In 1908, when the resilient Marie Marvingt was denied the right to ride in the Tour de France, she brushed the rules aside and started each stage 15 minutes after the official race began. Marvingt ended up finishing the 4,488km (2,789 mile) race, a feat only 36 off the 110 men could manage.
It’s almost as if Mithali Raj took a leaf out of Marvingt’s playbook. Except, Raj has continued to race.
Raj is neither the first nor the only female athlete to be locked in and overcome an uneven battle with sexism and stereotype. To declare so is to be callous with history. From PT Usha to Aparna Popat, Anju George, Anjali Bhagwat, Aparna Popat, Sania Mirza, the list goes on.
But what she has to her name and the others in the list don’t is a staggering longevity. Raj burst into the international scene in June 1999 against Ireland with a century on debut at the Milton Keynes ground. To put this in perspective, a baby born then will be wrapping up school in a few months.
This year, she played her fourth World Cup. She has represented India in 10 Tests and 186 ODIs, scoring 663, 6190 runs at 51.00 and 51.58 respectively. Those numbers are telling.
In a nation of sporting underachievers, it was dubious at best to not embrace Raj alongside other athletes let alone cricketers. Men counterparts with lesser numbers would have descriptions with legend and great littered in it, shown up multiple times on front pages, and have effigies of themselves burnt. Not only were we a one-sport nation, we had narrowed the sport itself to be defined by one gender.
Except recently, when the Women’s World Cup was on, India tuned in and debated cricket – women’s cricket. And it was evident in the grammar that cricket wasn’t a singular sport anymore.
Women’s cricket was suddenly relevant.
Raj had an exclusive chat with this writer for Knappily. While talking about her journey, she constructs her sentences like her cover drives, with candour and clarity, qualities that accompany well-thought-out views.
“It is not like a goal that I’ve accomplished. I never started off playing cricket like one day I would be on this stage,” she says.
“But it feels nice to be appreciated for all the hard work put in all these years. And women’s cricket is also now being recognised as a sport in our country. Otherwise usually cricket is more related to men’s cricket, but these days we have people discussing women’s cricket in the same breath as men’s cricket. So that way getting women’s cricket to that level, definitely it feels very happy, and very lucky to be part of that team,” she adds.
Journeying this far takes discipline, drive, and uncommon courage, which explains why her words carry a simple directness in them. But she isn’t one to misplace her sense of proportion.
For years, Raj was celebrated with not more than a passport-sized photo in newspapers. She understands anonymity because she has lived in it. But she isn’t one to ignore her responsibility to her sisterhood. Which is why, as she is penning down her autobiography, she doesn’t want to leave anything unsaid.
“It is definitely going to be an open book. I’m not someone to restrict myself,” Raj says.
With this book, Raj wants yank the veil down to give us a peek into the making of a women’s cricketer.
“I’ll definitely put down everything I have experienced as a women’s cricketer even the basic things and the normal things that a player experiences. Lot of people feel that politics happen only with them and they give up. But politics happens with everybody but at different levels, there is no exception to it. There will be challenges and things that have really tested and shaped me as a player and as a person. All these things I will be putting into the book.”
Her book, published by Penguin India, will hit the stores in 2018.
Raj had little interest in cricket as a child. In her younger years, she trained to display her footwork as a Bharatnatyam dancer.
Dorai, an officer with the Indian Air Force who later joined the Andhra Bank, took Mithali to the St John’s coaching camp in Secunderabad, where her brother was coached, when she was 10.
“Women’s cricket from the beginning didn’t have that a following. People never knew about women’s cricket. Barely couple of them Shantha Rangaswamy or Diana Edulji. Then there was a huge gap,” she recalls.
“When I started playing in the 1990s, my dad wanted this for me. He is the one who pushed me into sports who pursued that I become a professional cricketer. So it was his aim that I become an Indian cricketer.”
Much of this was done to get her to rise early. Soon Jyothi Prasad, former Hyderabad pacer, who saw potential in Mithali, asked Dorai to focus on Mithali. However, Mithali had to be shifted to Sampath Kumar’s tutelage at Keyes School from St John’s because the latter was an all boys’ camp.
“For me, it was more important that coming from a middle-class family where my parents have really sacrificed a lot to make me a professional cricketer, I didn’t want all their sacrifices to go in vain. So only to see that my dad is happy with my performance, I’ve always gone out to perform,” Raj says.
Kumar was convinced that Mithali would go on to play for India and tumble records even when Dorai found it hard to believe. Soon Mithali would be named among the probables in the 1997 World Cup when she was just 14. The selectors, at the time, were unsure of blooding such a young player.
Two years later, she would score an unbeaten century on debut. Mithali hasn’t looked back since.
