Captain Incredible

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Mithali Raj is not only India’s most successful cricket captain, but also a strong voice seeking to give the game its due. By Anupama Bijur

When Mithali Raj walks in with her team of women in blue, she’s hard to spot. You’ve seen her on TV but not often enough. The Indian women’s cricket team captain says she gets this all the time: “When I’m out shopping or travelling, people wonder if it is me. Some muster up the courage to come and ask me if I am indeed Mithali.”

Two-time captain of the Indian women’s cricket team from 2005 to 2008, and from 2012 till date, Mithali understands why she’s not as instantly recognisable as, say, Dhoni; after all, women’s cricket has been televised nowhere near as widely as men’s. The Arjuna awardee (2003) and the Padma Shri winner (2015) played a captain’s knock and hit six sixes off six balls while playing against New Zealand recently—and was nicknamed ‘Lady Sachin’ for her efforts. She’s not sure it’s a compliment. “Comparing me to Sachin means that I’m consistent like him, but I would also like my performance to be evaluated without any comparisons— just for what it is.”

The daughter of an Air Force officer, Mithali’s father enrolled her in cricket camp at a young age to inculcate in her the discipline of rising early every day. For the first few years, she played just to keep her parents happy. She was also practising Bharatnatyam, which she studied for eight years. It was not till the 2009 World Cup that Mithali realised that cricket had become an essential part of her life. And now she’s glad that her parents chose the game for her.“I was playing a game that was dominated by men, and playing it when most people didn’t even know women could play seriously. It’s only now that women’s cricket has gained so many followers,’’ she says. The game has come a long way since she started and she is heartened by signs of professionalism, like the hiring of a fitness trainer and nutritionists for the Indian women’s team. “When I started playing, we had to do this all by ourselves.”

Mithali’s second run as a captain is showing results too with her team winning both home and away matches. “We’ve been together as a team for nearly one and a half year and 10 of the 15 players from the national team are with the Indian Railways. So we’re all coming together and each one is chipping in.

We’re setting bigger targets and are also able to chase bigger totals. The top order has been performing well and we did a clean sweep against Australia in the recent series,’’ says Mithali, adding that she’s not an aggressive leader but she likes to prepare well ahead of time. “A tournament is like an examination. What you trained for will be evaluated. Once I’m off the field, it’s time for reflection. I feel it helps me deliver better,” she says. Mithali’s most memorable moments on field include the time she created a world record for the highest individual score by an Indian woman cricketer, her first outing as a captain in 2005 when her 95 run score got the team into the World Cup final, and her first test win against England in 2014. Next on the agenda is shining at the 2017 World Cup.