Winning World Cup would be a revolution - Mithali Raj
When a 23-year old Mithali Raj captained the India women's team for the first time at a World Cup, in 2005, little would she have imagined of leading the side to their best finish - runners-up to Australia - in a global tournament till date. Twelve years, three World Cups, a stockpile of records and a belated central contract later, Raj continues to have her mind hinged on the elusive encore with hopes of "destiny repeating itself…hopefully, for the better" in the eleventh edition of the World Cup, starting June 24 in England.
Even as a personal milestone beckons - she needs 212 runs to overtake Charlotte Edwards as the leading run-scorer in women's ODIs - in what will be her last World Cup, Raj's opening words at the team's departure press conference in Mumbai on Saturday offered a glimpse into what the attempt to winning the trophy means to her. "We want to win the World Cup because it would be a revolution kind of a thing for Indian women's cricket," she said. "It would give a big impetus for young girls to take up the sport."
For India to get anywhere close to accomplishing their first objective - "to get into the semis" - or "showcase the brand of cricket the girls have been playing for the past couple of years", much will rely on the efficacy of their pace contingent, as will on its durability.
However, with only three genuine quick bowlers in the squad - Jhulan Goswami, Shikha Pandey and Mansi Joshi - for conditions that have traditionally favoured seam and swing bowling, India have opted to go into the World Cup with a pace attack quantitatively weaker than all other seven teams. Raj, though, isn't fretting over it; she believes India's persistence with spin irrespective of conditions have borne fruit.
"The three fast bowlers have done well in the last two series," she explained. "We can't really predict that anybody would get injured during the World Cup. But, yes, it's important that all three are fresh and they are at their fittest. So, I am sure that we'll not have any kind of an injury in the World Cup for the pacers or, for that matter, for any player from the side.
"Honestly, everybody prefers to have extra fast bowlers in the side. But India have always banked on spinners, irrespective of the wicket that we've played on. Whether it's Australia or South Africa [or elsewhere], spinners have done exceptionally well."
Raj was unambiguous in her assertion of the role she expects the seniors - not only her and Goswami but also others like vice-captain Harmanpreet Kaur, Pandey and Veda Krishnamurthy - to play in the tournament.
"There are a few seniors already aware of the expectations and the pressures that one faces during the World Cup," she said. "But the youngsters are the ones that we, as seniors, always make sure we can be there for them during the pressure situations because for all the first-timers playing the World Cup, I'm sure the expectations and pressures are huge for them as youngsters."
Ironically, though, over the past 15 months, during which India scripted 16 successive victories - equalling the second-longest winning streak in women's ODIs - it is the side's younger crop of players that has eased pressure off Raj. Much of this is due to the steadfastness of youngsters as much as it has been because of Raj's inimitable batting prowess.
Winning the quadrangular series in South Africa last month "made a lot of difference" to the team's mindset, according to Raj, particularly for "comeback player" Punam Raut, who forged a record 320-run partnership with the 19-year old Deepti Sharma.
"It sorted a lot of issues for us, because India has always struggled with the opening pair. But, in that series, and even in the [World Cup] Qualifiers, we had very good starts," she said. "So, I guess in the last two series we've seen the openers doing their bit, giving us the right kind of start, whether posting a total or chasing a huge total like 270. And South Africa is a side which has a good bowling attack and playing them, beating them at home is exceptional."
The one area India have struggled with in recent times is to find a wicketkeeper who can contribute with the bat. Sushma Verma, who has featured in 40 internationals, has a high score of 4* in eight ODI innings and 12 in six T20I innings, batting mostly at No. 8 or 9. The inclusion of Nuzhat Parween, the second wicketkeeper, is an attempt to plug this gap.
While emphasing the need for the middle order to step up and close out games, Raj underlined the value of the under-utilised, and mostly under-rated batting acumen of 28-year old allrounder, Shikha Pandey. To Raj, it is the security that Pandey offers as an aggressive accumulator, with the flexibility of playing second fiddle to the set batsman at the other end, that makes her an important cog.
"She can open with the new ball and even come in and bat in the lower-middle order," Raj said. "She can be a good support for a batter out there, for someone like Harman or Veda, if they are around. With Shikha there, we can still think of a victory, needing 70-80 runs."
It is of significance that Raj made mention of Pandey, for the last time India recorded a victory in England - albeit in a different format - it was Pandey who had hit the winning runs in Raj's company to seal the Test win in Wormsley. The picture of Pandey holding her bat aloft in utter delight after hitting the winning four, remains one of the most defining images in the history of Indian women's cricket.
It is a moment that Raj and the rest of the team would want to remind themselves of when they take on hosts England in the tournament opener on June 24, and a tableau they will hope to recreate in coloured clothing probably on July 23 too, at Lord's.
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo