It was a fitting moment in Worcester at the of the third One-Day International between England and India. The situation might have been tense for India and their fans but Mithali Raj’s finish was at the complete opposite end of that emotional spectrum. There was nothing tense about it, there was nothing rash. It was calm, serene, the right amount of pressure applied and the mathematics worked out fantastically. There were fielders covering the ring on the off-side to prevent that exact shot, but the Indian captain found the angle anyway.
And all she did was guide the ball from Katherine Brunt through the gap for four. As she had guided her team past the finish line on the day to end a run of five ODI defeats. She wanted to stay till the end and see the job off, and she did just that.
She finished the series as the highest run-scorer by some distance, scoring a half-century in all three matches. She extended her lead at the top of the chart for ODI run-getters, a position she has held for a while now. And she soared to the top of the list of most runs scored in women’s international matches. She made unbeaten 75 off 86 balls to take the visitors home with a strike rate of 87.20.
All in all, it was a really good day for the Indian captain, and importantly, for the Indian team too.
“I never gave up in the middle. It’s being in the middle because you can’t win the match sitting out in the dugout. I wanted to win the game for the team,” said Mithali in the post-match presentation, holding the player of the match award.
“I just needed to get the partnership to take it to the last. That’s something that kept me going through the innings. I knew in the middle overs I could manage the game. When you have young players in the side, you need to guide them along, that’s a responsibility.”
Most runs in the ODI series
It is a responsibility that has, in the past, weighed a bit heavily on Mithali. She has shouldered the load of India’s batting for the large parts of her 22-year-old career. She has had support along the way of course, but when you have a journey as long as she has in international cricket, those responsibilities can take a toll. The current batting lineup, with exciting talent no doubt, has not helped India’s cause with the consistency or lack thereof.
Most runs in international cricket (women)
Speaking after the match, Mithali said that her hunger for runs remains the same as it was 22 years ago but more importantly, she is trying to add new dimensions to her batting heading towards one last hurrah at next year’s ICC Women’s ODI World Cup in New Zealand.
Mithali, who retired from T20 cricket in 2019, has already hinted that the 2022 Women’s ODI World Cup, to be held in New Zealand from March 4 to April 3, will be her swansong.
With vast experience on her back, the 38-year-old right-hander said she is currently enjoying the role of a mentor while fulfilling her responsibility in the team’s batting unit.
“Batting has always been a role play for me in the team, the sort of role that’s assigned to me over the years – taking the responsibility of the batting unit and playing throughout,” she said.
While the first two ODIs saw her play the anchors role as the batting order suffered an all-too-familiar collapse, the benefit of knowing the target helped Mithali pace her innings better in the third match. The start itself was not dissimilar to her ODI knocks, but there were moments when she showed the intent to play lofted shots over the fielders in the ring to keep releasing the pressure bit by bit.
And in the end, in Sneh Rana, she found the perfect partner to make the final push.
“...chasing gives me a better picture of building an innings along with other batters in the middle. I am able to control the game. That really worked for me and also having some young girls in the team, it helps to guide them when you are in the middle; tying to help them also to understand the situation and how to play in these conditions. The entire batting unit revolves around me, that’s the job that is given to me by the coach and team management,” she added.
Mithali heaped praise on Rana, with whom she shared a valuable 50-run stand for the seventh wicket on Saturday, and said she has a bright future in a possible finisher role, adding that all-rounders play a very important role in composition of the team.
And there perhaps lies the secret to unlocking the full potential of this Indian batting unit. If the younger batters play their roles at the top and middle orders, of playing enterprising cricket without getting bogged down, the importance of Mithali’s consistency will only be heightened. Collectively, the chances of a team posting a winning total are much improved when they are not only dependent on their captain to play the anchor’s role while also scoring the highest percentage of runs. A balance needs to be found, something that India have managed well enough while chasing, thanks also to Smriti Mandhana’s extraordinary numbers while batting second.
Mandhana’s record in ODIs while chasing (since Jan 2018)
The lack of runs from Harmanpreet Kaur has been a concern in recent months but Mithali expected her deputy to hit form soon and when that happens, it will add more firepower.
And, the series that started with questions over strike rate, ended with the captain showing what she is capable of in the 50-over format. The Indian team does need a new approach to batting, collectively, in ODIs and especially while setting a target. There is a danger that if they play too safely, they will get left behind and that’s part of the reason the team is asked about strike rates and scoring rates as often as they are. That’s where the debate has been, as far as Mithali is concerned too. Could she bat a bit more freely? She definitely has the game for it, as she showed on Saturday and indeed, as she has showed in the past too when striking much higher while spending more time at the crease.
Having a target in mind helped her control the run-chase, and perhaps having the target to shine at the World Cup will help her and India fine-tune their batting in the months to come too.
While one win after the series was lost doesn’t make India’s problems go away, it ends on the right note with the captain leading from the front on the pitch, and hitting the right notes afterwards.
“The way things have gone it wasn’t an easy journey. It had its trials and challenges. I always believed that trials have a purpose,” she said.
“There were times when I wanted to give up for various reasons but something kept me going and here I am after 22 years of international cricket but the hunger for runs have never sort of dried up.
“I am still very passionate to go out there, be there in the middle and win games for India. I know there is still room for improvements in terms of my batting and that is something I am working on... There are certain dimensions I would like to add to my batting,” she said at the virtual post-match press conference.
You don’t spend as long at the top as she has without evolving, and if the knock at Worcester was anything to go by, she is indeed preparing for one last flourish.