Mithali Raj had an illustrious career filled with several highs and a fair share of lows. The sleepy girl changed Indian women’s cricket, but an incident in her 23-year international career left her “hurt”.
The most capped player and highest run-scorer in the history of women’s cricket, Mithali opened up to India Today about the time when she had overcome her emotions and realised her purpose. The goal-oriented cricketer, who announced her retirement from the game on June 8, 2022, found herself involved in a feud with head coach Ramesh Powar and teammate Harmanpreet Kaur during the 2018 T20 World Cup.
Mithali was dropped by Powar from the Harmanpreet-led India for the semi-final match against England, following which Mithali and Powar got into a war of words. India crashed out of the tournament and the trio had separate meetings with the then BCCI officials.
The Indian legend made it clear that she had nothing against Harmanpreet but expressed her deep anguish at how she was treated by Powar, who had written a long report, the bulk of which was devoted to the difficulty he faced while handling Mithali.
Recalling that phase, Mithali told India Today: “When you find yourself in the middle of chaos, you can’t really think straight because you are feeling all sorts of emotions, even if you want to internalise and think from your brain and not from your heart. It would still be like you are hurting, so you will probably never have clarity if you are in chaos.
“Take some time and get out of it and then see it as a third person to understand how better you can respond to it or is it necessary? Sometimes it is okay to be quiet. It also requires a lot of courage when you are treated unfairly… everybody knows only one side of the story and when you feel that way it is fine because, at the end of the day, I am someone who is goal oriented. I had a purpose – to play cricket at the best optimum level that I could. If I had to achieve that each time when I was to get on to the field and I wanted to give my best, it is not just about my skill but it was also about my mental state of mind.
“I had to be in the best possible space in my mind to go out there and give my best. So, for me to be in that good mental space, I had to overcome or get through that moment of hurt, anger, frustration, irritation and eventually did, because I realised my purpose was not to be involved in that moment for long. The moment had to pass, that is what sport has taught me. In cricket, when you score a hundred, the next day you again have to start from the beginning, you don’t start from hundred. Obviously, that phase did hurt me a little bit but I overcame and that is why I was able to give the performance I did in the last year and half. I was able to overcome those emotions.”
After the incident, the BCCI sacked Powar and named WV Raman as the new head coach before Powar returned to the role in 2021. Mithali drew curtains from T20Is in 2019 to focus on the 50-over format and the ODI World Cup.
Under her leadership, India twice reached the final, in 2005 and 2017. With the 2022 global event as her swansong, India had a premature exit from the World Cup in New Zealand in spite of being one of the favourites to make the knockout stages.
WORKING WITH POWAR
Asked whether it was fair to her with the BCCI reappointing Powar as head coach in the buildup to the 2022 World Cup, Mithali said “I was a player, I didn’t have the power or call for that.
Talking about India’s failure at the recent tournament, Mithali added: “What happened in the World Cup could be that we took time to get into being the best in the tournament. I feel sometimes what happens is… if I have to look back on bilateral series (preparatory series before the World Cup), we always end up winning the third game of the series and not the first two. That is a reflection that the team is taking time to get into the best or get into that rhythm. Probably it is one of the reasons that in the World Cup we took time.
“By the end of it, when we were in-form, we probably lost out on those crucial matches against Australia or say New Zealand. I think had we been in good form from the beginning, it would have helped to win those important games. The match against England was so crucial for us. England until then had lost three games, so had we won that we would probably have gone to semis. Somewhere, the momentum of catching the rhythm early was probably not there.”
When questioned if the team’s performance was the only reason for India’s early exit or the disagreements behind the doors also contributed to a disastrous campaign, she said: “When it comes to team sport and team decisions, there is a think tank. There will always be disagreements because when you have 4-5 heads coming in to think the best for the team, everybody has their own version of the best for the team. So, there will be disagreements and there should be because you are getting to know different perspectives from different people, which could also be good for the team. I’m okay with that as these things will happen in a team sport.”
THE ONLY REGRET
Mithali, for whom the only regret in her playing career is missing out on winning the World Cup, backed Harmanpreet to lead India well in the upcoming tour of Sri Lanka. Shortly after Mithali’s retirement, India’s limited-overs squads for the away series were revealed, with T20I captain Harmanpreet to take charge of the one-day side.
“She (Harmanpreet) has been my deputy for a good 5-6 years and she has been leading the T20I format for quite some time. So, I’m sure she will be able to lead the ODI side well,” said a hopeful Mithali.
Mithali, who made her debut in 1999, played 12 Tests, 232 ODIs and 89 T20Is. A legend who inspired many young girls to take up the game finished with 10,868 runs, the most by any woman. She also holds the record for the most 50-plus scores in women’s internationals. She played in six editions of the ODI World Cup, becoming the only third cricketer after Javed Miandad and Sachin Tendulkar.
She had no qualms in accepting that her retirement decision, too, came after overcoming the emotions of India’s World Cup campaign.
“It took me a while to get over the defeat in that last game against South Africa. Things didn’t go as planned in the World Cup. I took time to first process that. It was already decided that the World Cup would be my swansong. It wasn’t something that I decided in an instant or in a week’s time, I very much knew about (retirement).
“It is just I needed time to process the decision which I did after I got over my emotions, because I’m not someone who would take any sort of decisions while going through all kinds of emotions, especially a big decision like this. This year we don’t have a home series. In both the series, India is touring (to Sri Lanka and England). Ideally, I would have loved to play at home and call it a day, but since there is no home series, I took this decision (via social media).”