CHENNAI: Late into the night skies of Christchurch on March 27, 2022, with the floodlights at Hagley Oval providing the spectators a sight to behold, a heartbroken Indian team walked off the field after their last-ball defeat against South Africa in their final league game of the 2022 ODI World Cup. Minutes after, Indian skipper Mithali Raj, as calm as she has always been, was there for the press conference as India had faced an early exit.
However, as queries started coming in, one after another, one could sense that beneath the calmness she was trying to portray, there was more. The hurt was evident. When asked about how she was feeling, “Honestly, right now I don’t have any emotions...” is what she had to say. Then came the dreaded question about her future, several times, structured in different forms.
While she tried to maintain her calm throughout, on that night, often her emotion was evident. After all, She had just fallen short of the World Cup dream — something she had been chasing for 22 years — in her final attempt. But as she walked away from the podium, one could sense that it would be the last time we were seeing her in Indian colours. When Mithali barely marked her presence in the Senior T20 League, and when she also did not feature in the Women’s T20 Challenge, that feeling only grew.
73 days after that press conference at Hagley Oval, Mithali announced her retirement from international cricket through a statement on social media. “I set out as a little girl on the journey to wear the India blues as representing your country is the highest honour. The journey was full of highs and some lows. Each event taught me something unique and the last 23 years have been the most fulfilling, challenging and enjoyable years of my life,” she said.
23 years. Just a year lesser than Sachin Tendulkar's career (who could forget that farewell Test match on his home ground). That’s how long Mithali served Indian cricket. She came into the scene when women’s sports was hardly professional, rose to the top as a world-class batter, lifting her team to greater heights along with her. As captain, she led them to their first World Cup final in 2005, saw the BCCI take over women’s cricket, reached the final again in 2017, and played alongside three generations of cricketers — among which at least one took up the sport watching her bat.
But it’s not just about longevity. For the better part of those two decades, Mithali was the best batter, not just in the country, but also in the world. With her long-time partner-in-crime, Jhulan Goswami, she carried Indian cricket on her shoulders for as long as she was a part of it. While some would argue that she perhaps stayed longer than she should have, which has its share of merits, Mithali scored more runs for India than any other batter in the last two years of her career.
What would be the legacy of such a cricketer, who has been a legend of not just the country but the sport itself? If one were to refer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Mithali Raj, as a batter, was the ‘Captain America’ figure of Indian cricket. She fought the hard battles when there were very few resources and rewards for the taking. She was the epitome of textbook batting, who could blunt bowling attacks, and also milk runs off them with a floppy hat, front foot stride, high elbow, and a free-flowing drive through the covers. And, she could do it all day.
That ability is what made Mithali the highest run-getter in the ODIs. 30-year-old Stafanie Taylor, the next active cricketer on the list, is 2507 runs behind her. As the game evolved, she did have her share of struggles catching up with the pace at which it moved forward, just like the comic figure did in the world of Iron Mans, Wandas, and Black Widows. But despite all that, she was true to herself, both on and off the field, blunting bowing attacks and scoring runs, often more than anyone else, for her country.
Purely as a cricketing figure, she was much more. Even at 39, she is the one everyone — from the 20-year-olds keen to break into the Indian team, and the ones in the late 20s and early 30s, who are on the fringes — looks up to. ‘If Mithali, at that age, could perform at the top level, why can’t we do it, too’ has been the unanimous feeling among cricketers in the domestic circuit.
But as Iron Man says in 'Avengers: End Game,' part of the journey is in the end. And all good things come to an end. “There will be generations of players coming and going, the team definitely will have to get going,” said Mithali on her last night as India captain during the Hagley Oval interaction.
It is true that players will come and go, but only some get their names etched in history forever. And when it comes to Indian cricket history, Mithali Raj is a name that will be right up at the top.
These statistics stand testament to former Indian captain Mithali Raj's legacy:
- 2 - Mithali led India to World Cup finals twice (2005 & 2017). On both occasions, they ended as runners-up
- 22y 274d - Longest career (7th across genders) in women's cricket
- 7805 - Most runs in One Day Internationals
- 71 - Most 50+ scores in ODIs
- 214 - Second highest individual score in Tests
- 16y 254d - Second youngest (third across genders) to score an ODI hundred
- 16y 205d - Youngest (2nd across genders) to score a Test double hundred