Cover story: Mithali Raj on choosing cricket as a sport in the 90s, her biopic and the future of women's cricket

Ahead of ICC Women’s World Cup 2022, the Indian cricket team’s captain Mithali Raj talks about her preparation, the future of women’s cricket and what her biopic Shabaash Mithu  means to her 
Life comes full circle for Mithali Raj as she gets ready for her sixth world cup as well as a biopic that’s all set to release soon.
Life comes full circle for Mithali Raj as she gets ready for her sixth world cup as well as a biopic that’s all set to release soon.

If there is one female cricketer that everybody is familiar with in a country obsessed with men’s cricket, it is Mithali Raj — the captain of the Indian women’s cricket team. With credits like the highest run-scorer in women’s international cricket; the only sportswoman to score 7,000 ODI runs; and the first Indian woman cricketer to score 1,000 World Cup runs, the 39-year-old top-order batter and Padma Shri awardee Mithali has built a strong reputation for herself as well as women’s cricket over the years. More recently, she was bestowed with the Khel Ratna Award (2021), the highest sporting honour of India. In the pipeline is a biopic made on her titled Shabaash Mithu, which stars one of Bollywood’s most promising actors, Taapsee Pannu. As Mithali leaves for New Zealand to play her sixth World Cup, which many are saying will be her last big international sporting appearance, we speak to the leading lady of cricket about the future of women’s cricket, her upcoming biopic, dealing with the pandemic and what it was like to play cricket as a woman in the ’90s. Excerpts:

Q. Where are you right now and what are are you up to? And, what were your plans before the country got hit by the third wave?
I am currently in Vijayawada for my personal training. With the World Cup coming up in March ’22 and the ODI series in New Zealand before that, my entire day is spent in training. Hence, the next few months are going to be critical for me as well as my squad. The pandemic has not derailed our plans and we are on schedule with our practice and training. It’s just the execution part that might have changed a bit, owing to the restriction in movement and the bio-bubble.

Q. Tell us about your association with Jacob’s Creek?
Jacob’s Creek and cricket share a unique ability to connect people and I am delighted to be associated with Jacob’s Creek — a brand that has consistently supported sports through various partnerships. It has had a long-standing connection with the game of cricket and the support it has shown to women’s cricket, in particular, is commendable and one of the main reasons for me to be associated with the brand. With sportswomen around the globe creating a storm in every arena and with the Women’s World Cup just around the corner, I thought that it was time to showcase that women’s cricket holds equal importance, and this association, is giving me the opportunity and platform to do exactly that.

Q. There is a biopic being made on you, Shabaash Mithu. Did your younger version imagine it happening someday? What does this mean to you?
It feels great to have a biopic being made on yourself. It means that you have made an impact in this lifetime and that your hard work has got its due. If you would have told my 16-year-old self that a biopic will be made on your life one day, I would have definitely laughed it off. I hope Shabaash Mithu inspires young kids to take up cricket. It will showcase the growth and evolution of women’s cricket from the time it started to where it is now. It is not just my story, but the story of every female cricketer who played in the ’90s, their struggles and challenges. How society looked at women taking up cricket, which was largely a male-dominated sport in the ’90s, to where it is now. Women’s cricket now comes under the BCCI, which was unimaginable back then. Today, we are at a stage wherein women can actually think of cricket as a viable career option.

Q. To what extent were you consulted for Shabaash Mithu, script or film-wise?
They have asked for my assistance in terms of understanding my experience and challenges as a cricketer, as well as what worked and how things were for a woman to take up a sport like cricket in the ’90s and to reach where it is today. But being an active current player, I did not get the time to go to the shoot to see how things were shaping up. So, even I am looking forward to the movie.

Q. What do films like Shabaash Mithu and Chakda ’Xpress (a biopic on Jhulan Goswami) mean for women’s cricket? How do you think they will give a boost to the sport?
This trend is clearly showing that the audience is taking notice of women’s cricket and would want to see the journey of women’s cricket on the big screen. It is not about my biopic or Jhulan’s biopic, it’s actually a biopic on a sport that was once a male-dominated arena. It’s our struggle through the ages and a way of inspiring millions of women out there who are still not sure if cricket should be their calling. So, it is a way of getting the masses acquainted with women’s cricket and how it has transformed in the past couple of years. I am confident that these movies will offer young girls in our country the much needed ‘hope’ — that they too can pursue their passion and represent India one day.

Q. How has lockdown been for you? What has it taught you?
In its initial days, when movement was completely restricted, it was certainly challenging because training at home was difficult, owing to space constraints. As a current player, it’s important to be active and physically agile through net practice and training, otherwise, our bodies won’t respond the way they should on-field. I was constantly in touch with my trainer and physiotherapist, and they were a big help to get me through the lockdown, mentally and physically. It’s important to have faith and hope. That is something which I’ve used when I felt low. I always had faith that things will get better and that at some point, we will get through this.

Q. When do you see the women’s IPL happening?
I believe that BCCI will come up with the tournament when they feel the time is right. Right now, I feel instead of talking about the IPL, it’s important that we focus on the World Cup as it’s a major event for the team. If the squad does well in the World Cup, it will be a huge boost for the sport in the country and for domestic players as well.

Q. Lastly, what do you think are the steps needed to promote women’s cricket in our country?
Women’s cricket in India has grown significantly since we joined the BCCI. The more a sport gets televised, the more it amasses attention. Since the time we have been coming on-screen, the outlook towards women has changed by a huge margin and going forward, I feel that leagues like IPL can give the opportunity to many first-class and new women cricketers to showcase their cricketing skills and talent.

Awards and achievements:

• Arjuna Award – 2003
• Padma Shri – 2015
• Khel Ratna Award – 2021
• First Indian woman to score 1,000 world cup runs
• Played most consecutive women’s One Day Internationals for a team (109)
• Highest run-scorer in women’s international cricket
• Only female cricketer to surpass the 7,000 run mark in women’s ODI matches

Twitter/Instagram: @heenakhandlwal

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