“23 years is a big career span and suddenly she is not going to be there”

Mithali Raj leading her troops © Getty Images

Mithali Raj announced her retirement from international cricket after an illustrious career of 23 years. The elegant batter started her cricketing journey back when women’s cricket hardly made it to the daily news and was at the forefront when India made a big splash during the seminal 2017 World Cup.

During the World Cup 2017, Raj went on to become the highest run-getter in ODI cricket, overtaking England’s Charlotte Edwards and by July 2021, no one had scored more runs than the India batter. But the 39-year-old’s legacy is not just about the numbers. Along with Jhulan Goswami, Raj was the face of modern women’s cricket in India and played a key role in the game’s development and its stature in India and across the globe.

Mamatha Maben, who played four Tests and 31 ODIs with Raj, said although we knew everything had to end someday, this felt like a sad day. “Today my heart feels heavy despite knowing that it had to end someday,” Maben told Women’s CricZone while reacting to the news of Raj’s retirement.

“A huge day of sadness, though we knew it was coming. Though we knew it had to end, we all were expecting some time it would end, but now that the day has come, the heart feels heavy. If you had to put this in one sentence, I would say my heart feels heavy.”

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It had to end someday, but for the followers of women’s cricket in India, it seemed like Raj has been around forever and most of the young fans haven’t seen an India squad without the legendary batter. Post the T20 World Cup 2018, her appearances in T20Is were sporadic and she eventually announced her retirement from the format in 2019, paving the way for youngsters like Shafali Verma.

Verma was 15 when she made her international debut and since then has also played with Raj in ODIs. Back in 1999, as a 16-year-old from Hyderabad, Raj made her India debut alongside Reshma Gandhi. Raj hit the ground running immediately, scoring a century in her first ODI and despite doing the same, Gandhi played only two international matches.

While Gandhi might have been unlucky not to play more matches, Raj’s longevity in the game is sometimes taken for granted. It’s not easy to play international cricket for 23 years, especially in the women’s game, with lots of starts and stops. It requires high levels of fitness to be able to be good enough to take the field in the international arena.

The 39-year-old rarely missed matches in the later stages of her career even as the demands of the game increased, one testament to this fact is that despite being a long-time deputy of Raj, newly named ODI captain Harmanpreet Kaur only had to take charge on five occasions in the format.

Jhulan Goswami on her longstanding relationship with Mithali Raj © Women’s CricZone

Soniya Dabir, who played for India from 2010 to 2014, talked about the little time she spent batting with her at the T20 World Cup in 2014.

“I rarely batted with her, but I remember this time when I walked to join her – during the T20 World Cup in Bangladesh (2014) – in the match against Pakistan. She was already there and she was so clear in her mind what the target we were trying to achieve was,” Dabir told this portal. “She was very clear in what she wanted out of you. Her mindset was always clear, that’s the most amazing thing I found about her.”

India went on to beat Pakistan in a close match thanks to Raj’s 39 and Dabir was the player of the match with figures of 3 for 14. Dabir added that more than the numbers, taking women’s cricket into the mainstream conscience is Raj’s biggest contribution.

“We will miss seeing her bat for the legend that she is. But whenever women’s cricket is being discussed and talked about, Mithali Raj has always been one of the biggest names. So I would say an era has ended,” Dabir added.

“She must have known when to take this call and maybe this is the right time she feels and it will be respected by everyone in the circuit, even though everyone will miss her.”

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23 years is a long time and as India look forward to building the present and future, they won’t have the calm presence of Raj in the dressing room. Dabir feels Raj has made sure to groom youngsters into taking up the role she played in the various teams she played.

“Like I said before, she might have been aware this day will come day and she has tried to groom players, especially for her domestic team (Indian Railways). This year they played without her (Raj featured in only one match in the absence of the season’s skipper Sneh Rana) and that seemed like an indication of this day,” Dabir said.

Raj, over the years, went from opening the batting to number three and then four and five to allow younger players to take up easier roles, while she controlled the middle phase. Raj didn’t have a great World Cup 2022 as India couldn’t make it past the group stage. It also marked the changed face of a fast-evolving game – the very evolution Raj contributed heavily to – and the elegant batter might have realised the time has come.

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“It’s going to be difficult. She was the anchor around which the entire batting revolved. There are emerging players who are taking up the responsibility. Initially, it will be difficult not to have that person in the dressing room and also in the middle.

Someone else will be taking that role of the anchor, but 23 years is a big career span and suddenly she is not going to be there. Definitely, her teammates are going to miss her and everyone else will also miss her,” Dabir concluded.

India will miss the experience of Raj, the game will continue to evolve and her numbers will be dissected and analysed in retrospect, but for a large part of its history, Raj was always there for India and that will be the her legacy.