Any and every discussion on Indian women's cricket has to feature Mithali Raj. One of the best players to have played for the country, she has shouldered the burden of expectations on her short frame for over a decade. Come May 19, she will step onto the hallowed turf of the Lord's Cricket Ground without any of that pressure. Instead, she will soak in the excitement surrounding the first-ever fixture between the Marylebone Cricket Club and the Rest of the World.
The Indian captain, who is among the most experienced batswomen in world cricket, has been chosen to represent the Rest of the World in a one-day match to celebrate the bicentenary of the 'home of cricket'. Raj will be joined by another stellar Indian cricketer, former captain and new-ball bowler Jhulan Goswami, in the Rest team.
“It will be a great experience to play for the Rest of the World XI along with some other superb players. This is the first time a Rest of the World team will be playing,” Raj told dna. “I am not going put myself under too much pressure. I want to soak in the excitement and play with players from different teams. It will give me an opportunity to interact with them. I am looking at it from a different perspective, unlike a match where I have to perform. I have gone through that pressure all these years. I just want to go out there and have fun. I just want to have fun. Representing the Rest of the World will add another feather to my cap,” the 31-year-old added.
Raj is no stranger to England, or Lord's. Back in 2002, she had registered the-then highest individual score by a batswoman in Tests — 214. And in two appearances at Lord's, she scored two half-centuries, missing out on a rare century by six runs in 2012. “Playing at Lord's and scoring runs is something very special. There is a huge history behind the ground. Initially, you get goosebumps but once you get onto the field, you forget everything. Also, the Indian team will be touring England in August and we again play at Lord's,” said the right-handed batswoman who represents Railways in domestic tournaments.
Raj, who recently led India in the World T20 in Bangladesh, enjoyed great success on a personal front. And the fact that she opened the batting for the first time only made it special. “This was the first tournament where I opened for the country. I went in with the purpose to give the start the team needed, which was not the case earlier. I did reasonably well. But we didn't do well as a team. Had we won the game against Sri Lanka, we would have been in contention for a semifinal berth. Then, we went on to win against pool toppers West Indies. Somewhere, the consistency was not there.”
Raj's decision to move up left a void in the middle order. “I thought if I pushed myself up the order, maybe Harmanpreet (Kaur) and Poonam (Raut) could take the team from there. It seemed like there was a hollow in the middle order,” she said.
She added that her vast international experience made the transformation from the middle-order to the openers' role easier. “Though I got very less matches before the World T20 – I started to open in two matches against Sri Lanka series – and I just had the domestic season to open the innings, my preparation was okay. Experience wise, I was pretty raw as an opener. I tried to use my experience in this format.
“Thankfully, since my basics are right, I did not take time to get used to the new ball. When batting in middle order, you need to work on placements when the field is spread. When you open, you take more risks with the fielders in the circle. Your scoring rate is high. I enjoyed opening not just for the runs I scored but it was a different feeling when you walk out to open for the country, which I have not experienced all these years. That was something very special this World T20,” the Hyderabadi said.
Raj and handling pressure go hand-in-hand. On her rests the batting responsibility and more often than not, she has delivered. “Once you start playing at that level, you get used to the pressure. Sometimes, when the pressure is not there, you feel out of place. It is part of my preparation and my game. When you get used to that kind of atmosphere when people expect every time you walk in to score runs, it becomes part of your preparation and it something like your basics,” she said when asked how she handles the burden of expectations. “Perhaps, the men cricketers experience double or treble the pressure that I go through,” she added.