Mithali Raj: The pioneer who smashed stereotypes with her bat
It’s already been two days since the Indian batting legend, Mithali Raj, announced her retirement from international cricket, but the inundation of warm wishes continues to flow across social media platforms with the same intensity.
While most of the people extending these warm wishes to the batting maestro know ‘Mithali Raj – the batter’, who boasts numerous staggering records, they, unfortunately, haven’t had the opportunity to learn about ‘Mithali Raj – the trailblazer’, who blazed a trail that the modern-day youngsters have trudged upon to fulfill their dreams.
Mithali ‘the wind of change’ Raj
Today women’s cricket has reached a stage wherein it is slowly getting commercialised. From the proliferation of several T20 leagues around the world to substantial coverage in mainstream media, things have changed drastically in the last decade or so. Players are given world-class facilities and tournaments like ‘The Hundred’ aim to bring gender parity into the sport.
But it wasn’t the same a couple of decades ago. Cricket back in the 80s and 90s and even during the first decade of the 21st century was mostly focused on the men’s game and there was hardly anyone who bothered to bat an eyelid towards the issues that plagued women’s cricket.
Cricket, unlike many other sports, has always been headlined by men and that reflects in some of the jargon and terminologies associated with it.
Since its inception, it has been commonly referred to as a ‘Gentleman’s Game’. Terminologies such as batsman, Man of the Match, Man of the Series, Third man among others don’t provide it a gender-neutral tone.
Raj will go down in history as one of the few players who changed the gender-related connotations of the game. Having spent most of her cricketing career during days when cricket was all about the men’s game, Raj was that flag bearer of the women’s game in India who wasn’t only battling on the field to score runs and win games for her country but was also tirelessly trying to break gender stereotypes.
She played during the era when women’s cricket was governed by The Women Cricket Association of India and there were hardly any amenities provided even to the players playing at the national level.
In an interview to ESPNcricinfo, Raj had briefly touched upon the challenges that she faced as a youngster and how things have drastically changed over the years.
“Sometimes, I look back on my career, I remember the time when I used to travel by train as a teenage cricketer. A 16-year-old travels by flight today. And it feels great to see such changes and so many other changes having come in the women’s game over these past 21 years. I am grateful I am still part of that change that women’s cricket is seeing, especially in India, and I hope I live to see the day when people acknowledge men’s and women’s cricket equally.”
Former India cricketer, Snehal Pradhan, once during an interview with Kass Naidoo, shed light upon the struggles the women’s team had to endure before BCCI took over women’s cricket in 2006.
“Those were days when we would travel unreserved in trains. We would all sleep in dormitories. 15 girls sharing one washroom. We would play on grounds where there wasn’t a blade of grass, where we had to organise drinking water, which was one of the biggest struggles. Those were days of very different lines of fights and then we had to perform. Completely amateur.”
Raj’s longevity can be understood by the fact that as many as 81 Indian cricketers donned the Indian jersey after her ODI debut. While many of Raj’s contemporaries failed to put up with the challenges and bid adieu to the game, Raj remained engaged in the struggle and didn’t throw in the towel.
Batting for women’s cricket even off the field
Raj never shied away from giving befitting replies to those who tried to undermine the women’s game or held female cricketers as subordinates to their male counterparts.
On the eve of the ICC 2017 World Cup, Raj was attending the opening dinner and media roundtable event along with the other captains. The event was also attended by several journalists. One of those asked a question that riled the then India skipper and she didn’t abstain from delivering a befitting response.
The journalist asked who her favourite men’s cricketer was between India and Pakistan to which Raj responded by saying, “Do you ask the same question to a male cricketer? Do you ask them who their favourite female cricketer is?”
“I have always been asked who’s your favourite cricketer but you should ask them who their favourite female cricketer is.”
A legacy that transcends generations
Raj’s illustrious career has seen the painstaking development of women’s cricket in the country. When she made her debut for the Indian team in 1999, a very small chunk of our country’s population was aware of the existence of women’s cricket.
On one hand, Raj rubbed shoulders with some of the game’s most renowned superstars like Belinda Clark, Cathryn Fitzpatrick, and Charlotte Edwards among others. Most of her contemporaries had already called time on their respective careers while she was still going strong.
On the other hand, she also shared the dressing room with players like Jemimah Rodrigues and Shafali Verma, who were not even born when Raj was already taking international cricket by storm.
Raj played most of her cricket during the days when women’s cricket was hardly televised and hence most of us got robbed of the opportunity to see her graceful stroke-play in the middle. Her performances created ripples intense enough that they inspired multiple generations of Indian cricketers to take up the sport.
Cricket is a dream and when I started off my career I had no idea that women’s cricket existed but the only name ever told or heard was yours @M_Raj03 Di. You sewed the seed for all the young girls to take up this sport and dream big. Wish you the best in life. pic.twitter.com/pWZ9UHcKN3
— Harmanpreet Kaur (@ImHarmanpreet) June 8, 2022
You were an inspiration to me and many others !! @M_Raj03 thank you for everything you have done for Cricket in general !!! I was fortunate to have played alongside you and it’s been an absolute pleasure to share the dressing room !! G.O.A.T #legend #goat #cricket pic.twitter.com/wHSBbAPBaI
— Veda Krishnamurthy (@vedakmurthy08) June 8, 2022
— Jemimah Rodrigues (@JemiRodrigues) June 9, 2022
Congratulations on a great career @M_Raj03 di. One of the best to take the field. Thank you for inspiring generations of girls to persue the game. I feel myself lucky to have shared the field with you. All the best for the second innings #legend #MithaliRaj
— Harleen Kaur Deol (@imharleenDeol) June 8, 2022
Although Raj has hung her boots, the seeds of change that she sowed during her 23-year-long journey are a big reason why now, a girl dressed in whites, carrying a cricket kit, scampering towards a cricket ground, is not frowned upon and is rather greeted with a smile.