The Indian flag is fluttering proudly on a bright day at the pastoral Taunton Cricket Ground in England. In another corner is the spire of the Taunton church that keeps vigil over the ground. It’s August 16, 2002, a day after India’s fifty-fifth Independence Day and the penultimate day of their six-week tour of England and Ireland. Barring two facile wins against Ireland, India have no good on-field memories to carry back home from this tour. They were dismissed for a beyond embarrassing 26 in an ODI within days of getting off the plane. But today, at Taunton, the third day of the Test match against England, has so far been their best day of the tour. Mithali is stroking the ball well. But will that be enough to wipe out the scars of 26 all out?
Mithali is on 97 when she loses Hemlata Kala to a run-out, having added 144 runs with her. Her maiden Test century comes shortly after that, but two more wickets fall by the time she reaches 126. From a steady 244 for 3 in response to England’s 329, India are reduced to 297 for 6 and are suddenly on the back foot.
Mithali has already batted for around six hours, having taken guard soon after tea on day two. Her hands are hurting lifting her 1.5 kilogram BDM bat.
It’s a grumpy Jhulan who pads up and goes out to join her. In the dressing room, Tarak Sinha, the coach, had pleaded with her to ‘go save the match’.
Jhulan, who as a bowler had got very little batting practice at the nets, was annoyed. ‘Kya yaar! Ek din bhi batting nahin dete ho aur abhi keh rahe ho ki match save karo!’—You want me to save the match after not giving me any batting practice!
In the middle, Mithali confides in her new partner that she’s tired. She’s not sure how long she can go on. Jhulan, in her first few months as an international cricketer, suddenly cannot afford to be angry anymore. She straightaway has a job at hand: to motivate Mithali to carry on.
‘Don’t say that,’ she urges her team-mate, who’s around the same age, but has a few years’ international experience on her. ‘You can do it. We have to do it for India. If you aren’t able to concentrate or you are feeling tired, just look at the flag. Even if you don’t do it for yourself, do it for the flag.
‘You keep playing, I will support you. I won’t get out.’
Jhulan’s words prove to be just what Mithali needs to refocus. The two bat on, and on, and on. They frustrate England for more than three hours. By the time they are separated early on the final morning, Mithali’s 214 is the new highest individual score in Test cricket. Her 598-minute knock and 157 run-stand for the seventh wicket with Jhulan remain world records to date.
If that wasn’t satisfaction enough, they have also struck payday with Jyoti Joshi. The tour manager had promised them a gift if they did well. Mithali got £10 and Jhulan £5.
Mithali and Jhulan—icons of India Women for more than a decade and half now. In the age of hashtags, they could be #MilJhul, like Pakistan’s Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan are #MisYou. 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.
Mithali and Jhulan’s initial forays into the sport were as different as possible.
Mithali’s story started in Hyderabad in the early ’90s, when she was still in primary school. Dorai Raj, an ex-serviceman known for his discipline, wanted a remedy for what he saw as his daughter’s laziness. She loved to sleep. So to get her to wake up early, he decided to take her along to the cricket academy where his older son was enrolled. There, Mithali caught the attention of Jyothi Prakash, a former Ranji Trophy player and the head coach of the academy. Convinced she had a little something special in her, he urged Dorai to take Mithali to Sampath Kumar, a popular grass roots coach who had been involved with the Hyderabad Ranji team and counted Purnima among his students.
Sampath ran a coaching camp for girls at the Keyes High School, where Mithali studied. Unlike many female cricketers in India who first played cricket casually with the boys, Mithali started straightaway in a professional setup. Impressed, Sampath promised himself and Dorai that he would make Mithali play for India at the earliest.
In Class X, the prodigy had to choose between training as a Bharatanatyam dancer and playing cricket. ‘Cricket is a sport I was pushed into. Dance is one vocation I think I was drawn to. Cricket happened to me. I was destined to be a cricketer,’ she told us. But when the call was taken, her parents too bought into the plan completely. The house revolved around the game of this quiet, serious girl. Her parents became her shock absorbers after Sampath fell to his death in a freak accident.
They ensured that Mithali never deviated from her track. In her words, she became a ‘racehorse’. While she enjoyed batting on and on, it would be a long time before she could stop seeing playing cricket as her ‘duty’: ‘At times, I wondered why I was playing cricket. But when I see them putting in so much effort for me, I just had to do it for them. They were loyal to me, they didn’t expect anything from me, but put in so much. I should at least be loyal to them.’
At the same time, in another part of the country, another girl was getting ready to fall in love with cricket. Jhulan was seven years old when people from her locality in Chakdaha, West Bengal gathered in front of a TV to watch the 1990 football World Cup in Italy. Argentina’s Diego Maradona mesmerised her. Cricket entered the small screen through the early morning telecast of the 1992 men’s World Cup from Australia and New Zealand. Coloured clothing, floodlights, white ball, black sightscreen—the mixture was irresistible to this growing girl. Yet, it was only after the 1997 Women’s World Cup final at Eden Gardens in Kolkata, where she was a ball girl, that Jhulan’s dreams got direction. Watching Cathryn Fitzpatrick bowl as fast as she could gave her a purpose, and that was the end of her tryst with tennis-ball cricket at the Friends’ Club in her locality. She travelled the eighty kilometres from Chakdaha to Vivekananda Park in south Kolkata by train three days a week, returning on time for school. Jhulan’s parents were initially sceptical about the arrangement, but Swapan Sadhu, her coach, talked them into it. Practice started at 7.30 a.m., and if she was late, the coach did not give her a bowl that day.
Jhulan saw Mithali for the first time at the under-19 Chandra Tripathi tournament in February 2000. Mithali had already made her India debut the previous year, and was leading South Zone, while Jhulan was East Zone’s opening bowler.
‘I was thinking, wow, she is an India player. That gave me a boost when I was bowling.’
Jhulan took just ‘one ball’ to dismiss Mithali when they faced off in Rae Bareli. ‘Yorker. Three stumps broken.’ Mithali out for a duck.
By June that year, they were in the same side, attending the pre-World Cup camps in Chandigarh. Jhulan was not picked for the 2000 World Cup, but by January 2002, when England visited India for five ODIs and a Test, they were team-mates.
Excerpted with permission from The Fire Burns Blue: A History of Women’s Cricket in India by Karunya Keshav and Sidhanta Patnaik. Published by Westland Sport, an imprint of Westland Publications Pvt Ltd,