Raj braces for opener challenge
Mithali Raj has been carrying India's batting for years and the veteran batsman and captain has set herself a new challenge going into the Women's World Twenty20 in Bangladesh. Having batted at No 3 or 4 for most of her career, Raj will open India's innings in the tournament, practising the strategy that the side's best batsman should get the most deliveries in limited-overs formats. While it is an opportunity for her to provide impetus to the team upfront in a world event, Raj also sees it as something of a personal challenge, an attempt to prosper in a format which hasn't exactly been her preferred one.
"I have worked hard on this and would like to give the team good starts," Raj said. "Opening is challenging. I want to challenge myself. Initially when T20 started I never really liked it. But I have come prepared, and have worked mentally very hard to get attuned to this format. I want to rate myself as a T20 player. I want to prove that to myself. I have tried it against Sri Lanka and it has worked."
Raj made 42 and 53 at the top of the order in the warm-up matches against Ireland and New Zealand but she knows too much cannot be read into those scores. And while she may be coming in at the start of the fielding restrictions, she is unlikely to abandon her favoured cover drive for a switch-hit anytime soon.
"My form has been good but I am not getting complacent," she said. "There is a big difference between the warm-ups and the main event. I will play to my strengths. I won't adapt to the extent where you have to make a 360-degree change."
Raj's promotion means the middle order will be marshaled by the capable duo of one-day opener Poonam Raut and vice-captain Harmanpreet Kaur, and the captain was pleased that both had hit some form in the practice matches.
"It is good to see them get some runs. It is good that there are a couple of players ready to take responsibility in the middle order," Raj said. "I know that they are always there after me in case I fail to give the start the team wants."
Barring a few of her players striking form, Raj refused to attach any more importance to the warm-ups.
"I don't consider the warm-ups as benchmarks," she said. "They were of course helpful for the girls to get used to the surroundings and the atmosphere. We have two-three new spinners, and it was also a chance for me to gauge them."
The tournament is being staged in the subcontinent, in conditions that India can ideally claim familiarity with. Raj did not think this was the case, at least going by the surfaces she had witnessed for the practice games, which she felt were hard and not quite turners.
At the last world event they played in - the Women's World Cup 2013 in India - the hosts crashed out of the first round with losses to England and Sri Lanka. India find themselves with the same teams at the World T20, in Group B which also has West Indies and Bangladesh. Raj admitted the team faced the pressure of playing a World Cup, but she intended to go in with a clear mind regardless of last year's results.
"We won't carry the past here, that is for sure. (But) irrespective of where the World Cup is played, the pressure is always there," Raj said. "No matter how many world events you have played in, it is always going into a fresh one. Don't think it decreases because you are away from home. The event itself carries huge pressure. Everyone expects you to do well."
India will begin their campaign against Sri Lanka on March 24 in Sylhet.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo