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Mithali Raj's legacy is defined by all those who followed her into the game

She leaves as the leading run scorer, but she should also be remembered for all the work she did to bring the women's game into the mainstream in India

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
For the first 17 years of her career, Mithali Raj had to contend with widespread indifference and neglect towards women's cricket in India. The 2017 World Cup performance changed that  •  Harry Trump/ICC/Getty Images

For the first 17 years of her career, Mithali Raj had to contend with widespread indifference and neglect towards women's cricket in India. The 2017 World Cup performance changed that  •  Harry Trump/ICC/Getty Images

"I'm done with seeing women's cricket occupy a corner of sports pages," Mithali Raj once told me. "It's upon us to make it to the front page." It was the first time I saw her emotions bubble over for in over three weeks of following the team at the 2012 Women's T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka.
India had exited the tournament in the group stage, and a crestfallen Raj was embarrassed further when she was instructed to look left and right at the press conference, as if to suggest she was answering questions from all sides of the room. In truth, she was looking at empty seats but for a lone journalist, this writer, and a cameraperson.
"Hopefully, women's press conferences will also be packed in a few years," she said, while leaving that empty press-conference room in Galle. "Hope I will still be playing."
Three weeks before that, in Bangalore, she had waited alone at a pre-World Cup press conference for ten minutes before the team manager told her the event had been cancelled because no journalist had turned up. A little while later, India men's captain MS Dhoni's pre-World Cup media conference was crammed. The general mood from Raj's cancelled media interaction highlighted neglect and indifference - the qualities that marked the popular response in India to women's cricket for much of her career.
Raj went on to play three more 50-over and T20 World Cups (12 overall), a testimony to her commitment and hunger to make women's cricket mainstream. And five years on from that 2012 tournament, her dream came true when India finished runners-up at the 2017 World Cup in England.
On arriving in India after that 2017 tournament, the squad had to be whisked out of the Mumbai airport because of the unmanageable number of fans and media persons who had turned up to see them. Raj finally had recognition without having to ask for it. She was firmly on the front pages, having, with her team, moved from lives of relative anonymity to ones in the public glare.
The team got a grand welcome, and endorsements, TV campaigns, celebrity meet-and-greets, and public appearances followed, which brought with them financial windfalls. Raj had to remind people a few times that this wasn't India's first appearance in a World Cup final. They had done so in 2005, too, but with hardly any fanfare.
Even if her career had ended there in 2017, she would have walked away as a pathbreaker. She had already played for 18 years then. She was the youngest century-maker in women's ODIs at the time, the most-capped player in the format, and a recipient of the prestigious Arjuna award. She had led India to four Asia Cup titles (three in ODIs and one in T20Is), a landmark Test win in England, and a first series win in Australia - the list is long. Yet the much-awaited attention in 2017 was as satisfying as any other win. To see the fans clamour for the players, who had turned into stars overnight, told you how things had changed.
In 2016, when I visited her at her home in Hyderabad to write a profile of her, we spoke about social media among other things,. She had a few hundred Twitter followers then. "Why don't you like the limelight?" I joked. "People aren't queuing up to find out what Mithali Raj is up to or what she is eating," she laughed.
On Wednesday, when Raj announced her retirement on social media she had a following of over 2.5 million across Twitter and Instagram and she was the toast of the nation, among the trending topics on Twitter, back on the sports pages again. I couldn't help but remember that Galle afternoon ten years ago.
Many of Raj's contributions to the game have come away from the spotlight. As a teenager, she said she trained like a racehorse, because cricket was her only career path - at a time when there was no money in the game and the BCCI was nearly a decade away from taking over women's cricket.
From Silchar to Surat, Faridabad to Mangalagiri - she batted on all sorts of pitches and grounds, travelling in trains, sometimes without a seat reservation, on measly allowances that barely covered one meal, and lived in barely acceptable accommodations.
She was the link between a generation that played for the love for the game and the one that plays for contracts - both domestic and international. In the days before there were adequate numbers of support staff, she was the one young players turned to for advice
Raj has organised nets and travel to and from venues, played manager, negotiated better pay, waited in the BCCI's corridors in Mumbai, even as captain, to lobby for central contracts, which were eventually granted in 2016.
The absence of a World Cup winner's medal in her CV can't define her legacy. The runs, the hours of toil, the way she has inspired a generation of girls to take up cricket as a career path, should.
You may wonder if Raj delayed her eventual exit by a few years, but that doesn't take anything away from her intangible contributions to the game in India. Beyond the runs and wickets, trophies and contracts, she gave women's cricket dignity and respect, and was a role model in every sense for the Mandhanas, Rodrigueses and Shafalis who followed.
Harmanpreet Kaur, who succeeded her as India's captain, put it succinctly when she said, "Cricket was a dream and when I started off my career, I had no idea that women's cricket existed. But the only name ever told or heard was yours, Mithali di. You sowed the seed for all the young girls to take up this sport and dream big."
At 39, a glorious second innings beckons for Raj. She will have options to choose from - a career behind the mic, or in coaching or administration. Whatever she picks, it will only add to her legacy as a trailblazer who paved the way for a better future.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo