of 16 years and 205 days – incidentally the identical age when Sachin Tendulkar had first played for India in 1989.
Groomed in a tough setup in Hyderabad where she played regularly against boys, Mithali understood the demands of international cricket fast. Even if she was still emotionally raw as a teenager, her game was already polished. “I always knew she is a lambi race ka ghoda (one for the long run),” Arati Vaidya, who was on that tour of England in 1999, remembered her first impression of a future legend in the book ‘The Fire Burns Blue – A History of Women’s Cricket in India.’ “Every quality of a batsman she had even then. She was shrewd, she knew what was supposed to be done, and she was calm and composed.”
Mithali’s overall approach impressed Shantha Rangaswamy at the 2000 World Cup in New Zealand where the former India captain first saw her, but she fell ill after three games. It fuelled her determination to make an impression when India’s international assignment resumed with the home series against England in early 2002. By the end of that year, she had won her first Player of the Series award, played a key role in a Test win in South Africa and scored 214 — the then highest individual score in Tests — in England. From then on, there has been little doubt about who is India’s batting mainstay.
Throughout her career, she has got fair support from Anjum Chopra, Hemlata Kala, Anju Jain, Jaya Sharma, Rumeli Dhar, Karuna Jain, Punam Raut, and Harmanpreet Kaur among others, but none of them has been to Mithali what Sourav Ganguly or Rahul Dravid or Virender Sehwag were to Tendulkar. It is only recently that she has found a stable partner in Smriti Mandhana. The duo has had five fifty and five century stands in 22 innings that they have batted together in. Of the 13 batters with whom Mithali has had partnerships in upwards of 300 runs in ODIs, the average of 60.73 with Mandhana is the best.
That her batting average since the start of 2017 has always been on the right side of 50 further testifies the importance of Mandhana in Mithali’s career. No more does she always have to come in early and to the repair job before trying to accelerate. Someone who loves to take her time before closing on the gap between balls faced and runs made, she now has space to breathe even as her partner keeps the scoreboard moving as was evident during their unbroken third-wicket stand of 151 in the second ODI against New Zealand.
This raises a question. How much more could Mithali have achieved had she got constant support through her career? She, however, has never brought up this topic publicly except on the day she became the highest run-getter in ODIs after the league match against Australia in the 2017 World Cup.
Mithali understands well enough that the gift of timing and footwork that she has is something very few possess. The seamless manner in which she shifts gears is the primary reason why her average has never dipped below 45 since April 2004. An avid reader, she carries an element of detachment with the sport, which allows her to view things with a clear perspective. The base for her consistency was laid very early in her life.
The story is well documented. Her father did not like her waking up late in the morning, so he took her to Sampath Kumar for cricket coaching to instill discipline. Sampath saw the spark in Mithali and felt that she could play for India within a few years. Once the parents bought into the idea, Mithali, in her words, became a “racehorse”. After she gave up dancing, cricket became even more important. Even if the sport drained her out at different stages of her career – forcing her to contemplate retirement at times – she stuck to it because it made her parents, especially her father, happy.
When a youngster is able to see her profession as a tool to spread happiness among people who matter to her, things get contextualised. Also, her ability to withstand pain and put mind over body for the sake of the team has been another founding principle of her game. Nowhere was it more evident than in the 2005 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand. Having suffered a knee injury before the tournament, she was not in a good shape. Yet when the occasion arrived, she upped her game in testing conditions in South Africa to make an unbeaten 91 and take India to their first-ever World Cup final.
The third ideology of Mithali’s career has been this single-minded obsession to not get out. She had told Wisden India in 2017 that her father made it clear very early that the most important thing in batting is to remain not out. It got ingrained in her system, and numbers back it up. She gets switched on every time there is a target to be chased. She averages 111.29 in 48 successful chases, in which she has been unbeaten 31 times. The next best average in successful chases is Meg Lanning’s 78.34. Not surprisingly, Mithali rates her unbeaten 94 against England during a chase of 230 at Lord’s in 2012 a one of her best knocks.
A simple approach to her game is the reason behind Mithali’s longevity, and there is no reason why it cannot push her for a few more years as more milestones await to be conquered.