Mithali Raj at the photocall for the ICC Women's World Cup 2017 final
© Getty Images

Interview

'I hope I see the day when people acknowledge men's and women's cricket equally'

Mithali Raj looks back at the India women's performance in the T20 World Cup, and ahead to the possibility of a women's IPL

Interview by Annesha Ghosh  |  

India's longest-playing women's cricketer, Mithali Raj, retired from T20Is last year but is set to lead the side in the 50-over World Cup in New Zealand in ten months' time. Though she didn't play herself, she followed her team-mates' fortunes closely through the T20 World Cup in Australia, where they finished runners-up. We caught up with her to talk about that tournament, the possibility of a women's IPL, cricket in the time of the Covid-19 outbreak, the road ahead for India, and more.

What was it like seeing the record turnout at the MCG for the Women's T20 World Cup final?
For me, it was, of course, a first. The closest I have experienced in my life is the 2017 [ODI World Cup] final at Lord's. That stadium was also packed, but considering MCG has a greater capacity than Lord's, it was great to see so many spectators. It was overwhelming because, as a woman cricketer, I hadn't ever imagined I would see a match where people pack a stadium to watch a women's cricket World Cup final like they would for a men's World Cup. In a lot of ways, women's cricket truly has arrived and can stand on its own.

When do you think a women's IPL could be a reality, moving on from the existing Women's T20 Challenge?
Realistically, the cricket schedule is a little uncertain right now [because of the Covid-19 outbreak], so I personally feel they should start a women's IPL by next year, even if it is on a slightly smaller scale and with some changes in rules, such as, say, have five to six foreign players in the first edition instead of four as is the case with the men's IPL. I agree we don't have the depth in the domestic pool yet, but the key is to get the existing franchises to form teams, even if [only] five or six of them are keen to begin the process, because in any case the BCCI was going to have four teams [in the Women's T20 Challenge].

You cannot wait forever; you have to begin at some point, and gradually, year by year, you can keep evolving the league and then bring it down to four foreign players. At the end of the day, you need to put up a good standard [of cricket], you need people to turn up at the stadium, you need viewership on TV and the web. So it's important to begin, create a base with good players and keep pushing the profile up.

"How you respond to pressure situations can determine your chances of victory. Having a clear mind in important games like the T20 World Cup final is immensely important. India were overawed by the occasion and a bit lost on the ground"

Do you see any merit in the argument that India ought to first win a world title before contemplating a women's IPL, or should it be the other way around?
I don't think waiting for India to win a World Cup and then considering an IPL is the right approach. The thing is, if you don't have a structure like the women's IPL in place by next year, you will lose one more year in unearthing players like Shafali Verma. And by saying "We don't have the [domestic] pool, so we need to create that depth", we will only push a full-fledged league back by another four, five years. And in doing so, you will continue to bank on the current lot of players. When are you going to invest in building a pool for a second string [senior] side, an A side, and now that the ICC is going to begin an Under-19 World Cup for women [next year], where are you going to get the girls year after year if you don't inspire them through these kind of tournaments?

Now if you take Shafali, for example, I watched her closely in the Women's T20 Challenge last year in my team [Velocity], and look how she has taken to the international game. We might get more girls like that, and we must let them gain that kind of exposure before they can be pushed to the international level. And in any case, our girls did really well in the T20 World Cup, so we should continue the momentum. When it starts, only then can we hunt for talent because that's what the franchises in the men's IPL do, scout talent, right?

Verma was India's leading run scorer at the T20 World Cup. What were your observations on her maiden world tournament?
Shafali was the biggest takeaway from the T20 World Cup. The way she came into the Women's T20 Challenge, got those runs, not many 15-year-olds have that talent, if you ask me. And then in the World Cup, batting the way she did, the talent she exhibited in Australia - she took a lot of pressure off our batting department, and the way she was hitting the bowlers, in the future, the team, the public, will start expecting more from her.

