There’s a little collage of Mithali Raj inside my cupboard, hidden away from the eyes of the world – an effort to keep up my appearance (or attempt to be) as an unbiased journalist (or something like that). It’s one of many that used to litter the walls of my room as a teenager. One that I would often look at, sometimes in awe, sometimes in frustration, sometimes even with disappointment, but most often, to seek inspiration.

Today, over 24 hours after India’s gut-wrenching loss to South Africa that knocked them out of the ICC Women’s ODI Cricket World Cup 2022 in New Zealand, I look at that poster again. But this time, there is a sense of emptiness.

When Raj addressed the press last evening, she appeared, as she later admitted herself, to be lacking emotion. With barely enough time to process the result, its consequences, her own feelings and those of her teammates, she was thrust (again) into the public eye to answer a barrage of difficult, and sometimes leading, questions.

She flashed the occasional smile, but it never really reached her eyes. It felt forced. She didn’t want to be there. Could you blame her?

Her answers, as always, were considered, well-articulated and concise. But there was something else; something awry.

Raj couldn’t hide the disappointment of seeing her dreams shattered | Screenshot

You can rarely read Raj’s face. For one who has dominated the international arena for so long, she plays with a sense of detachment. That is not to say she does not care, but she has, over her career, found her own way to ride the waves effectively. That sense of balance is her greatest strength.

But on Sunday evening, Raj showed more emotion than she has in a long time. When she addressed the press, the dejection was evident. You could hear it in her voice; you could see it in her face. When she took a seat, her head was lowered, cap pulled down firmly, and she continued to wring her fingers until the questions began. At the start, her volume was unusually low, and her voice kind of stuck in her throat for the first few seconds. Once she warmed up, she found some positivity; her sense of humour came to the fore on the odd occasion, and she made sure to acknowledge the efforts of her young team. She was proud, but she couldn’t hide the disappointment of seeing her dreams shattered.

When the questions began with “Hard luck, Mithali”, you could see Raj nodding her head in acknowledgment, trying to smile, and pursing her lips, as if trying desperately to hold back tears. It made for a hard watch – something that became harder when the inevitable questions about her “future” came rolling in.

The thing about Raj is, she has always maintained her composure: in the face of a bouncer barrage, or a spin trial, a media roasting, or the waves of criticism that have come her way in recent years. Love or hate her, one can’t help but admire Raj…

The same can be said about her long-time teammate, Jhulan Goswami.

For over two decades, both Raj and Goswami have been the beating heart of Indian cricket. They have carried loads beyond our comprehension, often willing their teammates on to greater heights. It is because of them, and the many others who came before, that the current generation of Indian cricketers have the platform that is now available to them – a future where it is possible to be a professional cricketer; a future with a potential Women’s IPL; a future that is far brighter than they had ever dreamed of.

The pair fought systems and societies that rarely worked in their favour. They did it, and often won, because they were too good to be ignored; because they were too stubborn to give up; because they had an innate self-belief that carried them through.

To watch them go down last evening, in a match where the scales tilted too many times to keep count, was difficult. To know that one of them was forced out of the match with injury made it harder. And in the end, after that dramatic final over, to see them shrug their shoulders and shake their heads almost as if to say ‘maybe it wasn’t meant to be’, was the kicker.

There should be no place for sentiment in sport. It is a competitive, cut-throat environment, where results matter more than anything. Yet, it often feels like sport is where we see the widest range of emotions, feel most intensely, and react most emotionally.

As millions of hearts broke around the country, there stood two stalwarts, at the top of the batting and bowling trees, arguably the greatest players India has ever seen, simply drinking in the result. No tears, no drooping shoulders, just acceptance. They had fallen short. In front of millions. On the biggest stage. But they continued to be graceful in defeat. They continued to be strong for their teammates. They continued to be typically #MilJhul.

Maybe the tears flowed behind closed doors. Maybe they will continue to for the next few weeks. Maybe they will never quite go away. But whatever the future holds, and whatever they decide to do – despite the hundreds of declarations and decisions being made on their behalf – if that is the last on-field visual we have of Raj and Goswami in India colours, I can live with it, because it sums them up to a ‘T’.

They may have achieved great things – some of which may take decades to overhaul – but they have taken everything in their stride. The highs and the lows, all treated the same.

Maybe that explains the emptiness. Maybe they had been training us to deal with this for years. Maybe this too, we must take in our stride.

In Mithali Raj’s words at the end of the match: “Everything has to come to an end. Everyone goes through this process of starting and ending.”

Ananya Upendran is a former Hyderabad pacer, and now a freelance journalist. She previously worked as Managing Editor of Women’s CricZone.

Also read: For Team India, a heartbreaking end to a strange old World Cup campaign