Eight thousand three hundred and eighty three days since making her debut as a 16-year-old, India’s Mithali Raj announced her retirement from international cricket on Wednesday. “Like all journeys, this one too must come to an end. Today is the day I retire from all forms of International Cricket,” she wrote. And just like that the journey that started on June 26, 1999, in Milton Keynes – with a century against Ireland on debut – came to a close with a social media post on June 8, 2022.
Between those 23 years, the records Mithali Raj broke, and created, are numerous. Very few athletes get to a point in their career where every moment they spend on field is a record that someone else has to break. Just like her mate and fellow traveller on this journey Jhulan Goswami, Mithali too has been doing that for the last five years in One-Day Internationals as every run she scored past Charlotte Edwards’ 5992 was a record of its own. She took it a notch higher in 2021 to take over from the English legend once again, this time at the top of international cricket charts. She bettered Edwards’ tally of 10,273 international runs and now finishes her career with 10,868 runs.
Ten thousand eight hundred and sixty eight runs, scored over a career that spanned nearly 23 years.
But before we delve deeper on her impact, let’s quickly take a look at just a few incredible numbers from Mithali’s international career.
Most runs in ODIs
On the day of her officially recognised first international match in 1999, Mithali walked out to open the batting with another debutant, Reshma Gandhi, and the two of them batted the entire 50 overs, both scoring centuries. At 16 years and 205 days old, Mithali became the youngest woman ever to score an international century and it is a record that stood in ODIs till October 2021 when Ireland’s Amy Hunter scored a ton on her 16th birthday.
And if she set records on the day her international career began, she finished her career too with milestones. On March 27, 2022 – now officially her last day on the field as an Indian cricketer – Mithali finished with a 68 against South Africa, her most fluent innings in an otherwise difficult World Cup campaign. It was her 13th 50-plus score at the ODI World Cup – she started off with one at the same city back in 2000 – which took her past Debbie Hockley’s 12.
Also during the ODI World Cup, Mithali became the first female cricketer, and third all time, to play in six editions. Her ODI career of 22 years and 274 days is the longest in the history of the game. And no one has captained their side in more matches at the ICC Women’s World Cup than Mithali.
Mithali Raj's international career
Another record that is going to take some beating is her 71 fifty-plus scores in One-Day Internationals in 211 innings. Just imagine... a 50 or more once every three innings she batted.
Most 50-plus scores in ODIs
These are numbers that don’t just show how long Mithali was at the top of her game, but they are also a reflection of her remarkable consistency over nearly the entirety of her career.
We’d be here all day long if we are to list out the statistical brilliance of Mithali. And while the numbers are important, and incredible, her immeasurable impact on the game in India is equally (if not more) significant.
Legacy beyond numbers
The overriding theme in the reactions to her retirement on social media was how she put the women’s game on the map in the initial part of her career. The tweet from Harmanpreet Kaur’s account read, “...when I started off my career I had no idea that women’s cricket existed but the only name ever told or heard was yours Mithali Di. You sowed the seed for all the young girls to take up this sport and dream big.”
While the last few years of Mithali’s career witnessed a surge in the interest of the game, and consequentially some scrutiny and divided opinions, for the longest time she performed miracles on the field for her team away from the spotlight. A significant part of her career was spent away from the glare of the media, even fans, as she went about making sure that women’s cricket was in the news thanks mainly to her exploits, but it was almost always just after-the-fact recognition.
It is in that phase of her career that Mithali arguably had the bigger impact on those growing up hoping to pick up a cricket bat and play at a high level.
“The hunger for runs was always there from the very start, not enough people speak about that. She was a trendsetter in the game as someone who broke so many records, there was never ever any complacency,” Nooshin Al Khadeer, former India teammate and one of Mithali’s closest friends, told Scroll.in.
Nooshin, who is now the coach of Indian Railways for whom Mithali plays domestically, also spoke about how her daily regime remained unchanged as recently as last month.
“The fact that when she had just finished the World Cup and she was with the Indian Railways team and her regime was just the same... getting up in the morning, working out, doing her little bit of routine which not many are aware of. Only people who are very close to her, watch her and see the work she has put in. I actually don’t think that is going to change even after retirement. I have seen her from 1999 and for me, I don’t see any change apart from the ageing. Her hunger stayed the same throughout,” the 41-year-old said.
We have been witness to a few record-breaking moments of Mithali’s career recently and got to appreciate the volume of her achievements, the foundation for which were laid down during years when things were not easy.
“I have also seen a Mithali who has single handedly stood in the centre, making sure that India won matches when there was no media coverage, no social media,” Nooshin said.
