Mithali Raj may just have done more for Indian women's cricket with one innings than several others have in a lifetime. Scoring 214 in the second and final Test against England, the 19-year-old now holds the record for the highest individual score in Women's Test cricket.
This is, however, not the first time an Indian has held this record. When Sandhya Agarwal made 190 in the third Test against England at Manchester in 1986, it was a moment deserving of celebration in India. The highest score in women's Test cricket had just been scored by an Indian, beating the 189 made by Betty Snowball.
The joy of Indian fans and the pride of the Women's Cricket Association of India were short-lived, however, as Denise Annets of Australia made 194 in the following year in a Test against England. Several former Indian players mischievously whisper, half jocularly, that the English bowlers perhaps did not try their best to dismiss Annetts as she approached Agarwal's mark.
Agarwal and that little tale apart, Mithali has inscribed her name in the record-books with little controversy. A player of immense talent, Raj has consistently impressed observers who have seen her play at all levels. Beginning to play serious cricket when she was just nine, when her father started to coach her, Mithali constantly played her cricket against women both older and more accomplished than her. Perhaps it is this that has made her mature beyond her years.
A shy girl off the field, Mithali stays away from most press conferences and interviews, preferring to let her bat do the talking. But that is hardly unusual for someone from Hyderabad. A place, they say, can shape a person. and Hyderabad has produced some of the most stylish batsmen in Indian cricket history. From ML Jaisimha to Mohammad Azharuddin, every cricketer from that city has wielded the willow more with skill and flair than raw power. A slightly built girl, Mithali is no different. Using the pace of the bowler to great effect, Mithali is more likely to time the ball through the gaps rather than thump it past the fielder.
Those who have watched her bat are not in the least surprised by her success. Sudha Shah, former Indian captain and coach, stressed on Mithali's ability to keep a cool head. "From the time I first saw her bat, when she was about 10 years old, I've said this girl will go places. She makes batting look so easy," said Shah. As coach, Shah has worked extensively with Mithali and has always believed that the middle-order bat would go far.
"She's cool-headed and quite mature for her age. Don't be fooled by the fact that she's 19," added Shah. Coach of the Indian team that played the CricInfo Women's World Cup in New Zealand, Shah felt Mithali's illness greatly hampered India's progress in that tournament. "If she had been fit and played every match, I think India would have done much better. She's a thinking cricketer and never lets the pressure get to her," explained Shah. Laid low with a rare strain of typhoid, Mithali missed most of the World Cup, only able to watch as India made it to the semi-finals before losing to eventual champions New Zealand.
Mithali's captain at the domestic level, GS Lakshmi, who has probably seen more of her than anyone else, was delighted to hear the news of Mithali's big score. "I'm extremely happy to hear this. I believed she was the best bat India has produced since Rajni Venugopal, but now I think she has surpassed even her," said Lakshmi from her residence in Hyderabad.
"She's so young and yet so mature, and as captain I expect a lot from her. I would say this is a great achievement, but believe me, she has a long way to go and will be one of India's leading cricketers," said an obviously proud skipper. Even in domestic cricket, Mithali has been in great form of late, scoring an unbeaten 99 in the final of a tournament against Air India, one of the strongest sides around.
Lakshmi remembers that innings, and many more like it, with clarity. "It would be wrong to pinpoint just one innings of hers. She has won so many matches for us at Railways and previously for other teams too. The best thing about her is the way she picks herself up after a failure. As captain, you know that a big knock is always round the corner. Even if she fails in two or three games, she'll come good," explained Lakshmi. "And you also know what, when wickets fall early at one end, she relishes the challenge. Mithali is not one to let her partner do all the work. She rotates the strike well and will score at a good rate."
At this very moment, though, Mithali will not be too worried about the rate at which she is scoring. In just her fourth Test innings, and with 0, 55, 9 not out being her previous scores, she has arrived on the world scene in dramatic fashion. Now she can sit back and savour the moment.