As the clock ticked over midnight on December 3 in Bangkok, Mithali Raj completed her 34th year. There would have been a celebration during the day, some cake would have been wiped off her face. But there would have been no late-night party. As midnight crept past and the dawn arrived, Mithali Raj would have been fast asleep, preparing for a big day.
The final of the Asia Cup on December 4 would be a tense affair. It was after all, an India-Pakistan encounter. And it came with more emotional baggage than what Taylor Swift brings into her relationships. A loss to Pakistan in the World Twenty20 earlier in the year, the forfeiture of ICC championship points, and a tense game in the league stage against the same opponents hung over the final. But they would not deter her. She had saved her best for the last, and in typically consistent manner, delivered.
Now that the tournament is done, it is safe to say the Asia Cup is “her tournament”.
It is a title that something as banal as the “Player of the Series” award cannot encompass. Nor can the “Player of the Match” award in the final. But she won those two anyway.
Not even because she scored the most runs (220 in five matches). Not even because she scored almost double the runs as the number two batter (Javeria Khan with 128), in one match less.
Not even because she scaled a career best score, in a final, in a format that many believe she is not suited for.
More than anything, the Asia Cup is Raj’s tournament, because she has been there, and owned it, from the start.
Consider this. When Raj played the first Asia Cup, her opening current partner Smriti Mandhana had just begun to learn how to bat. Nadia Akhter, Bangladesh’s slow left arm bowler, and the youngest in the tournament, was just four years old. And still Raj keeps brushing aside sore knees, doubts and opponents, and lets her bat do the talking.
The first ever Asia Cup in 2004, a tournament in which Pakistan never ended up sending a team, featured only Sri Lanka and India. It was a few months before Raj was handed the captaincy of the Indian team. Such was her domination, that she was only dismissed for the first time in the tournament in the fifth game, having remained unbeaten in the first three and not batted in the fourth.
From one high to another
In the next two editions, she missed out on the top spot in the batting charts, but she did add two trophies to her captain’s cabinet. She duly reclaimed the top spot in the 2008 tournament (335 runs in six matches).
While those victories and scores were almost facile considering the skill level of the field, in the 2012 Asia Cup, Raj faced steeper inclines off the field. She had to sit on the sidelines with an injury in the final, and watched as the batting side folded against an emerging Pakistan for a mere 81. The bowlers held on though, with Harmanpreet Kaur standing in as captain, and scraped through to hand her yet another title under her leadership.
Her sixth Asia Cup is has had her coming full circle again. Like in the first, she is not the skipper of the side, having recently been replaced as Twenty20 captain by Harmanpreet. Unencumbered, she has underlined her value to the side with the bat, with 138 more runs than the next Indian batter. It is also against the strongest field in Asia Cups, with both Pakistan and Sri Lanka having beaten India in T20s since the last edition.
And now, the World Cup
In the league stage, Pakistan gave India a few headaches, pushing India to the last over in a chase of 97. There too, Raj top scored with 36 on a turning wicket, and set India up for the win. And in the final, she carried her bat through the innings, notching up her second fifty in the tournament. She also climbed to the top of the charts for best batting average in T20Is.
The Asia Cup is hers, like it is no other players, bar perhaps Jhulan Goswami. But the cup she really wants has eluded her since 2005. Then, as a young captain, her team fell short against Australia in the World Cup final in South Africa. Two close defeats in the home WT20 this year too were an opportunity lost, as the Indian team had been building up nicely for the event.
“I want to lift the World Cup trophy before I hang up my boots, which has eluded me all these years”, she had said a few months ago. Now with the Women’s World Cup in 2017 to be held in England, she has yet another shot.
Snehal Pradhan is a former women’s international cricketer. She tweets here.