On cricket, Melbourne & more with Indian crickter Mithali Raj

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From taking selfies at the MCG to playing with kangaroos, Indian cricketer Mithali Raj is enjoying the hospitality of Australia experiencing some of the best food and drink, wildlife encounters, adventure tours and world-class sporting venues. As guest of Tourism Australia, the former Indian skipper is on few cities’ tour. She says this is not a luxury she enjoyed earlier when she came to play matches here owing to the tight schedules of the games. Raj was particularly fascinated by the Caversham Wildlife Park in Perth. Melbourne holds a special memory as the Indian women’s cricket team won their first T20 series against Australia in 2016, reflects Raj. This time, Raj has had the opportunity to explore the lanes and bylanes of the city, enjoy the coffee shops and graffities that allure many a tourist. “Any art lover would enjoy the details of the art and, of course, any food lover would enjoy this city,” she smiles. G’day India caught up with the former Indian skipper, who holds the record for playing the maximum number of ODIs in women’s cricket. Excerpts.

Why did you retire from T20?
If I have to concentrate on 2021 World Cup, I thought it would be wise of me to quit one format to prepare myself for it. One Day International (ODI) has always been my format, Test has not been that frequent in women’s cricket – the last Test we played was in 2014. So, 2010 is my goal. Besides, players who have just started few years ago are very apt for this format because at the beginning itself they are taught how to go about the format. T20 came very late in my career but I gave it my all; I am content with the way I have played in this format and given my best-led India in a couple of T20 World Cups. I am now happy to move forward. Quitting T20 in fact gave me a lot of time to work on my ODI series, fitness and training. If I continue playing both, I will be taking a lot more stress. The decision to retire from T20 had nothing to do with any controversy as reported.

You have become the first woman cricketer to have an international career lasting more than 20 years. What do you attribute it to?
Honestly, I have never really thought I would get to play two decades of cricket. When I started playing, I just wanted to play one series and make my father happy, but that didn’t happen. I have always taken things year by year and never really planned long term. I always took World Cup to World Cup and there were times when I thought I would probably quit because of injuries and so on. Somehow things persisted and I always believed one has to be consistent in pretty much everything one does, not just in sports. Consistency is one of the primary factors for anybody doing well at a particular level.

When did you realise that you wanted to turn cricket into your profession?
My father was very keen that I turn into a professional cricketer. At a very young age, he put me into the sport unlike my teammates who have played in the backyard or with their elder brothers. I have never played that kind of cricket. I was put straightaway in a professional set-up, I was enrolled at an academy in Secunderabad where my brother used to play. I didn’t experience the joys of playing in the street, which is a common sight back home. So, the first time I held my bat was with the help of a professional coach.

How has the support and interest for women’s cricket changed in the past few years?
A lot has changed after it coming under International Cricket Council (ICC) and the respective boards in different countries such as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for us. In India and around the world, cricket is represented by these bodies and it makes sense to come under them because a lot of things have changed about cricket now. They also now discuss about women’s cricket, people watch women’s cricket on television and there are a lot of followers.
The growth of women’s cricket in India is immense because of which a lot of branding happens to the sport, to the players, and the way the parents take initiative to enrol young girls who show interest in cricket. When I started, I didn’t know the set-up about women’s cricket as I was a school-going kid who had never seen girls play sport as such. Today, a lot of academies are very open to accepting girls.
With the under-19 World Cup which ICC has just started, it gives a platform for the under-19 players to work towards a goal. Earlier it was just the One-Day World Cup but now with the T20 16-year olds can dream about representing the country in the under-19 World Cup. In the same manner, it will also strengthen the bench strength, and the second string players who will get exposure touring abroad. That’s the best part about being in the current generation and also the fact that you have access to the best facilities such as the National Cricket Academy with good physios and trainers. Take Smriti Mandhana, who got injured just before the World Cup but she recovered to be part of the tournament.

How long do you think you will be playing?
As of now, my goal is ODI World Cup 2021 in New Zealand. That would be my last World Cup, and something I am aiming at. We play the next One Day in British summer (June-July), then we probably have an Australia tour after that. Right now, preparations are on for the T20 World Cup. However, I will get a good two-three months of training, relax and reschedule my goals towards maintaining my form and my game and prepare my best for 2021.
I am a little content with the way women’s cricket is in today’s time. There are a lot of positive changes. I have seen the best and the worst of women’s cricket, and am fortunate in that sense to have experienced both. It is great to be challenged with the changing times.
Sometimes it is difficult, you need motivation and you need to push yourself. Sometimes, you don’t feel like getting off the bed but if you have a goal, you need to push yourself.
Since I have retired from T20, I don’t have the interest to be a part of a big-bash league but, yes, I do want to be a part of the IPL, if, at all it starts on that level. It is called the Challenger Trophy and it is of Indian origin so I would like to be a part of that.

How hopeful are you of winning ODI World Cup 2021?
As of today, we have a good side. We won pretty much all of our ICC championship series barring the Australia home series where we lost to Australia. On that basis, the team is good. But again, the preparation for the World Cup is very different, you would want your core to be in form. So we will see after the summer England tour how we are going forward.

Would you like to coach after full retirement?
I have not set my mind on a specific thing. I will see what all avenues open up once I quit. There are many options for women cricketers these days such as being a match referee, commentator, office bearer or being a mentor to the team. Let’s see what opens up and where I can add more value.

Can India’s favourite sport cricket ever go mixed?
I think I approve of this concept. You need to see girls and boys playing together. But when you see it at the international level, it is not practical because of the various factors that differentiate men and women. When it comes to the grassroot level and for young children, a boy should be comfortable playing with a young girl of the same age. That should not come as a surprise for people around or for them to question why a girl is playing with a boy. To get that kind of a concept and mindset in is definitely the way forward.

By Indira Laisram