Fact: Mithali Raj is India’s most successful batswoman, male or female, in T20Is with 2,232 runs in 84 matches. During her knock of 56 against Pakistan on Sunday she surpassed Rohit Sharma’s tally of 2,207.
Fact: Mithali Raj is India’s most successful opener in T20Is with a total of 1,356 runs in 43 matches. She has also scored the most fifties as an opener for India: 13.
Fact: Mithali Raj and Smriti Mandhana are India’s most prolific opening pair in T20Is. They have scored 835 runs in 26 innings at an average of 33.40 including two century and four half century stands. The pair’s runs have come at a rate of 6.62 runs per over— a number that has increased to 7.44 in the last year.
In years gone by, T20 cricket was about making sure the team’s best batswomen faced the most deliveries. The ‘big hitters’ would float around the order— to come in and accelerate at the back end of the innings; it was as if it were their only job. Under the same school of thought – Raj, originally India’s number three, was pushed up the order to open in 2014.
“I want my best batswoman to play the most overs,” Purima Rau, then coach of the Indian team told Firstpost, “I can’t waste her in the dugout," she added.
“She (Raj) is someone who can get runs off even the best deliveries. She has a wonderful technique and has so much time to play the ball. She is the perfect opener— someone who is solid, and can score the big runs,” Rau added.
As an opener in T20Is, Raj has scored 13 of her 16 fifties and her runs have come at an average of 41.09 and a strike rate of 101.21. Since the start of 2018, she has amassed 524 runs in 18 matches at an average of 37.42, and a strike rate of 107.81. She has also hit five of her eight career sixes during this time.
Within the last year, the T20 game has changed immensely. For one, it has become faster. Since the change in field restrictions (only four fielders allowed outside the circle in non-power play overs), teams have began to take a more attacking route. Run rates have rocketed, record scores have been set and chased down, and boundary counts have risen beyond imagination.
Australia have led the way in this regard— packing their batting line-up with attacking players and giving them the license to go for broke in the power play. Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry— both top order players of proven pedigree— tend to float in the batting order, and are sent in according to team requirements. Both very classical players, they add versatility to the Australian line up with their ability to hit the big shots while also playing a steady hand.
Ahead of the 2018 ICC Women’s World T20, Ramesh Powar, head coach of the Indian team, had said he was happy with Raj’s role as an opener. “I’m happy with what Mithali is doing at the top,” he told Women’s CricZone when asked whether the 35-year-old was more suited in the middle order. “Mithali has carried this team for a long period of time. I know she can open, I know she can play a brisk innings. You’ve seen some innings where for last T20 (4th T20I against Sri Lanka) she got 14 (13) runs off the first over. That makes a huge difference. It’s not always about scoring fifties. 10, 20 runs in this game can make a lot of difference.”
However, with the change of landscape, it seems India have felt the need to change too. In the opening match of the World T20 between India and New Zealand in Guyana, Taniya Bhatia, the wicket-keeper, walked out alongside Mandhana to open the batting. Bhatia scored nine off seven deliveries— a knock that included a boundary off the first ball of the tournament— but was undone by the pace of Lea Tahuhu. Her role was clear: to take the attack to the opposition.
Bhatia’s dismissal was followed by the arrival of the regular n0. 3 Jemimah Rodrigues, and once Mandhana fell, it was Hemalatha Dayalan— on debut— who walked out to bat. Within the power play, India had slumped to 40 for 3, but there was still no sign of Raj.
On the back of Harmanpreet Kaur’s incredible century, India powered their way to 194 for 5— the services of Raj were not required— and registered a comfortable 34-run win over New Zealand.
After the first match, Kaur explained that Bhatia was given a go at the top of the order for two main reasons:
1. To take advantage of the power play.
2. To allow Raj to drop down and lengthen what is a rather inexperienced batting line-up.
In the next game, however, in a tricky chase against Pakistan, Raj was back at the top of the order and this time, she anchored the chase, with a flawless half-century.
"Mithali is a key player and we have to use her in a smart way,” said Kaur in the post-match presentation. “Pakistan are a good bowling side, and she's (Mithali) very good against spin. That's why we played her up there. It was a decision by the coach and me.”
Raj is a vital cog in the Indian team. Like Lanning and Perry, she works as the team’s insurance policy. She allows the naturally attacking players like Mandhana and Rodrigues to exercise their free-flowing style without having to worry about a collapse. As she showed against Pakistan, despite her conventional methods Raj still has the ability to score at decent strike rate, and she almost always gives India a solid base from which to launch.
“I enjoy opening,” said Raj after her player of the match performance against Pakistan. “I also enjoy going no.3 in the ODIs… Basically I enjoy batting, no matter which order I go. As long as I get to bat.”
India’s tactics when batting first seem to make sense. Unsure of what a good score is, much like Australia, they have given the top order the license to play with freedom, knowing that they still have Raj to fall back on. If India collapse in a heap, Raj can come in and steady the ship, and play her natural, unfettered, low-risk game, and if they need her to go on the attack, she has shown enough versatility to do that too.
In a chase however, no matter how big the score, Raj may be India’s best option at the top of the order. Opening the batting gives her the opportunity to control the innings from the very start.
Raj’s record as an opener in T20I chases is rather impressive— 16 matches, 450 runs, an average of 40.90, a strike rate of 95.54 and five half-centuries. In 13 of those matches, India have been on the winning side, with Raj’s contributions as follows: 422 runs, an average of 52.75, strike rate of 97.01 and five fifties.
In the last year itself, those numbers have improved— 239 runs in eight matches, at an average of 39.83 and a strike rate of 101.27. Alongside Mandhana— with whom she has forged a strong partnership— she has scored 306 runs at a run rate of 7.28. Whenever Raj has opened in the second innings this year, India have won the game.
In the match against Pakistan, the right-hander showed the ability to get ahead of the rate at the very start of the innings. Her attacking approach against the spinners meant India managed 48 for no loss in the first six overs— with Raj on 20 off 16, mirrored by Mandhana’s 16 off 20 balls.
It is likely India will continue to keep Raj in the middle order when batting first. They seem to be following Australia’s blue-print: go hard or go home, and if things go wrong, you always have the ‘insurance’ to get you through to respectability.
In chases though, India can ill afford to take that approach. Chasing, especially in a big tournament— as India learnt in the 2017 World Cup final at Lord’s— involves a lot of pressure. It is those who can handle that pressure that are able to come out on top. With all her experience, Raj is the perfect option.
“Chasing definitely puts a little pressure to keep the run rate going, but no matter what the challenge is, I enjoy,” she said.
Raj is a commander; someone who is level headed and leads by example. She is not one to get carried away by emotion or let the occasion get to her. Instead, she deftly deflects the pressure and focuses on the immediate task at hand. Her steely character, the kind who revels when pushed into a corner, is on display when pressure mounts. In short, she is India’s best player under the pressure of a chase, and at the business end of a tournament, they will need her to step up.