An unseen gem
While thousands around the world watched in awe as Harmanpreet powered India to the final of the 2017 World Cup with an all-time great ODI innings of 171*, very few witnessed the first time an Indian woman played a blinder in a semi-final. April 07, 2005. Potchefstroom. India were taking on defending champions New Zealand and were down to 38/2 in the 14th over while batting first. Out came Mithali to bat, reportedly with a painful knee, and scored a 91* off 104 balls at a strike rate of 87.50.
“It is one of the classiest innings I have seen in my life,” said Nooshin, who was in the team that day and among the privileged few to have watched it live, when asked if she could close her eyes and think of the Mithali innings that came to her mind first. “To play that innings against the world champions in the semi-final. People talk about power hitting in the modern cricket... that innings of hers was a killer knock.”
- That 91* was India’s highest score at the ICC Women’s ODI World Cup, and remained so until Thirush Kamini’s century against WI in the opening match in 2013.
- It was also briefly the joint highest score in a Women’s World Cup knock-out match, until it was beaten by Rolton’s century against India in the 2005 final.
“Mind you, she had ACL issues at that time in her knee. It’s not easy for a batter to play with a knee issue and to come up with that knock required a lot of character. You won’t even get any footage of that match, we were the deprived ones at that point,” Nooshin continued and finished off with a smile.
Amita Sharma, another Indian player in the XI for that match and who got to spend some time with Mithali in the middle, said she played like a player possessed on that day.
“We lost early wickets and there was a little pressure on us,” Amita, who played more than 100 ODIs for India, told Scroll.in about that innings. “Earlier too, in the ‘97 and 2000 World Cups, we were knocked out in the semis. It was at the back of our minds that the same thing shouldn’t repeat this time.
“Later in the innings though, the last 50 runs or so were very special because she scored against each New Zealand bowler in every direction. She took some time initially but when she did get settled in, her batting was just a joy to watch. There were some shots that we saw her play for the very first time. She didn’t really like the back-foot pull much, she preferred drives and cuts, and the copybook style shots. She played new shots too, and we too were surprised as to how Mithali was playing them. At the same time, she was trying to stay at the crease till the last ball.”
Only two other innings of 50 or more in that entire World Cup were scored at a quicker rate.
“It was the first time in women’s cricket that I saw someone batting at that strike rate, to see someone attack like that... I told her after the match, ‘Aaj tere mein maata aagayi thi.’ (You were batting like you were possessed) You spared not a single bowler.’ It was so special,” Amita added.
And it is in those knocks, and the inspiration it provided in the years to come, where Mithali’s true greatness lies. To go where no Indian woman had gone before in the international arena, to show such things were possible, to provide hopes not just for those starting to play the game but even the players already in her team that when Mithali is around, anything was possible.
“She became such a vital member of the batting line-up in those years,” Amita said. “If Mithu got out, we would feel, ‘What will happen to the batting?’ She was the oxygen of the batting unit. Right now, there are several players that can bat well in the team but at that time, it felt like if she gets out, what will happen? If the Indian team was winning matches because of the batting, she was bound to have made a contribution in that. She had to be the highest run-getter for the Indian batting unit to be able to win.”
In the book The Fire Burns Blue: A History of Women’s Cricket in India authors Karunya Keshav and Sidhanta Patnaik wrote about the Mithali-Jhulan (referred to as MilJhul by fans) impact:
Aptly, ‘miljhul’ means together; nobody else’s fate in Indian women’s cricket has been as intertwined as that of the two. When the game needed somebody to be the best, to drag Indian cricket from the amateur, lackadaisical era of the ’90s into the professional period of the 2000s, it was lucky it got MilJhul, two of the most thorough professionals.
The last we saw Mithali Raj on the cricket field was the heartbreaking defeat against South Africa. She had to put up a smile on her face as she dealt with handshakes with the opponents and then with questions from the media, steady in her answers but evidently feeling the hurt of it. The World Cup title remained elusive for her through the career, and there wasn’t a fairytale finish to this incredible story.
However, the last time we actually saw Mithali Raj on our screens – while she was still on paper an active Indian cricketer – she was in advertisements that were aired during the recent Women’s T20 Challenge, a tournament (hopefully) in its last edition before leading up to a potentially lucrative Women’s IPL. Perhaps, for an athlete who slogged it out day after day away from the limelight for a vast majority of her career, that is a little bit fitting. She had earned herself the privilege to be on primetime television, without even a bat in hand. It is not quite a grand farewell in front of fans, but in a way, it subtly signifies how far the game has come from the time she started, and there is some reward in that. She had earned herself that little bit of privilege.
And now, as Nooshin put it, the time has come to lift those weights off her shoulders.
“The latest conversation I had with her is: ‘Please go for a holiday, thank you.’ That is all I told her.”
All stats for women’s international cricket unless otherwise mentioned, courtesy ESPNCricinfo Statsguru