Mithali's lonely journey

Mithali's lonely journey
At a tender age of 16 years and 205 days, Mithali Raj became the youngest centurion in the history of women’s ODIs. More than 18 years have passed since that unbeaten 114 against Ireland on her debut and the record stands rock solid, as does Mithali who remains India’s most trusted batswoman.

The 34-year-old, one of the finest willow wielders to ever grace the women’s cricket, has been the sturdiest flag-bearer for eves’ cricket in India. In a cricket-crazy country where male cricketers are treated like demigods, she has managed to carve a niche for herself through her unparalleled exploits with the bat despite women’s cricket being deprived of patronage from both the administrators and the public alike for a long period. 

 The Indian skipper further embellished her already glittering career by becoming the first women cricketer to score 6000 ODI runs during her course of 69 against Australia in the ongoing World Cup in England. The celebrations were somewhat muted as India went on to lose the match but the significance of the milestone can’t be lost on anyone. Just a few weeks ago in South Africa, Mithali’s long-time team-mate and medium pacer, Jhulan Goswami, had become the highest wicket-taker in women’s ODIs. And considering that women’s cricket in India has caught the attention of media and public only recently, Mithali and Jhulan’s achievements are quite exemplary.  
The two veterans, who are more towards the end of their proud careers than the beginnings, have done more than anyone else to raise the profile of the women’s game in India. Today, India can boast of a handful of talented women cricketers but for the longest of times, Mithali, almost alone, carried the weight of the Indian batting on her shoulders. The Indian captain for over a decade now, Mithali opened up about her batting after her 114-ball 69 failed to stop Australia from running roughshod over India the other day. 

 Mithali appeared to have found some meaty performers to give her the freedom to bat the way she always wanted to, and play the shots she had practiced and perfected. The likes of Smriti Mandhana, Harmanpreet Kaur, Veda Krishnamurthy, Punam Raut, among others, have shown their potential over the last couple of years but inconsistency has held them back from reaching the next level. In this World Cup, India reeled off four consecutive wins on the strength of Smriti and others’ swashbuckling displays but since then their performance has seen an alarming dip. It’s been once again Mithali who has had to shoulder the burden of anchoring and accelerating the innings.  

 “Obviously when you have a long career, there are bound to be lots of ups and downs” Mithali said after India’s loss to Australia that put their semifinal chances in jeopardy. “But one thing that has always been constant is the burden that I have carried all through my career. I felt that somewhere if I had few more batters to support me, maybe my game would have been much better. Even coming into the World Cup, considering how the team has been performing in the last two years, I felt it was the right time for me to elevate my own batting standards. But again it has come back to the same phase where me being in the middle gives a lot of confidence to the other batters, and it keeps the dressing room confident,” she explained.

 Mithali has no doubt that it’s because of this responsibility that she has not been able to enhance her batting as much as she wants to. Like a true leader who puts the team before self, Mithali has sacrificed her personal glory so that the group benefits. Against Australia when she went at a strike rate of just over 60 runs per 100 balls, it was not because of want of ability to score quickly but because the situation demanded so.  

“Punam (Raut, the opener who scored a century in that match) did tell me, ‘you stay there.’ She feels confident when I’m around. If not for myself at least for a batter scoring runs, I need to be around. Because of that partnership we had a few more runs in the end. Had we lost my wicket, the whole responsibility would be on the middle order, which hasn’t been performing. I knew that I was taking a lot of time in the middle, but I was in a situation where I need to (stop) feeling bad that I’m taking many balls to get those runs. That was what the team required me to do, even (though) as a batter I wouldn’t have done that,” she offered.

Having accumulated over 6000 runs from 184 ODIs at an average of over 51, Mithali’s place among greats in women’s cricket is guaranteed. While it’s a tribute to her longevity that she is the most reliable Indian batter even in the autumn of her career, her younger team-mates would do well to take a cue from her. Mithali Raj got past Charlotte Edwards' tally of 5992, the previous highest ODI aggregate, in 16 fewer innings.

Mithali’s average of 51.52 is significantly higher than Edwards' 38.16.

Mithali also became the first player to complete 6000 runs in women's ODIs.

Along with Australia's Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry, Mithali is the only other player to have an average of above 50 among players with 1500-plus runs.

Mithali averages 75.72 runs in India’s wins, the highest among players with 500-plus runs in wins. She also averages 65.07 when chasing and 109.68 in successful chases.

Mithali’s nine fifties in ODIs this year are the joint highest 50-plus scores in a year along with Ellyse Perry. In 12 innings this year, Mithali has scored 621 runs at an average of 77.62.

At 16 years and 205 days, Mithali is the youngest centurion (114 not out on her debut in 1999) in the history of women's ODIs.

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