CHENNAI: Confined to her apartment in Secunderabad for more than two months, India women's ODI captain Mithali Raj admits that she had never felt so unsure about the future. The veteran struggled to cope initially when her morning routine, meal plans, sleep pattern and workout regimen got disrupted due to the nationwide lockdown.
But human beings are hardwired. In a pandemic characterised by uncertainty, instinct seeks for ways to survive. The 37-year-old, who retired from T20Is last year, channelled her energy to remain optimistic, worked on the fundamental aspects of training to keep her hunger for the upcoming 50-over World Cup alive. In a freewheeling chat, the highest run-getter in women's ODIs opens up on a variety of topics.
What's your routine like these days?
It has changed with the easing of the lockdown. The usual routine I've had over the years, to get up early and train, has started. Since last week, I've started going to the ground in the morning and it helps to get back into rhythm while preparing for future tournaments.
How challenging is this period of lockdown?
We are not used to being confined to our houses for a long period. As an active athlete, even though it is an off-season, we are usually on the ground, doing our fitness training. There were no months that went without us visiting the sporting arena. It was initially challenging because training at home was difficult because of the space constraint. It was important to be in touch with my trainer and physiotherapist because if we are not as active physically, in terms training or practising, a lot of things take a toll. I wasn't having proper sleep. The physiotherapist suggested a few techniques so that I could get quality sleep. The trainer helped me use things at home, like a chair, or a bucket of water, or two-litre water bottles, as substitutes for weights to train. My physiotherapist also shared breathing techniques. These things helped me get through this lockdown.
Would you say there is also an advantage of being in such a situation?
Everything has a flip side. It gave me time to work on fundamentals of training, on getting basic strength work in progress. Usually, we are pressed for time. If I have to work on a particular shot, I would do the drill. But during the season, I wouldn't get as much time to invest in that shot as I got during the lockdown. Because skill training was limited, I was able to work on a particular muscle to make it stronger. This was an advantage. These two months gave me time to spend with my parents who are aging. Having such a long career, I was constantly travelling and was pretty much a paying guest at home. I value this time because I was able to interact, spend more time, and have my meals with them.
Did having a good support system help you get through this phase?
These are difficult times, especially the initial phase of the lockdown. There is so much confusion everywhere. Having a family around is the best thing. I was lucky to be back home on time or else, I would have got stuck in New Zealand or Dubai. That would be a nightmare for parents and me. Emotional support is very important. Having my parents around helped me a lot.
Is it difficult to stay mentally fit during these times?
Sports, or being an athlete, is a small thing in comparison to what is happening around the world. It is difficult for all of us to maintain sanity. It is also natural to be scared or feel unsure. Even today, if you ask me about plans, I don't know. We don't know what we (will) face next week, how things are going to progress in the country or our city. Never did we feel so uncertain about our future. It's important to have faith and hope. That is something which I've used when felt low. I always had faith that things will get better and at some point, we will get through this. At the same time, be around for each other, not necessarily with respect to your family or friends alone. You can be around for your neighbour, for strangers. The entire human race is going through this. It is now that we reach out to people, be there for them, spread positivity and be optimistic that at some point we will get through this.
How hard was it to keep yourself motivated?
I wouldn't deny there were days when I woke up to 'Okay, you never know what is going to happen. How is this going to work or how the day's session is going to help me' thoughts. I don't know future plans, if we have any tours or games this year. But you need to have some goal to look forward to. That's what keeps the tribe going. I have my schedule in front of me, each time I get up in the morning there is something to look forward to. There are times when I have a goal of becoming fitter or lifting a particular weight. Let me work towards it. These things will motivate you, step by step, to again get close to your goal.
What is your personal mantra?
There are different ways one can get motivated at different phases in life. For me, reading helps. When you read, you come across characters that go through a tough time or indecisive moments. What they do, how they pull themselves out — that is something I relate to. If that character can do it, I will think let me try it and see where I reach. That is one way. I'm a lot into the fantasy genre. The books I read or the series I watch online are pretty much in these lines that some character or the other motivates you to pull yourself through the dark times.
I find ways to motivate myself. I have a notice board in my bedroom. Whatever I've read — proverbs or one liners — or I've listened to or seen, I pen it down. Every day, I make sure I go through those four-five times. It is a process and a habit. If you try and inculcate a habit of setting yourself motivated, that goes a long way.
Will sports have a changed look when it returns?
It will. But that is temporary. The day we find a vaccine, I'm sure we will get back to doing things the way we used to. Until then, there will be changes, keeping in mind what we need to protect ourselves and the people around us. It is important to follow guidelines of the government and health ministry to see that the sport is run but under proper rules. We have to accept that and train ourselves to play with these changed rules.
It will be risky to travel. But that is also not a way to live. We are social beings and it is required that we mingle around at some point. Following the guidelines, we will be able to do some normal things that we've been doing.
How do you view the ICC's decision to ban the use of saliva to shine the ball?
It is taken on the light of the current situation to contain the spread of the virus. It is intrinsic to the sport and saliva has been used to shine the ball. But it will take some time. That's very habitual for all of us. When the ball is passed, it is natural for a player at mid-off or mid-on to shine and give it to the bowler. I agree with the world body because we are looking at protecting the players and at the same time, trying to get the sports going.
How long do you think a player will take to come back after a long time away from cricket?
I don't know (laughs). We are yet to regroup and see where we stand in terms of physical training and where our skill is at the moment. It is an individual thing. Some people get back into form quickly. Some take a little longer. That's the case with every sport. It depends on when we regroup for formal training before we get into an event.
