Sports

Mithali Raj’s legacy is her successor, who has followed her in the sport

She’s the highest run scorer, but she should also be credited for bringing women’s cricket to India.

Mithali Raj said, “I’m done seeing women’s cricket on the margins.” “We must make front page.” It was the first time I witnessed her emotions bubble over in almost three weeks of accompanying the team in Sri Lanka.

India lost at the group stage, and a dejected Raj was further mortified when she was told to look left and right at the press conference, as if answering questions from all sides. She saw only a lone journalist, this writer, and a cameraperson.

“Hopefully, women’s press conferences will be packed in a few years,” she added as she left Galle. “Hope to play.”

Three weeks earlier, in Bangalore, she waited alone for 10 minutes at a pre-World Cup press conference when the team manager told her it was cancelled. MS Dhoni’s pre-World Cup media briefing was packed. Raj’s cancelled media meeting emphasised apathy and indifference, which have characterised India’s reaction to women’s cricket for much of her career.

Raj played three more 50-over and T20 World Cups (12 total), demonstrating her commitment to women’s cricket. India finished second at the 2017 World Cup in England, five years after that competition.

When the team returned to India after the 2017 competition, they were rushed out of Mumbai airport by supporters and media. Raj got recognition without asking. She and her team went from relative anonymity to the public eye.

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Endorsements, TV campaigns, celebrity meet-and-greets, and public appearances provided financial windfalls. Raj reminded folks that this wasn’t India’s first World Cup final. Also in 2005, although with little fanfare.

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Even if her career ended in 2017, she’d be a trailblazer. 18 years have passed. She was the youngest century-maker in women’s ODIs, the most-capped player, and an Arjuna award winner.

She guided India to four Asia Cup championships (three ODIs and one T20I), a momentous Test success in England, and a first series win in Australia. Yet 2017’s attention was as fulfilling as any win. Seeing fans clamour for overnight stars showed how much had changed.

We talked about social media when I visited her in Hyderabad in 2016 to do a profile. She has several hundred Twitter followers. Why don’t you like the spotlight? “Nobody cares what Mithali Raj is doing or eating,” she joked.

When Raj announced her retirement on social media on Wednesday, she had over 2.5 million Twitter and Instagram followers and was back on the sports pages. Ten years ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about Galle.

Raj’s game contributions are sometimes overlooked. As a teenager, she trained like a racehorse because cricket was her only professional route. At the time, there was no money in the game and the BCCI hadn’t taken over women’s cricket.

From Silchar to Surat, Faridabad to Mangalagiri, she batted on all kinds of pitches and grounds, travelled in trains without a seat reservation, and stayed in barely passable accommodations.

She was the link between a generation that played for fun and one that plays for domestic and international contracts. Young players came to her for advice before there were enough support workers.

Raj has organised nets and travel, played manager, negotiated better compensation, and waited in the BCCI’s Mumbai hallways as captain to advocate for central contracts, which were given in 2016.

Her legacy isn’t defined by not having a World Cup medal. The runs, hours of work, and way she’s motivated females to play cricket should.

Raj may have postponed her leave, but that doesn’t diminish her intangible contributions to Indian tennis. She gave women’s cricket dignity and respect, and was a role model for Mandhana, Rodrigues, and Shafali.

Harmanpreet Kaur, India’s new captain, said, “I didn’t know women’s cricket existed until I started playing. But only your name, Mithali di, was mentioned. You inspired young girls to play soccer and dream big.”

At 39, Raj’s second innings awaits. She can be a host, coach, or administrator. Whatever she chooses, it will add to her history as a trailblazer who helped shape the future.

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