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Mithali Raj opens up about life after retirement and her rich legacy

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Former Indian women’s cricket team captain Mithali Raj said goodbye to cricket last week after a 23-year long cricket career. She stepped down as the leading run-scorer in women’s international cricket. Apart from her “Bradman-esque” contributions to women’s cricket, she will be remembered for all she has done to mainstream the women’s game in India. Mithali spoke exclusively to NDTV. Here’s a piece

Rika: Mithali, half your life you have been in camps and packing your bags. Has it sunk in that there are things you may not have to do anymore?

Mithali: I think my routine has definitely changed. I no longer need to wake up early in the morning and plan my day or plan a week or prepare for the next series. In that sense, yes, life has slowed down a bit and there is time for a lot of other things which I could not pursue when I started playing cricket.

Rika: Do you have any plans to go back to Bharatnatyam?

Mithali: I don’t know, maybe I can try it, but right now I haven’t really thought much about going back to dance. It’s been a long time since I switched from dance to cricket, but when it comes to reading, sketching, these are some of the things I’ve enjoyed over the years, but don’t want to invest in those things. Never got much time. So maybe I’ll try to take them up as a hobby.

Rika: Mithali, at what point did you think it was the right time to leave a career spanning 23 years? Was it after the defeat in New Zealand?

Mithali: No, when it came to my retirement, I was very clear a few years back that the World Cup would be my song. There were a few interviews in which I already mentioned this.

I needed to deal with the feeling of disappointment from the last match in the World Cup. And I didn’t want to get overwhelmed and make any decision, especially something so big. I had to take some time off to deal with it. Then I went to the T20 domestic tournament. I felt that I did not have the kind of intention and passion that has taken off over the years. I never missed a domestic, but this time I didn’t feel the right kind of emotion to go on the field. I didn’t play domestically and thought it was time to make my retirement official. But, it was on my mind for a few years. It was just a matter of accepting it and dealing with it, and then maybe making it official.

Rica: Now that you have finished your career, if you want to sit down and watch your innings, which matches would you like to watch again.

Mithali: I think those all-important innings could be the 2017 World Cup. I have had some really good innings. In the 2009 World Cup, I remember 40 odd runs scored against Australia, which was a match-winner. It’s unfortunate that I don’t have some of my best innings because it wasn’t broadcast then, so we didn’t even have videos about it. But yes, these are some innings that I would have liked to see.

Rika: Mithali, on the mountain of your ODI record. What is lost is your 214 in Test cricket – the highest score by a female Test cricketer. Do you have a recording of this?

Mithali: I don’t have a recording of it, it’s just the memories that I have, and my own teammates who have been around tell me something. That’s why we remember it from their perspective. They tell me how they found my innings, that is, what is in my innings of 214.

Rika: I wonder about you time and again that you played more cricket than Sachin Tendulkar, averaged as much as Dhoni in ODIs, your win percentage as a captain is higher than Sourav Ganguly. I ask you which is your favorite Mithali Raj statue?

Mithali: You only asked me a question for which I was not prepared. I think it would be good to score 7000 runs in ODIs.

Rika: And you have 10,000 international runs in total. Taking India to the 2017 World Cup final held in England must have been special. When you were going out for the toss at Lord’s, emotions were running high. Can you tell us about your feelings that day?

Mithali: In 2017 we created a buzz in India from the very first game. We didn’t know much about the domestic reactions in England. This was because social media was very new at that time and I am not someone who is very active or addicted to social media. So even at that time I didn’t know much about getting on Twitter. We played well, when we reached the final I thought we got another chance to popularize the game in India.

In 2013, India had hosted the World Cup before that, we could not qualify for the Super Six. When we reached the final of the 2017 World Cup, I told the girls that I think we have a shot at making the game big in our country. But then I knew that most of them were not part of the 2005 World Cup. It was the first final and everyone was nervous. It was a different experience for me. I was going for the toss in the packed stadium at Lord’s.

