Who was the first Indian to score 2,000 T20I runs?
Obviously Virat Kohli, right?
Who is the first Indian to play 100 T20Is?
Rohit Sharma, perhaps?
Questions like these are often used to trick or confuse those answering. When you think of achievements like first to reach 100 T20Is or the first Indian to 2,000 runs, our mind immediately goes to men cricketers like Rohit, Kohli or MS Dhoni.
Not for one second do we take a pause and think if there’s the minutest possibility of a different answer. When you eventually learn that it was a woman cricketer, you are often left red-faced and more often than not, feel a bit ignorant inside.
If there’s a cricketer that has brought Women’s cricket in India worldwide attention, it has to be Mithali Raj. Even after two decades she continues to inspire many young girls to play the sport for the country, which is often overshadowed and dominated by Men’s cricket.
Mithali, born on this day in 1982, started off as a dance enthusiast and had learnt Bharatanatyam during her childhood days. However, as years rolled on she found her true love in cricket and made the bowlers dance to her tunes. In a country where Sachin Tendulkar is idolized beyond imagination, Mithali managed to carve a niche for herself and began to excel at all levels – be it scoring an ODI century on debut, registering the (then) highest individual score in Tests, scoring seven one-day fifties in a row or going on to become the highest run-getter in WODIs.
Moreover, she is also the only Indian cricketer to have led the team to two World Cup finals, although the tag of a World Champion still eludes her.
While it wasn’t all hunky dory, the 2017 World Cup turned out to be a turning point in Women’s cricket. India were well-equipped to create history in England and had even beaten the hosts comprehensively in the group stages. The fearless cricket India played under her leadership, the nonchalant way in which India picked up victories in the tournament, one felt that this could be the best chance for India to win their maiden title. A last hurrah for Mithali, perhaps? As a 19-year-old, who set the world record for the highest individual score in Tests, a career without a major trophy did not seem to be the perfect ending.
Despite giving it all, India fell short by nine runs in the final against England, but the wheels had already begun rolling to augur in a new era for Indian cricket. But India still gained from it as it gave its women cricketers a superstar-like status, which was unseen or unheard of before. It turned out to be a step in the right direction as it paved way for further exposure and eventually led to the Women’s T20 Challenge, which is nothing but an extremely abridged version of the cash-rich IPL.
It’s easy for someone who made their debut 20 years ago to fade away for failing to keep up with the ever-changing times. That however is not the case with Mithali, who not just excelled in her ODI career when we look at the two halves, but also set a benchmark for others to follow.
T20s did not even exist when Mithali started off, but while in her first six years she took some time to warm-up, in the latter stages, there was perhaps none better. She was India’s highest run-getter for the first six years, but during the next phase, with plenty more matches being played, the likes of Harmanpreet (1,685) and Mandhana (1,716) have scored more runs, but Mithali (1,612) managed to hold her own.
It has been a similar case at the ODI level, she has been fantastic and has only improved when you compare her first 10 years against the next.
As far as captaincy goes, no Women cricketer has played more matches (132) or has scored more runs (4,402) as captain. India have also won 82 matches under her leadership, which is the best after Belinda Clark (83).
Mithali’s contribution to cricket – not just women cricket – is beyond numbers. She is an example of what can be achieved if you keep your head down and persist. A bit of talent too helps.
Women’s cricket is something that cannot succeed until it is nourished right from the grassroots level, which is something Mithali is a firm believer in.
“I believe that if you need something to be popular, you need to market it at grassroots level. Women are following cricket more than they used to, especially after IPL has come in: why not capture that audience? Women’s international matches are typically played at smaller venues. They can always promote these matches in those cities beforehand,” she said in an interview to CricketCountry in 2016.
With the platform set quite beautifully, especially over the last three years or so, it seems to be a matter of time before Women’s cricket in India gets its due recognition. The path towards realising that goal has already been laid.