On the day Mithali Raj crossed Charlotte Edwards' combined tally of 10,273 international runs, there was another telling statistic that caught the eye. The Indian batter now has 14 ODI 50s in England which is one more than Rahul Dravid, Virat Kohli, and Rohit Sharma’s 13 fifties each on the British soil. Despite England being one of the toughest places to bat on, Raj has been a true phenomenon with an average of 51.73 across 39 matches.
Yet if you’ve just returned from Mars and weren't aware of anything that’s going on in this planet earth and just read the above paragraph, believing that Raj was under fire after her two consecutive half-centuries in the first two games would seem blasphemous. However, that is the contradiction of modern-day batting, imposed directly in the Bristol ODI when the duo of Punam Raut and Raj found struggling to score runs as the run-rate dipped to an unfathomable level.
As Hardik Worah pointed out in his mid-series analysis, amongst batters who have scored at least 150 runs in the first innings since 2019, Deepti Sharma, Raj, and Raut have the worst strike rate. The three of them were India's top-scorers in the first ODI against England but failed to put any pressure on the bowling attack. It was distinctly evident in the second ODI at the County Ground in Taunton as well but with a slightly different approach from the skipper.
India were caught in a cross-fire, quite literally. Vindicating the faith of the team management, Kate Cross put up a display that will not be forgotten for quite some time. The Indian top-order were taken out in a breath but one stood tall to caress through. Raj played her part once again and the world started to come to terms with the fact that she is such an invaluable asset that India is not prepared to look away from despite her apparent weaknesses. Those 59 off 92 balls were a statement for the entire team and a template to approach things if things go awry.
However, the narrative didn’t flip entirely. Partly because of India's failure to put up big scores in the first two games but also because this has been a recurring problem. With Harmanpreet Kaur and Jemimah Rodrigues not buying a run to Smriti Mandhana constantly failing while batting first, the rut has only gone deeper. In such a scenario, even though Raj has taken the bulk of the load on herself, it came at a pretty low strike rate.
"I do read the criticism about my strike rate but as I've said earlier also, I don't seek validation from people. I have played for a long time and I know that I have a certain responsibility in the team. I don't look to please people, I'm here to play the role that's assigned to me accordingly by the team management,” Raj said after the game.
The final ODI - a consequential one of course because of the point nature of the three-format series - witnessed a complete avatar and Raj’s indomitable spirit buried all the criticisms to invigorate her legacy as the sport’s finest batter. Not only did she channel the proverbial “intent” in the run-chase but also ensured the target was never out of reach. "In a way the batting unit revolves around me - that's the job that's been given to me by the coach. I look to not get bogged down [by mounting asking-rate] because somewhere I do know that the top-order is already in the dugout. It was important for me to understand the situation, how I can sort of maneuver and try to get the match as close as possible with the batters who are yet to come and with the batters that I had in the middle.”
A decade ago, already 22 years into his international debut, Sachin Tendulkar became India’s highest run-scorer in the 2011 World Cup. His innings against Pakistan and multiple bases he created for the likes of Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh were perhaps not talked about as much as his other exploits but there is a catch here. Experience is a very under-estimated quality in this world of slam-bang cricket and someone like Mithali brings that sense of calmness to a side filled with nervous energy.
Albeit the win in Worcester, the three-match series has laid bare the bigger problems the team are facing currently. Beyond Raj and to an extent, the duo of Mandhana and Shafali, India have very few takeaways from their batters. Since 2019, India have won 11 of their 20 ODIs, but most of the wins came while batting second. In those 10 encounters, only once they have managed to breach the 250-run mark. If the side want to fancy their chances in the small grounds of New Zealand next year, it is paramount top-order batters take more responsibilities with Raj anchoring the innings.
India have been impressive in the ICC events of late. The 2017 World Cup final finish was complemented by MCG 2020 but if somehow the team can lift their spirit in the next year’s event, it would be a perfect tribute to one of the country’s greatest cricketers.