The Mithali Raj
SHE’S NOT A PLANNER; HER LIFE HAS BEEN ALL ABOUT DESTINY. THE INDIA WOMEN CRICKET SKIPPER TELLS T2OS WHAT IT TAKES TO LEAD FROM THE FRONT
Mithali Raj is getting her make-up done in her room at Taj Bengal ahead of a talk organised by FICCI Flo Kolkata. She sits straight as Abhijit Chanda works on her eyes. After the last stroke of mascara, she turns to the mirror. “Is the hair too bunched-up on one side?” she asks. “I just want to look presentable,” she tells us later. “I am not fussy about fashion. I like wearing whatever I am comfortable in... dresses, trousers.” For this session, Mithali looked striking in flared pants and sky-blue shirt. Her tone is soft but assertive, and though there’s a calm in her eyes, there’s no missing the steel in the 35-year-old Arjuna awardee. Excerpts from the chat...
• It must have been a roller coaster for you since the finals of ICC Women’s World Cup last July…
It has been very hectic. Initially it was chaotic, but now I am kind of getting used to it. I have been travelling a lot and that definitely is exhausting. No matter how much you enjoy travelling, not at this frequency where every two-three days you are travelling! I have seen a lot of airports in the last three months that I haven’t seen in the last two-three years.
• Aren’t you loving it?
Apart from this travelling, yes!
• You’ve had a glittering career for almost 20 years. Do you think the accolades have come a little late?
I am happy that I am able to see this phase and enjoy it.
• You didn’t think this day would come?
No, I didn’t (smiles). It never occurred to me that I should be getting this because this wasn’t the reason why I started playing cricket, so obviously I did not expect all this. It wasn’t even my dream to be what I am today. Yes, I wanted to play for India.
Unfortunately for women’s cricket, since the beginning things have been very difficult, whether it is financing on tours or looking after the players. But when we came under the BCCI, I expected things would change for the better. They did, with the facilities, but the number of matches we used to play has come down a lot. But now with this (World Cup), I am sure BCCI is taking the initiative in organising India A tours, working on the second string because they know they have to create that structure where they have a larger pool of players. Tomorrow if they are planning to have an IPL kind of a tournament, they need to have a good standard of domestic players representing in that league, which we don’t have right now. It’s important now more than ever to market women’s cricket. The more you can play or the more leagues you can organise, the better the players get and the sport will also get better visibility.
• Do you think World Cup 2017 has opened up a lot of avenues?
It has. We couldn’t use the opportunity of the 2013 World Cup when it was hosted in India. For this World Cup, the team started really well and that’s how people started to follow us worldwide. Even the finals, I am told, was watched by a record number of people on TV. That shows how much interest we could manage to develop for people to actually sit and watch women’s cricket. It has changed a lot of perceptions in people… how they look at women’s cricket… and look at it as a sport which can be a professional career for young girls if they actually are interested or keen to pursue it.
• In hindsight, what has the journey been like? More ups than downs?
Well, I did face a lot of emotional breakdowns too. It wasn’t all smooth or easy. Maybe a lot of people think that because I am a successful cricketer, I might have had things easy. But I have also struggled… been on the verge of quitting at some point. But at every turning, whenever I was at the crossroads, I have always had somebody or some situation come up which again put me back on a trail or path. There were two instances where I thought of giving up.... My career or life so far has been about destiny. I am not someone who plans things or has a foresight of what’s going to happen… have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C… which a lot of people do. Till date, I haven’t had any back-up plan.
• How different was Mithali Raj of World Cup 2017 from World Cup 2005?
In 2005, I was less mature as a leader. As a batter I was far better than what I was as a leader. That was my first tour as a captain. Before that I hadn’t led India officially. I was the vice-captain.
• Are you emotional by nature? You had teared up at the post-match press conference after the finals….
Well, everyone is, but I have a strong hold on my emotions when I am on the field. I believe if you are a professional athlete, you have to control your emotions. That’s why you are called professional. I probably would have controlled myself at the press meet, but I did break down in the dressing room.
• What sport do you like watching apart from cricket?
For someone who got into sports reluctantly, you are asking who I watched?! (Laughs out loud) I don’t even watch any other sport. There are some of my teammates who are hardcore fans of Roger Federer. They literally force me to sit and watch! I don’t understand tennis. If I am watching it, I might as well see how a champion makes a comeback, how his personality is and how he controls his emotions as a professional athlete… what makes him great or different.