“I then started slowly perform for India. In all the years, it never occurred to me that my performance is not being appreciated or I’ve never had this feeling that people only follow men’s cricket because I know for a reason that matches are not televised, and we were not under the BCCI. There was no visibility for women’s cricket so how will people know? So I’ve never had that sad feeling that our achievements have gone unnoticed. Yeah, things have changed now. “
“For me the motivation has always been to make my parents happy. That is the biggets motivation. Even today I feel that my performance has to be endorsed by my dad. For me that has always been there from the beginning.”
She would soon represent Railways playing with Purnima Rau, Anjum Chopra and Anju Jain for Air India, whose records Raj has surpassed.
In 2004, Raj became the youngest captain of the Indian cricket team. Since then, she has led the team in three World Cups, for over 100 matches, maximum by an Indian woman. Recently she sat atop the ICC ranking table.
She has led the team to three Asia Cup victories (between 2005 and 2008), led India to their best run in the World Cup (runners-up in 2005), and also led the side to their first-ever Test and series victory in England.
But despite her stretching boundaries and breaking new ground for a major part of her career, she sat on the periphery of public consciousness. In fact, she was taken aback when she won Padma Shri after being pitted against Virat Kohli in 2015.
Worse, she and her counterparts get quizzed about things that have very little to do with their game. Like on the eve of the Women’s World Cup, Raj was asked about her favourite male cricketer when she was at the opening dinner and media roundtable event.
And her refrain grabbed a lot of eyeballs.
“Do you ask the same question to a male cricketer? Do you ask them who their favourite female cricketer is?” she said to the journalist. “I have always been asked who’s your favourite cricketer but you should ask them who their favourite female cricketer is.”
Even today, a major chunk of the narrative about a female athlete or the questions she gets asked revolve around her physique, outfit, gender stereotypes, etc. Their achievements too are always qualified with gender in front of it.
Like at the Wimbledon when a reporter told Andy Murray that Sam Querrey was “the first U.S. player to reach a major semi-final since 2009” after the American had defeated the Scott earlier that day, Murray was quick to interject and add that Querrey was the first “male player”. It is not a piffling trivia that the reporter forgot. Among his four overlooked athletes was Serena Williams, who had won 12 Grand Slams since 2009.
Whatever the reporter was – coy, lazy – she told him that she wouldn’t have any of it because it reeked of a double standard that has plagued sports coverage for years.
This is why kids wrapped in ambition and innocence and those who endorse to the archaic idea of patriarchy need to know about her expedition, for she will cuts through their idea of convention.
On the field, Raj goes about her job wearing the calmness of a skilled surgeon, revealing little of the fire that burns within her. At the World Cup, during the first match against the hosts, moments before walking out to bat, she was seen nonchalantly flicking the pages of The Essential Rumi, in total zen.
“I started reading books very early in life and I do that even before going into batting,” she says.
Moments after she was caught reading a book, she had to turn the game face on, which she did. When her turn arrived, she slammed a match-winning 71 off 73 balls helping India post a competitive 281.
“Wilbur Smith and Matthew Reilly are among my favourite authors. I like reading fantasy novels like The Demigod Diaries by Rick Riordan, The Aryavarta Chronicles, When the Road Beckons by Ravi Manoram, Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer.”
Raj and co. are a completely modernised team, and have shown the world that they belong in fast-paced version of limited overs cricket.
“Initially when I started, there was no fitness at all. We just used to run one round, do basic stretches and 90% of your training is only on skills,” she recalls.
“From there it has come to a point today where my skill training is maybe 40% but the remaining 60% is my fitness. I’m at a stage where I have to maintain my fitness levels and strengths. If I’m fitter, it will only enhance my game. Earlier, when you’re in the early twenties you’re young, and it was more of endurance, the emphasis was more on running. And now we have more strength so your muscles are toned enough to take the load.”
On Jul 23, 2017, playing under grey clouds that constantly threatened to dribble rain, in front of a packed Lord’s with 26,500 tickets sold, the most for women’s cricket at the venue, India appeared on the cusp of something special.
It was the World Cup final and they were coasting in their chase of 229 against the hosts. India’s road to the final was a rollercoaster – it involved games of sheer dominance, a slump for two games followed by two emphatic wins at the knockout stages.
England had done it three times before – 1973, 1993 and 2009. Raj’s India had condemned the tournament hosts to a 35-run defeat in Derby a month before.
But this is not the first time Raj has led the team into the final. Back in the 2005 World Cup, riding on her unbeaten 91 in the semifinal against New Zealand, India had made to the final against Australia.