Will women's cricket take a back seat due to the pandemic, especially after the momentum generated by the T20 World Cup?
It is not restricted to women's cricket. It will be for every other sport. Sports thrives on fan-following. The more people come to watch, the more it will grow. There is a different experience of having fans around when you are playing. It will be different to playing in an empty stadium. As I'm one of the players to have played in empty stadia (for a long time), it will not be anything different. But yes, women's cricket has come a long way from the 1990s. There is huge viewership on television for the matches. For these few months, if we have to go back in time and play in an empty stadium, it is okay.
At the end of the day, you want the sports to continue and see that we are protecting ourselves and the people around us. Maybe, with matches being televised, it will probably lead to the sport at some level being watched. People will definitely watch live matches. For instance, I'm eager to watch the England-West Indies Tests and to see how well it is organised in these conditions. Sports overall will be a little hit without fans watching.
When do you see the women's IPL happening?
Clearly not this year. I guess, maybe in two years. As far as BCCI is concerned, they have taken the initiative to have a Challenger Trophy sort of tournament with three-four teams to get it going. At some level, franchisees also need to show interest in women's teams. Even if we have fewer franchises, make it more competitive, then we can grow like the WBBL (Women's Big Bash League). It started small and today, it is a full-fledged tournament. This is a good time to start. The team has done well in T20s in the last few years. It is time for the young girls in the domestic circuit to be given opportunities in the league to interact with international players. It will help the understanding of the sport and the standard of international cricket and lead to a professional set-up that leagues like these attract.
What is your assessment of India's bench strength?
BCCI has taken initiatives like India A tours and we had the Emerging Teams Asia Cup (last year). Now, the ICC is coming up with the U-19 World Cup. BCCI is investing in U-19 teams from every state and giving the players facilities which we have in the NCA (National Cricket Academy,) good support staff, experts like bowling and fielding coach. If you have a good India A or emerging team, where players go and gain exposure playing in Australia or Bangladesh, they will not take much time when they come to the national side. These things are already in place and working.
Recently, New Zealand skipper Sophie Devine endorsed the idea of having a smaller ball and shorter pitch as an experiment to attract crowds. How do you see that?
I feel you don't necessarily have to change the fundamentals. You can make changes like televising every series which is not happening in women's cricket. Maybe, 70 per cent of the matches are televised in England, Australia and India. But not the matches we play in South Africa, West Indies or Sri Lanka. That is something we need to look into. We are anyway playing with the five-ounce balls. Men play with balls that weigh five-and-a-half. I don't think you need to work into these things.
In the last four-five years, the ratio of hitting sixes has improved. The average speed at which a bowler bowls has increased from 110kmph to 128kmph. Why would you want to change those? I'm not for that but yes, I will look into having every series — bilateral or tri-series or an ICC event — be televised irrespective of where the teams play. That would be the start. If two channels televise women's matches across the globe, that itself is good enough.
If we are planning to change the size of pitch and ball, we have to do it from the domestic level. There will be a lot of changes to adapt to.
When do you see all women's matches being televised?
I don't know. When it comes to bilateral series, it is the home board that takes the initiative. We have Star Sports covering all our home series. Similarly, in England and Australia, Sky Sports does it. I don't know but these are the teams that have done well. When we went to New Zealand last year, all matches were televised. This increases the number of followers who want to see more of women's cricket.
For example, if we host Australia at home and matches are televised, and for the next series, if we go to the West Indies and matches are not televised, even as a media person, for you to write about the series that's happening in the West Indies, you don't have a live match. All you have to bank on is online scoring. How much can you write on something with just the scores? Likewise, people can also frame a better opinion when they watch a match live.
In the wake of former Baroda women's coach and former India player Atul Bedade being axed on the ground of sexual harassment, do you think we have a safe and secure system where women can report such incidents without fearing about their careers?
It is related to different state associations. With the current situation, where equal opportunities are given and we speak about women's empowerment, there are a lot of institutions that are very open to understanding the goals of women and especially, in sports.
Is there enough awareness among players to speak up?
I guess, yes. Players speak up if they face this kind of situations. What I know about the state associations is they take a lot of interest in seeing that the players are comfortable with who they are with. At the end of the day, if you have a good rapport, that is what reflects on the ground and performance. I feel one particular incident should not be generalised. As an Indian Railways player, for years we had a male coach and a male manager. But we never faced anything like this. What has happened was unfortunate. A lot of associations probably have some system in place for these kind of things.
Where do you think India stands with regards to the next World Cup?
If not for the pandemic, we are a good team in one-dayers. We've done well in the ICC Championship. We pretty much won all the series except for against Australia. With the kind of confidence that some of the girls, who are also part of the T20 team that did well in the T20 World Cup, the team looks promising. With the lockdown, the 2021 World Cup is quite open. It all boils down to how teams come out of the current situation, how they train, and how quickly they adapt and get into preparing themselves.
How many matches or series would you prefer the team to play before the World Cup?
I can't speak about that (the number of matches we will get to play) because it has got to do with the BCCI and it is not just them showing interest but the other boards also showing interest to try and accommodate the series. It depends on the boards, how they are going to plan and structure the series before the World Cup.
With the next World Cup being your last, where do you see yourself after March 2021?
I don't know where I see myself after a month (laughs). As I said, right now I'm motivating myself only to prepare for the 2021 World Cup. It will be my last World Cup, not my last international outing. Let's see what avenues open up after the tournament for me to give it a thought.