• What have you taken away from your own career?
That life goes on no matter what happens. If it is good you enjoy and move on, and if it is bad you learn a lesson and move on. But you have to move on. You cannot be stuck in that moment. Also, I have learnt that there is uncertainty in everything and everything has to evolve and change. Neither good nor bad things can last forever. Challenges also cannot be forever, but everything teaches you something and leaves a mark. Everyone needs to have a sense of their own character, what their qualities are and how that can help them in their career and life.
• What’s been Brand Mithali Raj’s philosophy?
My brand has just evolved now. I’ll try to enjoy all of it as long as it is there. Everything changes. Enjoy while it lasts.
ALL ABOUT FOOTWORK
I didn’t want to be a cricketer
I wanted to be a classical dancer. So my parents put me into dance (Bharatanatyam). After that cricket happened… that was something that my dad pushed me into. He wanted me to become a cricketer, inculcate that good habit of getting up in the morning. It just started as a hobby, something very random and then suddenly the interest peaked. It was destiny.
My brother was playing cricket at that time. So, probably it came naturally to my dad to put me into a sport that he had know-how of. It turned out that I turned into a more professional cricketer.
I continued with dance and cricket till I was in the 10th standard. That’s the time I got picked for the 1997 World Cup camp. I had to attend a camp of 20-25 days every month. I was falling back in the dance classes because I was missing them obviously. At that point I felt that I wasn’t justifying trying to do both. It was very difficult. They were so vast and different. My dance teacher told my parents that I had to make a choice. Even in dance, I was on the verge of giving an arangetram, I was two stages away, but at that point it was very difficult because it was also my board exam year. As a kid, it was difficult for me to manage all three.
It was difficult to walk away from dance
My parents did give me a choice, but again as any parent they did give me the pros and cons of a decision… what if I chose dance and what if I chose cricket. Cricket is something I was already in the reckoning for the Indian team, and that’s when my dad said — you are just one step away from wearing the India colours, you’ve come so far. He felt that I should pursue cricket. I decided to quit dance.
It took me a long time to tap that passion for cricket which I had for dance. Until then it was only a dream that I wanted to live for my dad, because he wanted me to be a cricketer. My mom felt that whatever I chose, I had to be the best in that field.
I don’t remember if it came naturally to me. I was nine when I started playing and I had the privilege of being coached in an academy. I have never played with my brother or on the streets. Whenever the coaches see me, they tell me that I have a very strong foundation... maybe because when I held the bat, I was assisted by a professional coach. So, you didn’t have to change much of it.
My parents struggled for me
I have seen my parents really struggle to support a kid in a career which was not very popular then and had no money. They were ready to put everything at stake to get me to play for India, give me the best gear and equipment. Coming from a middle-class family, it was difficult, financially. For my first tour, I was funded by the bank my dad was employed with and also my school. Seeing all that, I didn’t just want to give an average performance. That was always a motivation for me — to live up to my dad’s expectations more than anything else.
Probably, you can say that I was a very good daughter! (Laughs) There was this thought that just in case I have an early retirement, I might get back to dancing.
The only girl in the camp
My childhood was very organised, went by the timetable my mom used to set up. At a very young age she taught me time management, how to be very organised and disciplined. It took a lot out of me and my brother to stick to it. Both my parents were working. So when they weren’t there, my brother used to see to it that I stuck to the timetable. My mom taught him the basic things to cook. Whenever they were not around, he used to cook. (Laughs)
My parents never allowed me to travel alone anywhere, especially when I was training or during matches. My brother used to take me, drop me, wait till I finished the session and get me back home. He was in a camp of boys. So, when I joined that camp for summer vacation, I was the only girl there. I used to get the preference because it was ladies first! As a kid when you are given that attention, you like it and try to do your best. That was also the reason why the coach felt that I had the spark or the talent that can be nurtured and that is what he told my father.
I did rebel...
... But later, not at nine! I knew you get whacked at nine. It could be the frustration of doing everything where cricket was the primary focus. It got to me at some point. It was probably in my teens. At some point you’d probably feel that you want to spend time with your friends, but then you have parents tying you down, forcing you to do certain things. I was still very much cocooned by my parents in that phase. I came out far more mature. Today they don’t have to tell me what is good and bad. I am in a position to understand.
What is your message for Mithali Raj?