Except this time millions of people had tuned in back home, and a shroud of blue had collected at the ground to cheer the girls on. And every gesture, from Raj kicking back with a book to Harmanpreet Kaur admonishing her colleague after a mix-up, caught unprecedented attention.
Steering India towards the target were Kaur, who had scored an unbeaten 171 off 115 balls in the semifinal knocked Australia out, and Punam Raut. Earlier, Raj gave up on a run sooner than she should have and was dismissed for 17 off 31 balls.
Kaur and Raut took India side to 138 for two. It appeared that a stream of aggression has sprung to life inside these girls, and they were going to do it for their captain, who, to borrow from what Virat Kohli had to tell about Sachin Tendulkar after the 2011 World Cup final, has “carried the burden of the nation” for 18 years.
Even after Kaur’s fall, India were perched comfortably at 191 for three in 42.5. They needed 38 runs with seven wickets in hand.
What unravelled then is possibly one of the cruelest sights in sport. After doing most of the climb, India panicked at the sight of the summit. Promise quickly devolved into hope and soon into prayers. At one point, unsettled by a defeat she knew was stalking her team, Raj buried her face in her hands.
“There is no hiding place,” Boris Becker famously remarked as he watched a helpless Marin Cilic burst into tears at this year’s Wimbledon final. From an alluring, almost-there place, Raj watched her team’s getting bowled out for 219 in 48.4 overs. England held the trophy aloft for a record fourth time.
A popular saying goes, “No one remembers who came in second.” But the frenzy that accompanied the girls’ homecoming told a different story. On July 26, 2017, when the girls arrived at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai at 3.45 am, they were in for a rousing reception. Young girls were dressing up as Mithali Raj by then.
Sport should be about theatre, where the artist, the puritan, the underdog, the rebel fight for relevance and a place in history while trying to tell a story. Its beauty transcends what can be captured by an unimaginative rows and columns.
Heartbreak or fairytale, enough had happened in the tournament for us to invest in this team. Not that it has wiped out sexism completely, but the significance of their performance, along with Dipa Karmakar, Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu’s in Rio, will resonate across the entire spectrum of women’s sport.
Women’s cricket and men’s cricket are the same and yet they are not.
As per the direction of the International Cricket Council (ICC) to have a single body to run cricket in a country, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) took over Women’s cricket administration (WCAI) in 2006. Considering, the amount of revenue Indian cricket generates, the girls would have hoped for a slew of changes. But the apathy continued, and at times, got worse.
Against the girls’ wishes, the BCCI cancelled the Under-16 tournament the WCAI had instituted.
Between 2006 and 2014, the women did not play a single Test match. When they finally did play one, they defeated England in their home soil, and then followed it up by beating South Africa in theirs.
The 2013 Women’s World Cup was restricted to just two venues – Cuttack and Mumbai – as opposed to the 1997 World Cup which was staged all over India.
While overexertion was a concern with men’s cricket until they adopted a rotational policy recently, the women are constantly seen bargaining for more matches.
Momentum is an integral part of the sporting vocabulary. Commentators and columnists alike reach out to that word to explain consistency – why a team continues its winning run, why a batsman seemingly unending purple patch and so on.
“People don’t really understand that it is so difficult to maintain the momentum when you play matches with a huge gap in between. Like each time we have a long gap, we’re starting right from the beginning again in a series.”
Starting all over, she does, series after series, and still averages more than 50 when two series are usually spaced six months apart.
“That is why I’ve always emphasised on continuity so that it will be easier for the players to continue their performance. And let’s say before the World Cup, we had the qualifiers and we had the quadrangular, so we had a tournament squeezed in so that we as players and as a team can play together, find our strategy and combination. The more the players play, the better the standards, and better the standards of the game we see on television,” she adds.
There is popular adage that goes, “The best place to hide a dead body is second page of Google”. Something that was not found even on the second page of Google or on the official BCCI website until recently were information and details about the team. Even now finding out where the girls are touring is not easy.
“Coming to international cricket, yes, the matches have to be televised, be it the South Africa tour or the Australia at home because that’s how people will continue to watch women’s cricket.”
“And there has to be a calendar. Because a lot of people ask me even today what’s next when are you playing. People don’t have any idea, so there has to be a calendar like how men’s cricket has.”
The BCCI has its task cut out when it comes to promoting women’s cricket in the country. For a board generating close to 70% of the sport’s global income, this shouldn’t be so hard.
“Everybody knows where men’s cricketers are touring but nobody knows about women’s cricket when we are playing next. And also the sport needs to be marketed like in case we’re playing a series, we should have more advertisements based on the coming series like how we have ads for the South Africa-India series this month, but you don’t get to see that for women’s cricket. So that’s something we need to look into,” Raj says.
