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Mithali Raj came when nobody cared about women’s cricket. 23 years later, not much has changed

Mithali Raj's story will continue to inspire generations of women in a predominantly male sport. But her quiet sendoff shows why BCCI needs to step up.

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Mithali Raj’s career spanned over two decades and saw the rise of Indian women’s cricket that faced battles both on and off the field. The right-handed batter led from the front. For the uninitiated, this stat can put things in perspective—Sachin Tendulkar played for 24 years, while Mithali occupied the big stage for 23, leading the team to two World Cup finals and scoring a mammoth 10,868 runs—a world record. But what these statistics don’t tell us is the inspiration Mithali has become for generations of women cricketers in a predominantly male sport.

Her departure ends Indian cricket’s last active link to the 1990s and represents a complete transition to a new era across formats under Harmanpreet Kaur, whose first assignment will be India’s tour of Sri Lanka later this month.

When Mithali Raj made her debut, women’s cricket lay neglected in India. 23 years later, her quiet sendoff is characteristic of a culture and attitude towards women’s cricket that is yet to change. And that is why Mithali Raj is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.

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The rise and fall of Mithali Raj

Mithali Raj debuted as a teenager against Ireland on 26 June 1999, became captain in 2004 and tirelessly batted her way to nearly 11,000 runs across formats. She led India to the Women’s World Cup in March this year, but her team failed to make the semifinals after losing their last round-robin game against South Africa.

Across those 23 years, Mithali showcased her technically and aesthetically flawless batting and put an immense price on her wicket. In her best format, One Day Internationals, she averaged higher than 40 in 20 calendar years, including two monster seasons in 2004 and 2017—the year India reached the Women’s World Cup final.

Then 34 years old, Mithali had a particularly prolific 2017 World Cup, scoring 409 runs from 9 innings, just a single run behind tournament top scorer, England’s Tammy Beaumont.

However, as Australian journalist Jarrod Kimber puts it, “she went from the best player in the game to someone out of time”, as her sub-70s strike rate, by-the-book strokeplay and lack of power game worked against her with the evolution of women’s white-ball cricket, especially in the T20s.

As such, her career ODI strike rate of 66 ranks far behind those who benefitted from debuting in the late 2000s and 2010s, such as Lizelle Lee, Nat Sciver, Meg Lanning, Stafanie Taylor and even her teammate Smrithi Mandhana. These gaps became even more evident in the 2022 World Cup. Mithali could only muster 182 runs from 7 innings, at an average of 26 and a strike rate of less than 63, a clear sign of a player who was well past their best.

Nevertheless, even in the twilight of her career, Mithali continued to be the glue that held together an Indian middle order that needed time and persistent faith from higher-ups to properly settle into top-level international cricket.

Also Read: What can women’s cricket do to enjoy the popularity of men’s cricket?

Longevity isn’t the same for men and women

Thanks to her on-field exploits and superlative innings, Mithali became an Indian and global cricketing icon alongside teammate Jhulan Goswami. Few men from her generation came close in comparison to her longevity that spans decades—James Anderson, Shoaib Malik, Rangana Herath, Chris Gayle, Mohammad Hafeez and Ross Taylor. However, these names come with a crucial point of difference—all these men either already had the opportunity to go out with a final farewell match or series, or are expected to get one in the near future (even Hafeez got to call a special press conference).

Meanwhile, Mithali’s goodbye came and went via a social media graphic nearly three months after her last appearance as the news cycle quickly shifted to the Indian men’s ongoing T20 series with South Africa.

In a sense, Mithali’s relatively quiet farewell may not have been as unceremonious as her White Ferns counterpart Amy Satterthwaite, who retired soon after being unexpectedly removed from New Zealand’s central contracts list, in a sudden prioritisation of younger domestic players.

But it is difficult to imagine a male player, an incumbent captain at that, going out in this way. Many will point to how MS Dhoni retired abruptly on social media, but unlike India’s women cricketers, Dhoni and others have had more than a decades’ worth of a lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) to prolong their professional careers on, while the women’s equivalent remains a vague future plan for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

This is already one of the biggest signs of the inequality between men’s and women’s cricket in India. But there’s a more damning stat. Since her debut, Mithali, and India’s women’s team, only played 12 Test matches, the majority of which were between 2002 and 2006, while India’s men played 14 last year.

For all the talk of the Test format being considered the purest and most challenging form of cricket, this financial and gender-based gap is yet to be seriously addressed anytime soon. This is especially significant in light of the International Cricket Council (ICC) chair Greg Barclay’s remarks last week that women’s Test matches were ‘not part of the future landscape’.

Amid her accomplishments over such a long career, Mithali’s represents a cautionary tale of the arduous road and scheduling issues many women’s cricketers have had to deal with in order to showcase their skills at the highest level. This doesn’t have to be the case for future generations if cricket’s governing bodies, be it BCCI or ICC, oversee significant investment in the women’s game.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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