In a country obsessed with cricket, but where the women's game is barely followed outside cricketing circles, Mithali Raj's remarkable consistency and contribution to Indian cricket over the last two decades is almost superhuman.
In the ongoing ICC Women's Cricket World Cup in England, all eyes (minus most cricket fans in India) are on Mithali as she inches closer to smashing another world record: highest run-scorer in women's one-day internationals.
At 5,301 runs, Mithali is just 33 runs behind England's Charlotte Edwards (5,992 runs). In all likelihood, Mithali will seal the deal in India's next game against South Africa on July 8.
Only days back, in India's opening game against England, Raj scored 71, and in the process, notched up many records: this was her seventh consecutive 50, the most by any woman player in ODIs. Mithali, with 47 fifties, also became the player with most fifties to her name.
Mind you, these are only a few of her records. It is indeed a shame and telling about the plight of cricket for women in India that not many are aware of Raj's legend.
Dance versus cricket
Born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan in 1982 to an air force officer father and a homemaker mother, Mithali took to cricket not out of choice. In fact, as a child, her passion was the classical dance form, Bharatnatyam. "It took me a long time to love cricket," she's said, adding that dance came naturally to her. "Cricket happened to me."
Her father, being a strict disciplinarian, was not amused by Mithali's day-dreaming. So at nine, he sent her to a cricketing camp.
In 1997, aged 14, Mithali was first picked as a standby for the World Cup. After much thought, she chose cricket over dance.
In June 1999, on her ODI debut, she announced her arrival on the big stage — with a century (114 not-out) against Ireland in Milton Keynes. She was only 16 years and 250 days old, setting the record for becoming the youngest player to score a hundred.
In a way, this set the script for her career: smashing record after record.
In 2004, Mithali became the youngest captain of the Indian cricket team. Since then, she has led the team in over 100 matches, maximum by an Indian woman.
She has led the team to three Asia Cup victories (between 2005 and 2008), led India to their best run in the World Cup (runners-up in 2005), and also led the side to their first-ever Test and series victory in England.
With an average of 51.80 in 180 matches, Mithali is only one of five women with an average above 50. What makes this figure even more remarkable is the fact that women's game is highly unpredictable and there aren't a lot of matches or series played anyway. "Form" isn't much of a factor as there could be a gap of six months before the next match.
Recently, Mithali has been in the spotlight both on and off the field during the World Cup.
At a media event, Mithali was asked by a reporter who her favourite "male" cricketer was.
Not one to hold back, the Indian captain replied: "Do you ask the same question to a male cricketer? Do you ask them who their favourite female cricketer is? I have always been asked who's your favourite cricketer, but you should ask them who their favourite female cricketer is."
This earned her quite many bouquets and brickbats on social media and elsewhere. Fighting a sexist and apathetic system and media, Mithali is surely setting an example for women in India.
In the match against England, Mithali was the epitome of coolness. Before coming on to score a match-winning knock of 71, the Indian captain was calmly waiting for her turn by reading a book (on Rumi, apparently) at the sidelines.
#MithaliRaj - Queen of ????#WWC17 pic.twitter.com/F8GvP5oZJa— Cricket World Cup (@cricketworldcup) June 24, 2017
When many wondered how she was able to stay so calm, she had the perfect response:
Well it was a perfect weather for a relaxing read. ???????? https://t.co/7IcOTOViob— Mithali Raj (@M_Raj03) June 24, 2017
It is a fact that women's cricket doesn't get much attention - in the public imagination or the mainstream media. Now, it is at least getting some space on social media, thanks to Mithali's exploits. So much so, the Indian captain now has a Twitter emoji to boot.
Only one missing link
In a career spanning two decades, with records being smashed, runs being piled, what's next for Mithali Raj? She has already been named by Wisden as one of the five greats of the game. The World Cup is the only missing accolade in an otherwise remarkable career. This, in all likelihood, will be her final World Cup.
???? Player-on-player interview...India's ???????? @M_Raj03 chats to teammate @ImHarmanpreet ahead of their first match against England! #WWC17 pic.twitter.com/QAdpPkFv9x— Cricket World Cup (@cricketworldcup) June 23, 2017
"This will be my last one-day World Cup. In all practicality, I won’t be a part of the squad in four years. I still have a couple of years in international cricket,” she said.
It would be a fitting finale in a glittering career, but Mithali Raj, in her trademark "Captain Cool" mode, says, “Usually people say it’s your last World Cup, so you should end on a high. I don’t believe in that. It’s an opportunity for me to be myself, express myself, and enjoy the kind of experience the World Cup carries. I probably won’t be a part of it in the next edition. I will try to enjoy it as much as I can and carry a lot of memories – good or bad, it doesn’t matter to me.”
Whether she wins it or not, Mithali Raj is one of cricket's greatest ever.