Mithali Raj was not reading Rumi when Jemimah Rodrigues and Priya Punia walked out to open batting at Vadodara. It did not matter, for she looked just as unflappable in contemporary cricket’s most iconic floppy hat when she walked out to bat at the fall of the second wicket.
India Women had to chase 248. They had never chased a score this high to win a match. They have also had mixed results in chasing high totals against South Africa. India’s highest score while chasing, 261/9 – their highest score while batting second – had come in 2017. They had lost by eight runs.
Three months before that, they had chased down 245/9, finishing the match off the last ball, at P Sara, in the final of the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier. That was their highest successful chase.
Smriti Mandhana was absent in both matches. She was not here either.
Raj took just four singles off the first 13 balls she faced. The asking rate rose over five – but there was little to fuss about. She has been there and has done it too many times. She knew the wicket was playing well, if a bit slow, and there were runs to be scored.
She waited for that one loose delivery to come. Tumi Sekhukhune bowled outside off. Till a point it seemed Raj would pat it back. But as in the first ODI, Trisha Chetty was standing up, and Sune Luus did not have a slip for Sekhukhune. Raj took advantage of that. She did not middle it, but she did not need to, for she knew that all she needed was a touch. She got enough of the bat to send the ball past the ropes.
The next boundary, also off Sekhukhune, was caressed almost past third man. She had already seen the fielders. All she needed to do was to make them chase the ball in vain; and she did.
It has been an eventful year for Raj. She had been moved down the batting order, then dropped from the side, during last year’s World T20. Reports of her tussles with the team management, especially coach Ramesh Powar, had surfaced as an aftermath.
Raj then accused Powar of bias in an explosive letter to the BCCI. Powar countered every allegation raised against him. Then Harmanpreet Kaur and Mandhana, captain and vice-captain of the T20 side, voiced their support for Powar.
In other words, things got murky. Powar’s contract was not renewed, but Raj was no longer an obvious choice for T20Is even after WV Raman took over. Then, just before the T20I series against South Africa got underway, Raj shocked everyone by announcing her retirement from the format.
Raj had been efficiently elegant till the 22nd over. Then she lofted Luus twice – the second one almost crossed the ropes – but they were rank full-tosses. Punam Raut, who had come to the crease over four overs before Raj, was left behind.
Mithali Raj had taken centerstage.
But Nondumiso Shangase did not bowl full tosses. It was, if anything, a decent ball. Luus had rightly kept the mid-off in, challenging Raj to go over the top. Raj spotted the ball early, came down the track, and dispatched it over the fielder.
The inexperienced Shangase tried to push Raj back with a slightly short-pitched ball. It was not the best plan against a legend with two decades of international cricket behind her, someone who had probably seen the pitched-up-then-short strategy more than anyone.
Shangase had a point and an extra cover. Raj rocked back and bisected the two fielders with a precision that would not have looked out of place in a geometry class.
Soon afterwards, she stepped out and drove off Shangase. This time she chose the gap between cover and extra-cover, the placement as delightful as the footwork.
It took her three boundaries to make a mockery of the off-side field, especially inside the circle – but surely one expects that of her by now.
It cannot have been easy for Raj to lead India at this point, more so with Kaur as her deputy. Things might have improved since Kaur’s open support for Powar, but Raj’s real challenge lay on the pitch.
True, India had won their last four ODI series under Raj, but it was also a fact that she had scored only one fifty in 2019, that too as foil to a rampant Mandhana. It has been some time since she had played the sort of innings that had helped her establish herself as one of the greatest batters in history. That needed to happen.
Long-form cricket is her territory. Fifty-over cricket is her format. This is where she had scored more runs and fifties than anyone in history. In fact, she had scored almost a sixth of all runs scored by India Women in ODIs – and India Women had started playing ODIs some time before Mithali was born.
Something needed to be done to do justice to that reputation – and what better way to lead his side to a record chase?
The fifty came up with a nonchalant push to long-on. She then lofted Luus for four over mid-off. She did not last long after that, but her 65 was enough to leave India on the brink of a win.
India did lose three quick wickets after that, but as in P Sara two years ago, Kaur was there to help India Women improve on their record ODI chase.
The performance to bury a year’s worth of controversies was finally here.
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