Twenty-one years ago you made your international debut as a 16-year-old. What is your advice to someone like Verma about navigating the pressure of expectations, the scrutiny and the media attention?
She is a young kid, the people who influence her thoughts and actions, the influencers around her, have to be very good. In times of social media, when everything is being minutely watched and monitored, as a teenager it becomes very, very important to have parents and a mentor around. A teenager, for example, could get carried away by social media because it's a space where you get a lot of appreciation, a lot of attention, and all of that feels nice.

But at the same time, someone needs to help and advise youngsters that all these things are temporary. As long as you're doing well there are people to praise you, but the moment you stop performing for your team, the same people are going to openly criticise you. So you need to learn to strike that balance. Yes, as athletes we are ambassadors of our sports and a part of our role in society is to promote that sport globally. It's no different for women cricketers; in fact, it's that much more important we reach new fans and audiences, but we need to balance it with figuring out when we can give time and when we need to work hard to set a good standard for our sport.

"If you don't have a structure like the women's IPL in place by next year, you will lose one more year in unearthing players like Shafali Verma" © BCCI

As ODI captain, do you believe Verma has done enough for a maiden ODI call-up soon?
She is young but that should not be a criterion for not giving her opportunities. She could be a good addition to our ODI set-up, especially if she is able to give us the kind of starts she's been giving in T20Is, and if she can play a little longer, because the two formats are very different. Losing a wicket early in the innings in a 20-over game still won't pinch a team so much as it would in one-dayers.

If Shafali can continue to work on her fitness and develop her temperament a little more - ODIs need that, and you can't go after every ball. Before the World Cup, if we get those three, four tours, we will have the opportunity to see how she approaches ODIs and we will be able to take a call on how we would integrate her into the ODI team and when to do that.

Another teen who came into the Indian side in 2018 as the next big thing in women's cricket but has struggled somewhat with consistency is Jemimah Rodrigues. How do you see her preparing herself for the long haul?
I feel that's something every athlete needs to figure out by themselves, but they should give themselves more time to introspect where they have gone wrong. We must understand they are very young. You cannot tell them, "You need to grow up immediately." You know they are talented. The growing up happens with time and experience, which they are getting through more matches.

I feel if youngsters can prepare in a more structured manner, it could help them. What often happens is, if you're preparing for the World Cup, you are only in one mould. If they can get more videos to watch of themselves, their own game and their opponents', it might be useful because the standard of international women's cricket is moving ahead at a very fast pace and one of the key challenges is to find consistency. Unlike those who play the WBBL, most players are dependent on just the international and domestic T20Is they play, so it becomes all the more important in your individual planning that you are smart in your preparations and understand your own strengths and weaknesses.

What did you make of India's T20 World Cup campaign overall?
The Indian bowlers were brilliant in the tournament. In the group stage it is the bowlers who got the team those victories and took them into the semi-final. Pretty much all the matches were low-scoring, considering the kind of scores in the 2018 edition. I was expecting teams to put up at least around 140 in every game, but the average score remained mostly 120 or 130 during the group stage. To contain teams like New Zealand and Australia in Group A, it is India's bowlers, I feel, who did the job for them.

It was unfortunate that the batting department didn't really come well for us, but again, the experience of all the bowlers - Poonam [Yadav], Shikha [Pandey], Rajeshwari [Gayakwad], Deepti Sharma, Radha Yadav - worked beautifully till the semi-finals. They've been with the side for a number of years and it was great to see them perform so well for India.

"In the 2017, 2018 and now the 2020 World Cup, the trend has been the same - good performance in the league stage and then India get overawed in the final stage. There is certainly a need for a sports psychologist to help us get across that last stage."

Can you walk us through the growth in Poonam Yadav you've seen since her international debut in 2013?
When she started, she was tossing the ball really high up, like the donkey drops in the domestic games. We used to get really irritated (laughs) - why would someone bowl so slow? From that stage to where she is today, it's all because of her hard work. She is a very hard-working player.

After nets, I have often seen her put up a single stump and keep bowling. She understands her limitations as a bowler well, so she knows she needs to keep pushing herself, to adapt to the changing demands of the international game. And she never refuses to bowl to more than two or three pairs of batters. If you ask her to bowl the whole session, she is there to bowl. She also has a very big heart. She doesn't chicken out. Even if she gets hit, she will say, "Nahi, didi, main phirse daalungi, try karungi aur comeback karungi." [No, I will bowl again, and try and come back.]

