There is a great little story - the story of a legend who scripted a legacy for generations to follow, the story of a sleepy girl who was forced to play cricket because of a strict father and equally supportive mother, the story of Mithali Raj - the trailblazer for Indian women's cricket.
In 1999, a girl, on her debut, shredded the Ireland eves with sheer disdain in a distant outreach of England and scampered her way to make an unbeaten 114 runs alongside Reshma Gandhi, who had also scored a match-winning century. Her bravado was rewarded with a standing ovation by her teammates but putting that into perspective, that century also marked the beginning of a revolution that changed the face of women's cricket in the country.
18 years since that day at Campbell Park, Mithali Raj now sits at the zenith of Women's cricket by being the highest run-scorer in the history of the One-day international cricket, passing Charlotte Edwards' 5992-run mark before stepping into unchartered territory by going past the 6000-run barrier. In a land so obsessed with the stardom that the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni, and Virat Kohli are able to attain, Mithali's climb to the summit has a charm of its own for a country embroiled with gender inequality, particularly in sport.
From the very beginning of her career, Mithali has made a name for herself playing a fearless brand of cricket - without thinking of consequences - but she had to curb her natural instincts after becoming the backbone of the Indian batting lineup. "One constant is the burden that I have carried all through my career," she said after her record-breaking innings. "It has always played on my mind," she added.
And boy, did she take them on her shoulders alone?
Handed the reins of the side at the tender age of 22, having been entrusted with the hopes of winning the first World Cup title, Raj delivered rather well. Not only did she lead India to the final of the event, but slowly and steadily she also instilled a sense of belief in the women's team amongst her fans and young girls of the country alike.
Along with Jhulan Goswami, Raj has been the torchbearer of women's cricket in the country and also the last standing link between two very different eras of women's cricket that played under both the Women's Cricket Association of India (WCAI) and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Before BCCI’s takeover of the women’s cricket in 2005, Indian Women’s team were facing a lot of struggles - travelling on unreserved berths, not getting paid match fees, and staying in places not worthy of an international athlete. But notwithstanding those setbacks, the duo have fought to give Indian women's cricket its due status, much like the feisty Diana Edulji, Santha Rangaswamy, Lopamudra Bhattacharya, Purnima Rau, Anjum Chopra, and Neetu David had done throughout their careers. The struggle for their right, an unknown commodity in an otherwise conservative India, made them the idols for young girls of the country.
Obviously, a lot has changed since those times of turmoil and now, the BCCI has offered annual contracts for all regular cricketers, girls do have the financial security of government jobs and most importantly, they have received the recognition every athlete craves - albeit not of the same level as their male counterparts. That, indeed, has helped in minimising the negative perception surrounding women's cricket and in unearthing many talents from every nook and cranny of the country.
Former India cricketer Madhuri Mehta was one of those girls who picked the hallowed willow after reading about Mithali’s exploits on the international stage, narrated the story of the latter’s huge impact in the lives of many young girls across the country.
“I really cannot tell you the impact of Mithali Di in my life. I started playing cricket for her and not only me, many of my contemporary cricketers have also started playing cricket because of her brilliance on the world stage. She is truly an inspiration and I was lucky enough to rub shoulders with her. God is really kind,” Mehta told SportsCafe.
“During my debut match against West Indies, nervousness got the better of me and I got out for nought. I was literally crying after coming back to the dressing room, but Mithali di came near me and said “even Sachin Tendulkar got out for zero in his debut. So why are you worried? Let’s wait and everything will be alright”. I felt a lot better after that.”
That quality of assurance and mentorship also made Mithali a lady to look after as Mehta, who was also the part of the team that played the 2014 T20 World Cup in Bangladesh, points out that irrespective of whether Mithali leads India to the World Cup glory or not, she has already made her biggest contribution to the sport. On the field, Mithali is a ruthless cricketer with an indomitable appetite for success, but off the field, she just a normal Indian girl- a bit nervous and very guarded without any attitude problems.
And when a girl turns on the TV, she still watches Raj milking those runs with an unimaginable ferocity with her powerful hands and purposeful cover drives. When a father reads about Mithali’s world record in the newspaper, he can imagine his daughter achieving similar feats in the future. They don’t only need to idolise Virat Kohli or MS Dhoni anymore. They have Mithali Raj - their very own superstar.
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