Mithali Raj, one of the greatest cricketers to grace the field, will leave the game without lifting a World Cup, after India fell short of reaching the semifinals on Sunday.
Despite an impressive innings reminiscent of Raj at her peak, the match felt like the end of the Indian captain's 22-year career after a three-wicket loss to South Africa.
Requiring a win in their final group game to make the final four, it was a fittingly nerve-wracking match that remained on a knife-edge until a late surge by the Proteas.
India looked to have almost snatched a potential victory from the jaws of defeat when they claimed a wicket with the penultimate ball but with tensions at fever-pitch, replays confirmed a front-foot no ball, allowing South Africa to clinch a dramatic final-ball win.
"Everything does come to an end," Raj, who is widely expected to retire soon, said following India's defeat. "It will take some time to settle the emotions but that's what sport is. I haven't planned much for the future."
Changed the game
Her true legacy to the game came from her single-mindedness to ensure women's cricket was valued in India. "Women's cricket was dead in India, but she changed the face of it,” Raj's former international teammate Nooshin Al Khadeer told DW. "She was the eye-opener to a man's world.”
Raj was born in Jodhpur in 1982 but fell in love with dancing before cricket. However as Raj has expressed in the past, with her parents invested in seeing their daughter become one of the best female cricketers in India, it was path she forged somewhat reluctantly early on.
In 1999, 16-year-old Raj scored a debut one-day international (ODI) century in England for India's U19s. The success did not lessen Raj's commitment, the teenager waking daily at 4am for practise and training for at least eight hours a day. "There was an extreme detachment for Mithali of having no friends, no social life, no TV, no music," Al Kahdeer explained.
Three years later, aged just 19, that sacrifice paid off. In only her third Test match, she broke the record for the world's highest individual Test score when she struck 214 against England. She became the world's leading female run-scorer in 2021.
At only 22 she was made captain of the international and helped India reach the final of the 2005 World Cup. The success under the helm of Raj forced the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) after many years to bring women's cricket under its stewardship in 2006.
"Throughout her career Raj has made sure that people knew that this team existed'" said cricketer-turned-journalist Ananya Upendran. "She kept Indian Women's cricket in the news even when people were not interested in it and made it relevant for a very long time, especially through the 2000s."
A second World Cup final appearance in 2017 proved to be another turning point for women's cricket in India. Having turned to coaching, Al Kahdeer remembered how prior to the 2017 World Cup seeing only 40 girls turn up for trails. However, after culmination of the tournament, more than 200 girls arrived.
"The 2005 World Cup showed the BCCI that women's cricket was there," Al Kahdeer explained. "The 2017 World Cup was an eye-opener for parents to understand that there is a career for their girls. Upendran added: "22 years after her career started, any young batter coming through the Indian circuit now if you ask them who they look up to it is Mithali."
Coverage comes too late to showcase Raj's best
A decision to televise all of India's home matches followed the team's 2017 World Cup final appearance, but progress in the women's game has been so slow that Raj's current struggles at the crease might stay more in the memory than her prime years.
"From 2006-2014, she was scoring runs for fun. There was no real stability in the Indian batting line-up at that time. She had to reign in her natural instincts and force herself to be something that the team needed,” Upendran explained. "A large part of me is worried this is how most of India will remember her, as the captain who couldn't win anything, couldn't keep pace with the current game and potentially held her team back.”
The outpouring at the end of the 2022 World Cup suggest otherwise. India might not have won, but the widespread recognition of what Raj did is clear. Jhulan Goswami, Raj's teammate for 19 years, looked distraught on the balcony at the end of the match with a side strain keeping her from playing in what was likely also her final World Cup match.
Even though Raj cut an understandably dejected figure following the end of her World Cup dreams, she still managed to reflect on the greater picture."The game was good for the sport," she said before directly addressing the Indian supporters. "I hope you continue to support women's cricket and the Indian Women's team in the coming years."
Raj's illustrious career may have finished without any silverware, but she has left an ever-lasting imprint on the game."Mithali is and will be the face of women's cricket in India forever,” Al Kahdeer said.
Author Kalika Mehta
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