Not all progress has been muted though. The last couple of years have seen steps in the right direction, but there is far to go before parity can be achieved.
In 2014, domestic ODI matches were increased from the existing four, to eight.
In 2015, 14 years after they had one in place for the men counterparts, the board announced central contracts for women. It was still a pittance – women in Grade A earn less (Rs.15 lakh) than men in Grade C (Rs.25 lakh), but it was a start. But the contracts expired in October 2016, and are yet to be renewed despite promising that it would after the South Africa tour in May. Meanwhile Cricket Australia proposed a Memorandum of Understanding for 2017-22 with a remarkable 125% increase in the retainers for Australia’s female cricketers under central contracts.
Last year, at the World Twenty20, both the men’s and women’s matches were played simultaneously. There was hardly any promotion around the women’s tournament, but for the first time ever they posed alongside the boys when the jersey was unveiled.
Winning is news, but news reports don’t prompt a 5-year old girl to pick up the bat, and take swipes like Harmanpreet Kaur. The board could stream matches on their official website or YouTube when a television broadcast is not available. A record 1.1 million tuned in from UK alone to watch the World Cup final between India and England. It might not be such a terrible idea to take the initiative.
The Australia Cricket Board broadcasts select domestic games, the Women’s National Cricket League, and the Women’s Big Bash League. New Zealand Cricket too live-streams matches played at home.
India is the only major cricketing nation without a defined pay structure for women, and yet whenever they’ve had an opportunity to speak up, Raj and co. have used the platform to bat for more exposure, better promotions, and a change at the grassroots level instead of better material rewards or longer contracts.
Talking about bringing change at the grassroots level, Raj says, “There are two setups that I see. One is of course the Indian team and the other is at a grassroots level. Because you need to have more players playing the sport so you’ll have more talent from where you can pick the best to represent the country. Now after the World Cup BCCI is giving importance to India A tours, Under 19, Under 16. Earlier they’ve never really given importance to the second string.
“If we get the young girls in school to start playing the sport because I do understand that everybody has this liking to play the sport. It’s just that when these young girls don’t get company to play, they get into other sports like badminton, tennis. Cricket is a team sport, you need at least a few members to play, which you get to see in boys, but normally you don’t get to see girls playing the sport. So there has to be an encouragement from the school level to have inter-schools, under-16, under-19.
Raj endorses the idea of girls and boys playing together during the initial stages where muscle isn’t the primary ingredient, and gender can be somewhat irrelevant.
“Boys and girls need to play at the school level. After a stage, obviously, yes, when the boys get to say under-16 level, they get stronger and stronger. So you cannot compete with them then or at the Ranji trophy level. They will be far ahead of us. But I have played a lot of my school games up until when I was 11-12 with the boys. I’ve played with [Ambati] Rayudu, [Tirumalasetti] Suman at the inter-school level.”
The BCCI can take a leaf out of Cricket Australia which has over the years treated the women on par with the men. The third season of Women’s Big Bash League (BBL) is already underway Down Under. But Raj thinks it might be too early for private league.
“If you come up with an IPL kind of a thing, you need to have a good pool of players. Right now the domestic standards is really not up to a level where you get the foreign players. You’ll find a very stark difference in both the standards. It might be a disadvantage when you’re starting a league.
The focus, she believes, should be in building a wider pool of players.
“If you have a wider range of players playing at the domestic level and the leagues then it will be better. Right now, I feel we still have a year or two before an IPL kind of league can start. Now, we only have a pool of 20 girls who are at a good standard. We cannot have an IPL league with that. We need a minimum of 50-60 players.”
Once that is done, she bats for a window so it doesn’t clash with the other leagues or the international schedule.
“Also it shouldn’t club with the international series. Dec-Jan is the Big Bash, July-Aug is the Kia League, so if you have to have foreign players playing Premier League here then it has to be at a time when there’s no international series so we have a good attendance from foreign and domestic players. If you’re going for a league, it should help the sport. It shouldn’t be like when people see it, they think it is not good enough. So when you start something, you rather start it small but start it well.”
We’ve woken up from decades of slumber to acknowledge that the women have overcome stifling conditions to get where they have. Patriarchy and gender biases have made the ceiling they are up against difficult one to shatter. Understanding this has finally led to many of us supporting the idea of women in sports.
If women’s cricket is on the cusp of a great leap, Raj deserves a fair share of credit for carrying it on her shoulders for well over a decade while wrestling an apathetic system. In forging her own path, she is clearing the way for those who come after her.
The sheer awareness that a path exists, leaves the mind clearer for the posterity. Not every girl will make it but many have started to dream.
An edited version of this interview/ piece first appeared on Knappily, the Knowledge App.