I remember after one of the international tours where she had a poor outing, she realised she needs to learn more variations because she had been found out by then. She started to bowl topspin after that and then worked more on her googly. The googly is what got her so many wickets in the first game in the group stage [of the T20 World Cup, against Australia]. As someone who is constantly trying to understand her own skill and trying to improve that, Poonam's success doesn't come as a surprise to me.

Shikha Pandey did reasonably well to finish behind Poonam on the wicket charts in the World Cup. How has she evolved into the pace-spearhead role?
There were not many bowlers in the women's game who could bowl inswingers when Shikha started out. Now more or less every team has a bowler who can bowl the incoming deliveries. Shikha is a key player for us in that aspect. She has been consistent for us in one-dayers for a good period of time now, and has also closed out a few matches with her batting skills.

I still do feel, though, that she can be a far more threatening bowler than she believes she is. If she has a bit more confidence in her bowling it will do her a world of good, because at times it feels as if the captain has more confidence in a bowler than the bowler herself does; Shikha is one of them. Unlike someone like Poonam, who understands her skills, Shikha weakens her own strengths by over-analysing her existing skill sets. Once she starts backing herself more, as her captains do, she will be more effective.

On Poonam Yadav:

On Poonam Yadav: "She understands her limitations as a bowler well, so she knows she needs to keep pushing herself, to evolve and adapt to the changing demands of the international game" © Associated Press

Neither India's bowling nor their batting clicked in the final. Was the lack of teeth in their fight unexpected, given their undefeated run in the group stage?
Having seven-eight days of no game time between their last league match and the final hurt India, I feel. If they had got a match in the semi-final and won it, it would have been the best way to reach the final. It would have given them a continuation of the momentum they had built so well from the group stage. Unfortunately the semi-final was cut off because of the rain; that snapped India's momentum in the tournament.

Going into the final with the atmosphere at the MCG what it was, any team would have felt the pressure. Probably Australia were also under huge pressure, because you are the host team and you are in the final with nearly 90,000 people watching you play India, a team that beat you comprehensively in the first game of the tournament. India didn't have anything to lose; they were the team to beat in the tournament, they should have been super confident, having won all the games in the group stage.

How much of a factor was pressure, considering India fluffed the 2017 ODI World Cup final and the 2018 T20 World Cup semi-final too?
Some of the young girls like Shafali or Deepti might have been taken a bit aback by the crowd and the pressure of the occasion. Deepti, who is used to bowling with the new ball, would not have bowled those three full tosses [in the first over] otherwise. That clearly showed she was feeling the nerves. Even that [dropped] catch by Shafali - she had been fielding within the circle in the other games too, and been fielding well. In my opinion, it had nothing to do with the opponent; it had everything to do with the atmosphere. How you respond to pressure situations can determine your chances of victory, and having a clear mind in important games like this is immensely important. India were overawed by the occasion and therefore a bit lost on the ground.

Would a sports psychologist help the players deal with such situations better?
A professional coming into our support staff will definitely help. The number of games every India women's player now plays is much more than it was three or four years ago. And with the domestic leagues taking place overseas, the calendar has become that much busier. In these times, if you have a sports psychologist, it will give the players a much-needed outlet. And you need such professionals to be with the team all year round and not just during the big tournaments, because it is during the non-ICC tournaments that you build the players.

"The way women's cricket is heading, only bowling is a sort of specialised skill; batting and fielding are things everyone has to do"

During the World Cup, T20I captain Harmanpreet Kaur spoke about the 2017 ODI World Cup qualifier being an inflection point for Indian women's cricket, with the team now having made it to three knockouts, including two finals, in three world tournaments across formats. Do you agree with that assessment?
Yes, that qualifier, and as I mentioned in one of my previous interviews with you, the 2016 [bilateral T20I series] win in Australia was also crucial. Plus, of course, the 2017 World Cup itself. Since coming back from the World Cup, a lot has changed in our set-up. We have more support staff to begin with. If you see this T20 World Cup, India had a spin-bowling coach in Narendra Hirwani and the results were for everyone to see. It helps in a big way if you have skills-specific coaches to deal with particular departments. The players are given one-on-one feedback and time and that's a big requirement with the evolving standards of the women's game at the international level. You can't have just one coach for all 15 girls; it becomes difficult for the coach to give time to every player individually.

