In a country with a population of over a billion, if you walk down the road and ask anyone to name one women’s player, the reply is undoubtedly Mithali Raj.
In over two-decade-long career, such has been the aura of Mithali that women’s cricket, especially the Indian team is synonymous with her name.
After making her debut for the national side in 1999, not much has changed for Mithali and women's cricket as the Women in Blue continue to remain in the shadow of their male counterparts despite their consistent performances. However, things were slightly different in the previous edition of the women's World Cup, which was touted to be a turning point in women's sport and garnered plenty of fanfare.
In a pre-departure press conference ahead of the marquee event, Mithali Raj said, "We want to win the World Cup because it would be a revolution kind of a thing for Indian women's cricket. It would give a big impetus for young girls to take up the sport."
Despite failing to cross the final hurdle, Mithali and her young Indian contingent inspired a million people to take up the sport and follow their passion.
While the Women in Blue are reaping its due share of recognition post their sensational performance in the previous edition of the World Cup, the team will aim to go a step further and clinch the coveted title.
In a baffling manner, the Board of Control for Cricket in India announced the squad for the most coveted tournament in women's cricket by a mere press release. The 39-year old will feature in her sixth World Cup and will be at the helm of affairs for the Indian side in the illustrious tournament.
One of the stalwarts in women's cricket, there is no record or milestone that Mithali has not breached. However, after toiling hard for 20 years on the international circuit, she would aim to bid adieu to the sport with a tag of being a World Cup winner.
With 7470 runs in 199 innings at an average of 51.87, the right-handed batter is the leading run-scorer and the only player to amass 7000 runs in the fifty-over format.
The pillar of the batting unit of the Indian side, Mithali, has been the only player to feature in 200 ODIs matches. It will be an understatement to say that the batting unit will be heavily reliant on her to shoulder the responsibility of the side and guide the inexperienced middle-order of the side.
One of the reasons for India's success in the last edition of the World Cup was mainly due to the consistent performance of Mithali. While there have been shades of brilliance from Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur in a couple of innings, Mithali played the role of an anchor to absolute perfection.
She was the glue to the Indian batting unit in the last edition of the World Cup and scored 409 runs in nine innings at an average of 45.44, including three half-centuries and a crucial hundred against the White Ferns in a must-win encounter.
And, just as women's cricket was set to take off after the fifty-over World Cup and the resounding success of the T20 World Cup held in Australia in 2020, the world of cricket came to an absolute halt.
In the unprecedented chaos amid the pandemic, most of the cricketing tournaments were either postponed or cancelled. After a year-long hiatus, the Women in Blue finally competed in a bilateral series against South Africa at home.
While the team was haunted by lack of sessions and match preparations before the series, Mithali silently went about her business and scored 289 runs in four innings at an average of 96.33 before embarking on the tour to England and Australia.
In the last season, Mithali was the second-highest run-getter with 582 runs in 10 innings at an average of 72.75. However, despite her credentials with the bat, one of the glaring issues for Mithali and the Indian side has been the lack of runs scored in the middle overs.
One of the significant factors in India's dismal performance in the middle overs was the lack of chances taken by Mithali to keep the scoreboard ticking.
In 39 innings played thus far after the 2017 World Cup, Mithali has scored 1572 runs at a strike rate of 64.4, which is the worst among the top ten run-scorers during that period.
"I do read that the criticism is about my strike rate. I’m here to play the role assigned to me by the team management. I need to make the best use of me in the middle, and the entire batting unit revolves around me," she quoted in a post-match interview against England in July last season.
In a land unknown to the youngsters in the squad, the fortunes of the side will depend on Mithali and her performances in what is her last-ditch at a world event.
With a wealth of experience playing at the highest level and her exploits in the Southern hemisphere during India's tour of New Zealand in 2019, Mithali will be keen to end her glittering career on a high in a land where she has the second-best average since 2015.
Two months from now, Mithali will set foot at the Bay Oval for the inaugural match against arch-rivals Pakistan, carrying the hopes of billions and aiming to finish an unfulfilled desire in her glittering career.