On January 24 but not before 2027, Shafali Verma, a great find of the game, the youngest woman to ever represent Team India, will turn 23.
But what’s amply evident is that while there are cricketers serving India who are yet to turn 23, there are also those, choicest in a rare lot, who have served the nation for just as many years.
Yet, all of this may seem like one grand number, or at best, a telling statistic.
Because, we don’t fully understand the value of an effort when one says, “I walked 10 kms today,” unless and until one were to state it fully, “I covered such distance in just over 70 minutes!”
Which is why for the current generation to appreciate Mithali Raj’s career, perhaps nothing could be as apt as saying by the time Shafali Verma came into the world, 2004, Mithali had already given half a decade to India.
This only underlines the urgency to visit that part of Mithali Raj around which her cricket revolved: longevity.
In an era of shorter grounds, fifteen member squads, free hits, T10, powerplays, and The Hundred, basically a time where cricket went from being just cricket to a shape-shifting sport, Mithali Raj excelled with longevity.
And not only that; she was consistent at all these times, a prime example of which can be sought from her ODI batting average.
It’s one thing to average in the fifties in a three-match series. Happens often. Nothing miraculous anymore in an era where leniency still sides with the bat.
However, it’s something salutation to average over 50 after playing no fewer than 232 ODI’s for your country.
Just as it is incredibly special to exit the sport you didn’t even think you’d take up in the first place -since Bharatnatyam was the real passion- as its highest ODI run getter!
We know that Mithali Raj has become an adjective of the Women’s game. But that she is among the most recognizable faces of Cricket in the very country, where Kohli, Sachin, Rohit are considered gods, is a sign of her cricketing immortality.
It is also, therefore, a classic case of redefining the template with which one habitually viewed the game India is nuts about; that women don’t belong to the cricket field and their rightful place is perhaps the household kitchen.
Today, as Mithali Raj rules most cricketing records in the Women’s game; highest run maker in ODIs; first batter to touch 2000 T20I runs (whether male or female); most ODI appearances for an Indian woman cricketer; first woman to complete two decades in the Women’s sport; you cannot rule out the importance of values some may consider overrated or perhaps text-bookish.
Dedication, determination, and that will to succeed; pretty much bookmarks you’d find in a book being read by the likes of Dravid or Cook, Vishwanath or Chanderpaul.
That an elite woman cricketer persisted with these values in an age famous for its T20 cricket, Insta feeds, and shorter attention spans goes to show why there’s much meaning in good old values. And maybe also that strong value systems never get old.
But what’s rather striking about Mithali Raj’s career is the glaring parallel you see in the way she hit the cricket ball and her own conduct.
Perhaps it made perfect sense that the (simple and) straightforward person played the ball often straight and leaned beautifully forwards whilst executing the front foot defence.
Her career that muscled its way through the mighty challenges thrown by Lucy Pearson and Clare Connor at the beginning, countered Marizanne Kapp, Nida Dar, Katherine Brunt and Shabnim Ismail as it grew and fended off Amelia Kerr, Masabata Klass, Karishma Ramharack and Sophie Ecclestone when it was on its last legs.
In between, it mastered Isa Guha, defied Shashikala Siriwardene, and locked horns with Sana Mir.
There was a firmness to what Mithali Raj did on the cricket field but never a spot of commotion.
Her cricket was about challenging the authority of India’s opponent; not about temperamental confrontation.
As seen for the better part in 2017 Women’s World Cup as also in July 2021 ODI’s in England, Mithali Raj was the constant unwavering factor about Indian cricket.
One could say, the pivot around whom the team’s batting revolved; the giver of hope to an India that despite having Smriti and Harmanpreet, depended on the senior figurehead.
She was also the lender of solidity and stillness to a batting line up that, for the better part of last half a decade, missed Punam Raut and Veda Krishnamurthy.
But like most careers, one that Mithali Raj presided over, received both: bouquets as well as brickbats.
Her scoring rate, especially in the past couple of seasons, attracted greater scrutiny than before.
It did seem, a form of sloganeering protesting her slow batting and seemingly dull scoring rates would touch wild scowls that one spots during mass protests.
But perhaps what didn’t occur to most of us was the element around which Mithali Raj’s cricket was built.
Much like hope that underpins everything in life, the right hander’s batting stayed true to the belief she held dear: about doing the basics right and never going for the overkill.
It’s precisely what allowed Mithali Raj to play well into her late thirties in a sport utterly ruthless given its physical demands, where cricketers, much like Cobain’s saying, either burn out or fade away.
That none of that happened to Mithali Raj, 10,169 white ball runs, whose brave batting will perhaps linger on like an unavoidable fragrance is reason enough for us to offer a standing ovation.
And the salutes must not only come from the devoted women’s cricket fans. But importantly from those who never really afforded women a place on the cricket field; those of us for whom women, on a cricket field, were perhaps best suited to be only cheerleaders.
That in Mithali Raj, we saw a vastly successful international cricketer and above all, a leader, calm as they come, will doubtlessly inspire girls to pick up a bat everywhere where they’re forced to wield only the kitchen utensil.
And that- well and truly- is the success story of the pillar of Indian cricket.