Another factor is acclimatisation. The BCCI started sending our teams to the World Cups at least one week before the official warm-up games. That has benefited our players. We have started getting two or three practice games, and you could see that help our preparations ahead of the 2017 World Cup. For this T20 World Cup, having the tri-series against England and Australia was also a big plus. Nothing can replace solid game time against quality sides; beating them in those practice games also helped our girls build confidence heading into the World Cup.

How do you see India improving further across formats?
What the access to the National Cricket Academy [NCA] has done is that [centrally] contracted players can go there, work on their fitness and their skills, work with specialised coaches over a period of time. For someone like Shafali, who burst onto the international scene with only two or three domestic seasons under her belt, given the talent she has, if that can be fine-tuned, whether under coaches at the NCA or more exposure through leagues like the women's IPL, she will get some much needed knowledge about herself and her game. Also, having the zonal camps, the Under-19 and Under-23 tournaments, the A and Emerging Tours like we have had in the last couple of years to Bangladesh and Australia, do help a lot. In another two, three years' time, we should have a pool of a good 30-40 girls at any given point to compete for a place in the senior side or come in as injury replacements.

"Sometimes I look back on my career, I remember the time when I used to travel by train as a teenage cricketer. A 16-year-old travels by flight today. And it feels great to see such changes" © Getty Images

Both Harmanpreet and T20I vice-captain Smriti Mandhana have spoken of the need for India to evolve into a better fielding side in the near future. What's your appraisal of India's fielding in the recent past?
I personally felt the Indian team did decently well through the World Cup in terms of fielding. In the final, yes, the dropped chances proved costly, but in cricket, when you put yourself in pressure situations, things you would otherwise do in an easy manner, you make them hard, and that is what I felt watching them play in the final. Otherwise these girls are not bad fielders.

India, in fact, were one of the better catching sides. We have had a fielding coach since mid-2017 - Biju [George] was there earlier and now we have a new coach [Subhadeep Ghosh] - and we have been gradually improving, and that's what we need to keep doing. It's just that our game sense, as I mentioned earlier, needs to complement our skills in pressure situations.

How can India's batting line-up be collectively a more consistent, potent force?
One thing I feel is, our bowlers need to chip in with the bat, because every other top team has good depth till No. 8 or even nine. We are lacking in that aspect; that's something we really need to work on. Teams like England and Australia and even South Africa have bowlers who can bat, who can at least get their side 20-25-odd runs down the order. For us, it is only the top [order]. If tomorrow India need 30-odd runs to win a match or even to put up a solid score batting first, do you really think our bowlers can score those 30 runs? You know very well we will struggle.

England has [fast-bowling allrounder Katherine] Brunt scoring runs. Australia has a number of spinners and pacers who can contribute with the bat. From our team, front-line bowlers Poonam, Rajeshwari, Radha also need to step up and contribute. The way women's cricket is heading, only bowling is a sort of specialised skill; batting and fielding are things everyone has to do.

Taniya Bhatia finished with the most wicketkeeping dismissals in the 2018 and 2020 T20 World Cups. But she, too, has struggled to marry potential with performance with the bat.
She has struggled with inconsistency. Having a keeper who's a top-order batter is a great asset to any captain. Even though she is not a top-order [batter], she should be contributing some runs in the middle order.

Our girls play a lot of international cricket but with the international schedule getting more packed, many of our players miss out on domestic cricket. For bowlers like Poonam, Rajeshwari, and even for Taniya, they need to bat in this set-up because on the international circuit, when our top order fires, the lower order hardly gets tested. But when the top order fails, our middle and lower orders stand exposed. So where do they learn and gain the experience and confidence so they can chip in when they need to? It has to be in the domestic tournaments, including the Challenger Trophy and hopefully the Women's T20 Challenge, where they consistently get the opportunity to bat in real game situations.