I played a lot before but didn’t pack like that day, and when you guys shout and you know when they’re drumming, you create that kind of excitement. I always want to play once in my life. You know, when I started, I wanted to feel that atmosphere and I felt it in the 2017 World Cup.

Rika: It was a hair-raising moment. Would you say this was a turning point for Indian women’s cricket?

Mithali: It was definitely one of the most important curves in women’s cricket overall. Globally also I would say, the viewership and the events that followed increased. This helped move the game forward.

Rica: Mithali, what do you think will be the next biggest turning point for women’s cricket in India? Will it be winning the ICC trophy or the women’s IPL?

Mithali: I think, World Cup trophy in any format, be it T20 or day one, all Indian cricketers are working. We know that an ICC event trophy can do wonders for the sport. You know, we’ve made a lot of impact, despite being just a step away from there.

I think what will definitely change things is the introduction of women’s IPL. This can help build a strong pool of players. It may take a few more years. I wouldn’t say from the outset that you know what the first year women’s IPL will be like, you know, help the team. But maybe in 2-3 years’ time from the start of women’s IPLK we will see many potential players because every Challenger Trophy has seen Shefali, Kiran’s. So once the women’s IPL starts you can come across more such stories and see how men’s IPL has helped in the growth of men’s cricket in our country. I am sure that in the same way it will boost the growth of women’s cricket in our country.

Rika: Talking a little bit more about your career Mithali, I have seen you from 2005 to early 2015. Those years were spent in apathy and perhaps even despondency. What did you have to do to motivate yourself?

Mithali: There are two factors. When you wear jersey, when you are playing for India, you cannot think of putting less than your 100%. That’s why it has always inspired me. I know that people have so many hopes, so many people’s wishes are supporting me. There are many people who played a role in shaping me as a cricketer and I cannot let them down.

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When I represent India in big events, I have millions of expectations. So for that, if I’m to live up to those expectations, I shouldn’t be below my 100% every time I hit the ground. This has been one of the biggest motivating factors. I never believed in mediocrity and it always pushed me to work harder.

Rika: If there’s one word I can describe the way you leave Indian cricket, it’s healthy. Do you have a word or sentence for this? I mean, you know, a lot of people are talking about your legacy.

Mithali: I think I am satisfied with where I am leaving the game.

Yesterday one of them asked me what will be your legacy? I never had the right answer for this, but I can say you know that when I first started, the way I was introduced to the game was in a special boys camp where I was the only girl. Then I had to change camp because they didn’t want to take girls and the same camp. Today we have around 60 to 80 girls who enroll every year and it was not common for a girl carrying a kit bag to walk on the street in those days. But in today’s time it is very common. People have accepted this and now it has become common to see girls playing cricket in the streets. Girls are enrolled in every academy. There are no exclusive boys or exclusive girls, but every academy is happy to enroll and train girls. So I think I leave the game in a good place and I’m very positive that you know it will only develop into a brighter spot from here on out.

Rica: I know you left behind a very happy dressing room. Now this is what I ask of you. Is there a youngster in the current Indian dressing room who embodies the energy of Mithali Raj?

Mithali: Well they are not. They belong to this generation. They are not like me. The minute they are taking a picture, they are already posting it on social media and I am two days late. So they say “Didi yaar aap deer dalte ho, tag toh karo,” (You put these posts so late, at least tag us). Some of them literally pull the handset from me and they post on my behalf and tag themselves. So they cannot be mine, they cannot be like me. But yes, I am trying to be like him.

Rika: Well it’s so sweet to say that you’re trying to be like him. Your life story will be out in theaters soon, played by Taapsee Pannu. What’s the best tip you’ve given him? Did you ask him to correct the cover-drive?

Mithali: I was busy with my international commitments when she was training. So I couldn’t really help her with her training. But I think more than helping him, I put pressure on him by telling him, better fix your game, cover-drive right. They are all going to see you. Maybe I put more pressure on him. But I think he did a great job. She is a very hard working actress. I am sure and positive that she will take up this role.

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