India One-day International captain Mithali Raj thinks that playing regularly against the top sides – the likes of Australia and England – and more competitive cricket can help the two-time finallists bridge the gap at the very top of the women’s game.

In the current ODI standings, India are behind top-ranked Australia but England lie just one point behind at third place.

“It is important that we play quality cricket often so you are pitted against the best sides,” Raj told on the sidelines of Skechers walkathon promotional event in Mumbai.

Raj, on several occasions, has stressed the importance of India’s lower middle-order contributing more to the team’s cause. The pain and heartbreak of a meek collapse in the 2017 World Cup final at Lord’s against England with victory within India’s sights still hurts Raj.

She added: “It [playing competitive cricket throughout the year] helps the players to understand and manoeuvre pressure situations and work on our lower order [for instance], which is usually never tested in a bilateral series. But in a World Cup, it has its own pressures. There will be times when runs from these batters that will change the dynamics of a team’s win or defeat.”

Since the 2017 World Cup, a young revolution has swept women’s cricket in India. Jemimah Rodrigues, all of 19, has already bulldozed her way into the top-batters club, and is a vital cog for India. In recent times, Radha Yadav and wicketkeeper Taniya Bhatia have caught the eye. All-rounder Deepti Sharma continues to grow from strength-to-strength with bat and ball.

In the first T20 against South Africa, big-hitting batter Shafali Verma who made waves in the Women’s T20 Challenge in 2019, made her debut. The 15-year-old, who said she wanted to fill Raj’s boots in the T20 lineup is a “talented player for the future” according to the veteran.

Making the most of facilities

Raj thinks that the younger crop being polished and skilful at an early age has a lot to do with the exposure they are getting right now. Smriti Mandhana, T20 skipper Harmanpreet Kaur, Rodrigues and now Sharma have plied their trade in the major leagues around the world.

“The regularity of the matches of the matches they play and the different leagues they participate in plays a big role,” Raj said. “There is a big difference in the facilities — they have access to the National Cricket Academy; the different camps they attend to and the continuous cricket they play throughout the year.”

“Also with the U-19 World Cup in the pipeline... the BCCI is showing a lot of interest with them and the India A teams to give us strong second string lineup. With these things in the picture, overall, youngsters today are very busy around the year with camps or matches. Whereas, while I was starting out, throughout the year there was only access to nets because the matches were very few. And the nets were purely on matting. Only the privileged ones would get turf wickets.

“Today, if a young girl wants to learn cricket, she is exposed to facilities like this. It helps them be confident when they actually make their debut.”

Despite having a double hundred to her name in Test cricket, Raj has only 10 caps in a career that has spanned two decades. Only England and Australia play Test cricket now but Raj still has the dream of adding more caps under her belt. Recently, the Indian cricket fraternity celebrated five years since Raj’s outfit toppled a fancied England side led by Charlotte Edwards at Wormsley.

The 36-year-old, however, is aware of the hurdles that lie in promoting five-day cricket.

“As a player, I would love to play Test matches but it is not the best format to promote [women’s game]. If at some level, if you have to promote the sport, T20 alongside ODIs are the best formats to promote. You see, even with the men’s Test matches....they are trying to revive it with the ICC Test Championship. So, I don’t think it would be ideal in terms of marketing but as a player, I would love to play more Test matches as it challenges a player in every aspect of the game.”

Raj, who recently bid adieu from Twenty20 cricket, will be back in the ODI setup after the ongoing T20I series against South Africa in Surat.