"My focus has always been on staying in the present and looking forward to the future. What's next? What needs to be done? What has worked for me?"

Speaking of the Women's T20 Challenge, the tournament had a great turnout last year in Jaipur. If the Covid-19 outbreak rules out the possibility of a 2020 edition, does women's cricket stand to lose much in terms of the momentum generated by the T20 World Cup?
Yes, to a great extent. All of our domestic tournaments are put on hold. We are supposed to tour England in June-July, so that, too, might be pushed, along with even the Qualifiers [for the 2021 ODI World Cup] in July in Sri Lanka. As an athlete, and as a woman cricketer especially, every tournament getting cancelled means we get fewer games to play and are able to reach fewer fans or make few or no new fans, so it's certainly a blow to the women's game.

That said, looking at the bigger picture, such is the population of our country, you just cannot afford to take any risks [with the pandemic]. In countries like New Zealand [where the 2021 ODI World Cup is scheduled to be held], the population is not as huge, so players may still be able to access the ground or go there to train, but in our country you cannot have this kind of a set-up.

And there may not be much cricket for the best part of the ten months leading up to the ODI World Cup in February next year.
Yes, it's very much a possibility. Right now, it's a forced off season for us but there are a number of ways in which we can keep up with the sport. Of course, every athlete is going to lose out on precious time to prepare for a world tournament because there's no access to gyms anymore. Physical fitness is something we can only maintain to a certain extent staying at home. But all said and done, despite being an athlete myself, what's on my mind is: how do we contain the situation rather than worrying about cricket, because if things worsen, that scares me a lot more than skipping or postponement of tournaments. I am just concerned about how we approach the next couple of weeks as a country.

There's also the first women's Under-19 World Cup next year, in Bangladesh. Given India, Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa are well disposed to scout for players for it, how many teams could this tournament realistically comprise?
I would be happy to have even six or seven teams in the tournament. Unless you start an age-group World Cup for women, the other countries who do not have a feeder system in place, or may not be able to field a team next year, may never care to set one up or make an effort to have Under-19 tournaments on their domestic calendar.

Once you have this tournament, more young girls will aspire to play cricket, especially in the subcontinent. For India this tournament could lead to the BCCI having a similar [pathway] for women's cricket to what they have for the Under-19 men's World Cup, where many of the cricketers go on to playing for the senior side. So in many ways this U-19 World Cup is going to be a huge step forward for women's cricket.

"I hadn't ever imagined I would see a match where people pack a stadium to watch a women's cricket World Cup final like they would be for a men's World Cup" © Getty Images

You recently became the first women's cricketer to have a biopic made about her. How gratifying has your journey in the game been?
I don't think much about how the journey has been, to tell you the truth. But yes, sometimes I look back on my career, I remember the time when I used to travel by train as a teenage cricketer. A 16-year-old travels by flight today. And it feels great to see such changes and so many other changes having come in the women's game over these past 21 years. I am grateful I am still part of that change that women's cricket is seeing, especially in India, and I hope I live to see the day when people acknowledge men's and women's cricket equally.

What has been at the heart of your longevity?
My focus has always been on staying in the present and looking forward to the future. What's next? What needs to be done? What has worked for me? I have always focused on these things. The primary thing on my mind has been to get better as a cricketer because a professional athlete's life is bound to have several ups and downs and adapting to the changing times is very important, and I have tried to keep up by staying focused on the task [at hand] and preparing for what lies ahead.

Does the Women's T20 Challenge or a Women's IPL feature in your plans for the future, even though you have retired from T20Is?
Yes, they do, because I see them as a form of preparation for me. To bat in a match scenario is the best possible preparation for any batter. So a game in a tournament like a Women's T20 Challenge, even though the format may be different [to what Raj now plays on the international circuit], I would gladly take it, as I would the bilateral ODI series or the multi-team tournaments, especially after an induced off season like the one we are in due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

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