<
>

Raj finds life lonely at the top

play
'My game would be better if I had more support' - Raj (3:09)

India captain Mithali Raj felt burdened by there not being quality batsmen after her that could help her play more freely as a batsman (3:09)

There's a number missing on Mithali Raj's profile page. Her international career has been going so long that when she began they didn't count balls faced methodically. So she has no official strike rate. Indeed, when she first turned out for India it was still unclear how the Millennium Bug was going to play out.

Yet for all the 18 years that have passed with her at the top level - where she has now become the format's highest-ever scorer, passing Charlotte Edwards' 5992-run mark before going to eclipse the 6000-run barrier - it has been much the same story.

Today, no better vignette: swamped by Australia in a fixture with added relevance after both sides stumbled on the weekend. Sure enough, the world champions collected an easy eight-wicket win and locked up a semi-final spot. But back to them later.

The reason this was so predictable is that it has always been this way, according to Raj. "One constant is the burden that I have carried all through my career," she began, in a refreshingly frank exchange with reporters after play. "It has always played on my mind."

It's a quandary. Raj knows her presence "gives a lot of confidence" to those with her. It did to century-maker Punam Raut. The 156-run stand between the two would ordinarily be enough to set up most white-ball games. But when she's done, the opposite is too often true. Here, only one other India player outside Raut and Raj tallied double figures. It goes some way to understanding the conservatism that underpinned her hand, never striking at higher than 60, for the most part below 50.

"Playing for a stronger side with more players to stand up and win games it gives you the freedom to play your shots and you don't have to think about what happens if you get out," Raj said. "There are times when you want to take calculated risks, but 'What if you get out?' has always been in the back of my mind through my career. India has always had that problem. Faced with crunch matches, the team doesn't step up."

"There are times where I can push it to the next level but I never got that opportunity in the teams that I've played"

Mithali Raj

Raj's personal heights, contrasted against her side's underwhelming effort, provided this pause for deeper reflection. Despite her celebrated body of work, she cut a bleak figure. "There are times where I can push it to the next level," she said. "But I never got that opportunity in the teams that I've played. I lacked three or four players who could stand up."

She points to her opposing number. Australia captain Meg Lanning was also in the records; the youngest to 5000 total international runs - absurdly, by age 25. Finishing unbeaten on 76, she is one short of 3000 ODI runs as well. "To repeat the same kind of innings time and again, you have to have the backup," Raj said of the draining experience combating Australia.

There is no better encapsulation of this than Lanning and Ellyse Perry's astonishing record together. Here, just another unbeaten 114-run union for the third wicket to steer victory 29 balls early. In chases the pair now have five 100-plus stands in nine attempts, only once failing to reach 50 side by side. That dependability Raj craves, right in front of her.

Helping Lanning and Perry was a sturdy start provided by Nicole Bolton and Beth Mooney. Neither were in much a hurry, knowing they needn't be. Counterintuitively, losing their wickets in the 16th then 23rd overs added to the ease of the victory for the two it brought next.

Lanning's fluency came just as Perry arrived, punctuated by a straight six where barely half a swing was required. The autopilot kicked in, each over from 28 to 31 bringing a boundary, the team's 150 then their own 50-partnership. Any sting was long gone. India's spinners laboured but lacked penetration, given dismal support in the field. Raj seethed.

Next, a 55-ball half-century for Lanning, carving and steering away. Meanwhile, Perry put her own foot down either side to notch up her own fifty - her fourth in a row and 22nd of her career - finishing the game clobbering a straight boundary past that other Indian mainstay Jhulan Goswami.

Perry career average swells to 51.39. It sat in the teens four years ago when she was Australia's No. 9, going at better than 80 thereafter. As for Lanning, she's ticking along at 55.53 across her 62 ODIs. Again, absurd. The both of them.

With the ball, Australia turned in a much-improved display. Sending India in, Ashleigh Gardner was promoted to new-ball duties with her offbreaks. It has been a rapid journey for the 20-year-old who was a batsman who could trundle a bit until recently. Winning the battle of the young guns, Smitri Mandhana was the first to go when Gardner won her edge behind early.

A grinding Powerplay ensued, that included 47 dot balls. "We were keen to have a whole lot of fielders in their eyeline and make it difficult for them to get off strike," Lanning said. It worked.

If not for a savvy DRS challenge to a leg-before decision when 11, Raj would have departed shortly thereafter. But her 34th run, a modest push to mid-on, put her on top of the all-comers list. A more buoyant charge-and-slap over the mid-off rope off Kristen Beams added some sense of occasion in clearing the 6000-run barrier an over later.

Raut slowly began to take on the Australians through a series of laps and hoicks, at last making better progress. The stand, too, finally grew potent in the batting power play where 33 were added leading into the final ten.

But true to form, the innings lost its way when Raj returned a catch to Beams on 69. Raut went on to a well-earned hundred, her second in ODIs, and celebrated accordingly. Yet without her captain, she followed her off soon enough. Only Harmanpreet's breezy 23 did any further damage, as the Australians put on the brakes with wickets.

Spin was again integral to Australia's attack, but encouragingly they also had Perry back hitting stumps by the death. The attack leader battled in her first spell after troubles against England but bounced back for her first wickets in three starts.

While Australia are into the semi-finals with victory, for India, their final group game becomes a quasi-quarter final, needing to overcome New Zealand. Back to Raj, with whom the day's final word should reside. Her final reflection is deflating as far as a prognosis is concerned: "If it is a very crucial game which decides the win, we have usually faltered in that match." Realistic or ominous, either way, she would give anything to be proven wrong. Just this once.