Raj eyes World Cup glory in hope of brighter future
Mithali Raj is right. "Everybody", as she puts it, was rooting for India. Even England, their opposition in the Women's World Cup final, wanted to see Raj and her team at Lord's.
"India being in the final is the best result for women's cricket," Heather Knight, England's captain, said. "There's massive scope for growth and support from India. And with their team being in the final, BCCI will take note and support women's cricket the way it should be."
The BCCI have already done exactly that. On the eve of the final, they announced a bonus of INR 50 lakh (approx US $ 77,500) for each member of the squad, irrespective of whether they return home with the trophy or not. It means that for reaching the final, Indian women will receive more than three times the amount of an annual Grade A contract, which is set at INR 15 Lakh (approx US $23,200). If they win, who knows how much richer they could become.
Raj hoped the wealth won't be measured only in numbers. "There might be a lot of changes back home if we go on to win the World Cup, and those changes will benefit the future generations," she said. "Women's cricket in India will have a brand of its own. It won't require anything else to support it and promote it as a sport. This platform and this win will definitely give it that edge for young girls to take up sport back home and maybe a women's IPL might be in the pipeline."
This is not the first time Raj has proposed a women's IPL. Before last year's World T20, Raj predicted that if India did well at the event, it would "give birth" to the women's IPL. As things transpired, India only won one of their four group games and did not make the semi-finals. Now, things have changed. The team is on the up and Raj has reason to restate her request for an IPL.
"It is time. Looking at the way the girls have been performing in the last couple of years. And we've seen how Smriti and Hamanpreet have benefitted from their exposure to WBBL," she said. "I am sure if the other young girls in the squad are exposed to the culture of a T20 league, the domestic standard in Indian women's cricket will also improve immensely."
Knight agreed that an IPL could become one of the showpiece events for the women's game, and that the performance of the Indian team at this World Cup could be the catalyst for starting it. "A women's IPL would be brilliant. The BBL and KSL have been really successful and they've been a part of pushing women's cricket forward," she said. "You've seen players involved in those competitions really develop and perform in this World Cup. All we can keep doing as cricketers is keep improving and keep pushing. The more cricket we play, the more competitive and close games, people will improve quicker."
England coach, Mark Robinson, however, was a little more sceptical about another T20 competition. Being a national coach, his reservations are understandable, especially because the women's game is still trying to find its feet when it comes to regular bilateral fixtures. "I think we have to play more international cricket before we get into IPL. We don't play enough international games. We haven't played since November coming into this competition," he said. "We can't get too far ahead of ourselves. England need to play New Zealand more, Australia more, South Africa more. We need to play more good games, home games from a selfish point of view. The IPL might improve cricket in India, but we want to play more international games."
Even in that regard, Raj aimed to please. Though T20 is foremost on her mind, she also wanted to see the game develop more traditionally. "I would also prefer women cricketers playing the longer format, because that is the ultimate challenge," Raj, who has played 10 Tests, said. "T20 is a good way of promoting the sport and it gives more range for the batters to be more innovative and proactive in their shot selection. But if you want to see quality bowlers, it's the longer version that you give them that space. We need to have bowlers also in the game and not just focus on batters."
But not at Lord's tomorrow. Raj was hopeful of "plenty of runs" at the ground where she averages 153. She has only played at Lord's twice, first in 2006, when she made 59 in a losing cause, and then in July 2012, when her unbeaten 94 helped India beat England. She remembers the first occasion because all she wanted to do back then, as a 24-year old first-time entrant at the venue, was "click pictures." Now that she is back here to finish her World Cup career, she considers it "destiny."
Though Raj believes she can continue playing for India for a little longer, she has confirmed this is her last World Cup and she wants to give it everything because she does not know how great the rewards could be. "Unlike 2005, where I played with a lot of pressure, this time I want to enjoy being out there," she said. "In all the years, there were a lot of occasions where I could have enjoyed the success of my team or a few of the innings I played, but it never occurred to me. Now, I will make sure I will not let the fear of what might go wrong cross me."
What about what might go right? "It's a final and everybody will have their nerves. No matter how many finals we play, there's always that fear of putting a wrong foot," she said. "But this bunch of players is playing a final for the first time. I don't see any fear in them now. It's completely different to 2005 when we were all overwrought by the situation."
India's calm comes from a place of certainty, because they know that everybody, at least everybody that matters to them, is rooting for them. "The whole world will be watching India play. Everybody is rooting for India back home," Raj said. "We've been getting calls from various parts of the country to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of the team so far. Everybody is very happy with the way the team has performed through the tournament. One more game can change the fortunes for women's cricket and Indian women's cricket."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent