Mithali Raj’s legacy is about inspiring a generation to take up the sport

Twenty-three years of excellence at the highest level. Add two World Cup finals, 93 fifty-plus scores, 10,868 international runs, ODI century on debut, a Test double hundred as a teenager (still the second highest score in women’s Tests) and one understands the monstrosity of Mithali Raj’s achievements as a player.

However, her real legacy isn’t just the numbers. Rather, it is one of empowerment, about inspiring a generation of young girls to take to the sport. When Mithali led the team to a World Cup final in 2005, there was hardly any coverage. No one was bothered about what was really happening with the women’s team. Even after the final the team had to travel in unreserved compartments and at times had to sit next to toilets to be able to reach their destination.

Now, things are profoundly different. The team travels in the business class and the Women’s Indian Premier League (WIPL), which will make the sport a viable career option for the young girls in the country, is just a year away. Mithali has presided over this transformation and led India not just on the field but off it as well. That’s what makes her a true pioneer of the sport. What explains Mithali’s longevity is a question that has often been debated. The answer lies in what she did towards the end of the first Covid-19 lockdown.

For the record, Mithali had already played 21 years by then and had little left to prove to anyone. However, none of this mattered to her. With an eye on the ODI World Cup in New Zealand, she moved to Bengaluru from Hyderabad, rented an apartment, and prepared for days in isolation with a personal trainer. She wanted to ensure that she did not catch the virus while getting ready for the World Cup, which was originally slated to be held in February 2021 but the ICC postponed it by a year, and Mithali had to call off her preparations.

For Mithali, it was always about working the hardest. In doing so, she never let ego get the better of her. It reflected in her leadership too. She was happy to take suggestions from youngsters in the team. She had once said, “Whenever I feel nervous I try and interact with the youngsters, for they give a very different energy. So, it’s nice to be around youngsters who don’t carry the same amount of pressure that an experienced player carries.

“There were times when I looked up to the team for confidence because as a captain there are games where you feel that pressure, that it is a do or die situation and you alone have to give confidence to the team. But there were a couple of situations where I looked up to the team and found the seasoned players like Jhulan (Goswami) also under the same pressure. But then there are youngsters who don’t care about all this because they are young into the team and don’t carry the baggage of the past. It is actually quite refreshing.”

Having led the team for years and having seen the system evolve into a structure of sorts, Mithali, in her second innings, could be a treasure for the sport going forward. Not only can she make a very good commentator, she also has the acumen and the knowledge to be in administration and guide the women’s game. With the WIPL in the offing, a major role could see a very different side of Mithali and give her yet another challenge to go after. With her at the helm, we can be sure of one thing: There will never be any dearth of effort. That’s what she leaves behind as her lasting legacy — work hard and give your best.

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