It’s been 23 years since a 16-year-old Mithali Raj ran away to open the innings for India against Ireland. An undefeated debut hundred in Milton Keynes set an early milestone, and as the years went on, Raj dominated women’s cricket like few before and less since she started. The Indian skipper, the all-time highest ODI scorer in women’s cricket, and also the only woman to have played more than 200 ODIs – the total stands at 220 – is heading to possibly her last World Cup, with the fires still burning brightly.
For Raj, 39, this is as much a time to step back and reflect as it is to lead a young group to the blue-riband event. Having witnessed the sluggish progress of the women’s game in the country, her illustrious career is not defined by record numbers alone.
Sitting next to head coach Ramesh Powar in what could be her last pre-departure press conference, a bespectacled Raj looked back on her toil with pride.
“It has been a long journey with many highs and lows. I’ve had my fair share of battle. I think my career has come full circle. The first World Cup I played was in New Zealand (2000), where we played the semi-finals. After all these years I’m here, ready to fly for my sixth World Cup, again in New Zealand,” she said on Sunday.
India, which has not yet won a World Cup, came close to lifting the trophy twice. They played the final in South Africa in 2005 and, more famously, in England in 2017. There were also two semifinals (1997, 2000), meaning the team reached the final four in three of Raj’s World Cups.
“I hope to play the final and win, because winning a World Cup is always special for every cricketer, and I am no different. It’s something that has been driving me since I played my first World Cup and it still drives me always,” she said.
India’s last ODI series was in September when they lost 1-2 to Australia. While the team scored 250 runs in two of the three games, the batting frequencies of some batters were questioned. Raj brushed the worries away.
“I think too much importance is attached to the success rate. In that Australian series itself, if you’ve seen Beth Mooney, she scored her 50 in 80 balls but played a match-winning innings for her team,” said the skipper, referring to the Australian opener’s 133-0 unbeaten run. ball 125.
“I believe cricket is played on situations. If we need to score 250-270, we need to have a healthy success rate. That said, we won’t just focus on that. It’s important to play an innings to win and to build partnerships, and it’s not because of hitting percentage, but because you sign up and play according to the situation. Sometimes you have to play fast, but sometimes you have to play to get your team out of the hole.”
She emphasized that the top order must be fine.
“It’s important that one of the best hitters takes responsibility for hitting through the innings. There must be a partnership or two of 50 runs or more to score 250-270. It is rare for the middle or lower middle order to score the majority of the runs. It is important that as a battle unit we all take responsibility for playing our part,” she added.
India will play six limited-overs matches in New Zealand, starting with the lone T20I on February 9. The five-match ODI series kicks off on February 11. They will begin their World Cup campaign against Pakistan at Bay Oval in Mount Maunganui on March 6. .