There isn’t much that Mithali Raj has not achieved on a cricket field. She has been the face of Indian women’s cricket for more than two decades now and it was only fitting that she was bestowed with the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award for her stupendous performance. It is amazing to see that despite having so many records to her name, she still has the hunger to go one step further. Talking to Cricket.com, the 38-year-old shed light on her achievements, 2022 ODI World Cup, and much more.
How does it feel to be the fifth cricketer to get the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award?
I feel happy to be honored with this award and be in this elite group of cricketers and other sports persons.
It must be an immensely satisfying feeling?
Well, I think that feeling will probably come with time if India win the World Cup.
Areas in which India have to improve ahead of the 2022 World Cup?
There are always areas where we look to improve. Despite the losses, England and Australia series this year have been good for the team. As far as the Test match is concerned, there were lots of positives. Similarly, even the ODIs was a good experience, though we lost it by a close margin. One of the areas which we looked at was how the lower order has to come into play with those crucial runs. The bowlers played their part, and the seamers in particular did very well. It has definitely given us the confidence.
But the pressure in a bilateral series is completely different than in a World Cup. The expectations are very different. But we will be having the domestic season for the players and the match time that some of the girls are getting through WBBL. Even though it’s a different format, the game time will help prepare individually as players. Then the camp that we might have before the World Cup will help us come together and prepare as a team.
Anything specific that seniors like Jhulan Goswami and you have in mind for the World Cup?
It is very natural in a team sport to have a mix of youngsters and seniors. And natural for us seniors to share our experience. But when we get to the World Cup, everyone will feel the pressure and to be very honest it is no different for an experienced player. Everybody feels the pressure of a World Cup, no matter how many matches you have played. It is the pinnacle of cricket.
But yes, as seniors, we have played World Cups in the past and are better equipped to understand how we can absorb it and perform. And therefor probably share some of our experience with the young players.
What are the key takeaways from the ODI series against Australia?
It was good to see the fast bowlers bowling so well. Yes, I understand that the conditions were good for the seamers. Jhulan of course has always been a front-runner for us. The other players like Meghna Singh and Pooja Vastrakar pitched in with bowling as well as batting. Then having a lower order score runs. Putting up a total of 270 or so and also chasing against Australia. It gives a good feeling as a unit. Steadily we are getting there.
In the last three world events, India have faltered in the knockout stage. Is there any particular plan to deal with that pressure?
No matter how much we prepare, the moment one goes to the ground it is a very different environment. We can talk a lot of things off the field. The girls know that each time you have to give the best game forward. You know that the best teams don’t give anything easily. You have to earn it. We do have the stuff in us to beat them. It’s just a matter of getting our best game in every match in the World Cup. That’s the ask in a World Cup. The gap between the top and bottom teams has reduced a lot. I think every team has match winners.
There have been talks about the run-rate in the middle overs and the strike rate of middle-order batters. How do you and the team aim to counter it?
I recently read an interview where Gautam Gambhir said that strike rates are overrated. What matters in a 50-over game is when we achieve those small targets like 10 overs, 25 overs or 40 overs and see what is the team run-rate at that time. In every team there are anchors, finishers and stroke players. The consistency also varies with each kind of players. In 50 overs you play according to situation and partnerships become extremely important. At the end of the day the contribution of an individual makes should help team register a good total. If a team has to score 260 or 280 + then there is not one batter, but two to three batters need to score. In Australia, in one game we posted 274 and, in another game, we chased around similar target. So, we are doing well. Clicking together as unit is paramount.
Spin has traditionally been India’s strength. However, recently the spinners have failed to pick wickets and have also given away runs. What is your take on it?
Spinners have been doing well for us. Coming from the sub-continent, we always boasted of world-class spinners. We have good spinners in the side, and they have been doing well. Of course, there wasn’t much of turn on those surfaces, so the spinners had to bowl a very tight line and length. New Zealand wicket will also be very similar to the Australian wickets. But players like Poonam Yadav, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Ekta Bisht and Deepti Sharma are experienced. Of course, Sneh Rana has been performing very well both with the bat and the ball.
In the past you have said that Women’s IPL would be a great thing to have. Do you think it’s the right time to start it now?
As a player, I have always believed that the BCCI is the best judge of when a tournament like women’s IPL can be held because it’s not just about conducting but a whole lot of logistics and commerce is involved in it. There are lot of other factors too. People do say that it’s time for women’s IPL, but I think the Board is the best judge to understand when they can come up with the Women’s IPL.
Right now, I feel instead of talking about the IPL, it’s important that we focus on the World Cup as that it’s a major event. At the moment it’s important for me to get the team prepared for the World Cup. If the team does well in the World Cup, then it will be a huge boost for the sport in the country and for the domestic players as well. This season there is a huge difference in the domestic standards. The pool of players has increased based on how the domestic season has been conducted. Having the India-A, Emerging teams, Under-19 teams, domestic structure is giving a platform for these players to perform.
Who would be your Trump Card for the World Cup?
All the eleven players who play are my trump card. Because when I pick the eleven, for me all players are equally important. Each and every one has the capability to turn it around for the team. And that is also what I expect of them.
Both Virat Kohli and you have been unlucky with tosses, is there any inside joke going around in the dressing room?
(Laughs) You won’t believe, today somebody sent me a Twitter forward that out of 14 I have lost 12 and out of 14 he has lost 13. I think we are going neck to neck. Stiff competition there. The girls don’t leave me when I am walking for the toss be it for the Indian team or the Railways. They are always pulling my leg. So, I am more stressed with the toss. Don’t you think we should be having records for that (laughs)? One of my managers was saying that when they are reading my achievements, they should also add this.
What would be some of your favorite moments on the field?
There are many moments, when you are winning the match, when you turn things around. From a position of losing, you go on to win the game. I think it always gives you a very pleasing feeling. I can’t pick one. When you win away matches, it satisfies you.
As far as the tournaments are concerned, 2005 ODI World Cup is up there, then 2017 World Cup. 2014 Test match against England in England. That stands out as I had eight debutants for the longest and most challenging format. I am sure there are many more.
How do you handle controversies, hate and criticism on social media? Does it affect you as a person?
Initially it used to but now it doesn’t. I understand that when you get lauded you will also be criticized. Yes, sometimes there is targeted criticism and unwarranted. As a player you understand that well. While social media is a great tool to connect with your followers and supporters it can also be like a double edge sword. As a seasoned player, being balanced is very important.
By habit I read everything, whatever I can lay my hands on whether it is good or bad. Over the years, I have learnt to filter it. It’s a very conscious effort.
Who would you dedicate this award to?
I don’t have few people; I have many people who worked and gave their time and energy to getting me where I am today. Of course, my parents actually got me into the sports. All those ex-players my seniors who played this wonderful sport before me and kept it alive for a young girl to take it up. All those coaches who worked on my game at different stages of my career. Physiotherapist and Trainers who kept me going. Friends who have been through the thick and thin, given me shoulder to cry on, to take my tantrums. And all those well-wishers. As I also believe that blessings do help you.