At the age of 10, a girl passionate about classical dance was taken to the cricket coaching camp by her father. The intention was to change the habit of the late riser. She hardly had any interest in cricket but eventually became the legend of the game. She is Mithali Raj, fondly called Mithu. The 14-year old girl who was one of the probable names for India in 1997 World Cup has recently completed 20 years of international cricket recently.
Mithali debuted in India’s very first match since the 1997 World Cup. At the age of 16 years and 250 days when she scored 114 runs against Ireland, became the youngest female centurion. That century also made her the fourth female cricketer to achieve the feat after Enid Bakewell, Lynne Thomas, and Reshma Gandhi. It was also the third highest score by a woman cricketer on ODI debut. The former names are Enid Bakewell (134), Lynne Thomas (101) and Reshma Gandhi (101). Reshma Gandhi hit her ton in the same match before Mithali. Their partnership of 258 runs was the highest ODI partnership in the history of Indian women’s cricket at that time. The interesting part is that Bakewell and Lynne also became the debutant partners in 1973.
On February 1, 2019, the 36-year old lady became the only woman cricketer in the history of the game to appear in 200 ODI matches. She surpassed Charlotte Edwards who has 191 appearances. Mithali has played 203 matches till now to score 6720 runs with seven hundred and 52 fifties. She is also leading the chart of most runs in one day cricket by a woman cricketer in her career. The contemporary cricketer closest next to her on the list is Sarah Taylor who has 4447 runs in 120 ODIs.
Her consistency throughout these twenty long years is what makes her a true icon. Mithali played 74 consecutive innings between 2000 and 2007 without scoring a duck. Thus she broke another record by Australia’s Karen Rolton. 109 consecutive matches between 2004 and 2013 played by her is the longest by any woman cricketer in one day cricket. Her flexibility has made her bat comfortably at every position from 1 to 9. She registered seven consecutive 50s in 2017 World Cup which was yet again another record.
She became India’s youngest ODI captain at 21 years and 94 days. In the last fifteen years, she has captained Indian cricket team in 126 matches. Under her, India reached new heights. It was her captaincy that helped India reach two World Cup finals in 2005 and 2017. Indian team won three Asia Cups under Mithali Raj. In those 126 matches, she scored 4234 runs at an average of 55.71. In fact, her highest ODI knock of 125 runs came during the same period. This clearly shows that captaincy was never an obstacle for Mithali. Moreover, it took the best out of her.
Mithali is currently the fifth highest scorer in Twenty 20 cricket. Although she has been criticized often and termed unsuitable for this format, she shut her critics with 2364 runs in 89 matches. In fact, her average is the best among the first ten in the list.
Unfortunately, Mithali Raj could play only 10 test matches. But that handful of matches saw her scoring 663 runs at an average of 51 and hitting a gutsy 214 against England in Taunton. No wonder, the history of test cricket lost a very promising cricketer.
But Mithali’s career has a major impact on Indian women and society which these numbers cannot express. Mithali with her decision of playing cricket didn’t only change the course of her own life but she became one of the prolific reasons for women’s cricket popularity in India. She is the reason that a number of young girls today in a sub-continent want to pursue cricket even after knowing about the unequal competition with the men’s version. The initial days of these 20 years were probably the toughest for Mithali. Getting acceptance in the world of this male-dominated game was a long battle. But she came, saw and conquered. She took it all on her to play for India, to make this platform equal for female cricketers with her performance. She gave a sense of freedom that mere numbers cannot validate.
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