The drama surrounding Mithali Raj has taken another twist with head coach Ramesh Powar stating in an official report to the BCCI that the player had threatened to pull out of the Women's World T20 and announce her retirement if she was not allowed to open. Powar has also said Raj, who is India's ODI captain, should stop "blackmailing and pressurising" coaches and putting her interests ahead of the team's.
These revelations are part of the coach's appraisal of India's performance in the Caribbean, where they lost in the semi-final against England. Raj was omitted from that match, triggering the controversy. On Wednesday, Powar met BCCI CEO Rahul Johri and the board's head of cricket operations Saba Karim before e-mailing his final report to the pair.
It was as explosive as the letter Raj herself had sent to Johri and Karim earlier this week accusing the coach of "humiliating" her and threatening to "destroy" her career.
His report, accessed by ESPNcricinfo, begins with these strong words:
- Minimum inputs in team meetings; not a single word of appreciation after finishing at the top of the table.
- Could not understand & adapt to team plan. Ignored her role and batted for own milestones.
- Lack of keeping the momentum going which was putting extra pressure on other batters. Worked really hard as a coach to address her power hitting, batting skills and running between the wickets in almost every session.
- In practice games she was struggling to score quickly, as wickets were low bounce & slow. Intent was missing. Could not lean and execute shots due to limited ability in skills &fitness.
In his defence, Powar, who took charge as interim coach, replacing Tushar Arothe, in July, has blamed Raj for manipulating the coaching staff to suit herself at the team's expense. "I hope Mithali Raj stops blackmailing, pressurising coaches & also stops putting her interest first than team's," he wrote. "I hope she will look at the bigger picture & work towards betterment of the Indian women's cricket."
Raj is understood to be part of the group of high-profile senior players responsible for Arothe being forced to step down.
I'm deeply saddened & hurt by the aspersions cast on me. My commitment to the game & 20yrs of playing for my country.The hard work, sweat, in vain.— Mithali Raj (@M_Raj03) November 29, 2018
Today, my patriotism doubted, my skill set questioned & all the mud slinging- it's the darkest day of my life. May god give strength
According to Powar, Raj issued her initial threat to retire and return home on the eve of India's second group match, against Pakistan. She had not batted in the tournament opener, against New Zealand, during which India posted the highest total in the World T20. She had already been told she would bat in the middle order.
Powar explained that Raj, predominantly an opener, had to be pushed down the order because she had struggled to score quickly in the practice games that were played on slow and low pitches. Keeping in mind that scoring against spin would be difficult, especially after the ball loses its hardness, India's batsmen were told to capitalise on the Powerplay.
According to Powar, Raj had agreed to the plan, which he said was "logical". "Mithali's lack of intent to score quickly in practice games prompted us to open with Taniya Bhatia, who always showed intent every time she batted. We used Taniya and D Hemalatha in Powerplay vs New Zealand, which got us 24 runs in 13 balls. It's not always about individual milestones, it's always about team strategies and executions."
But, on the eve of the Pakistan match, Powar said, he was "shell-shocked" by the information that Raj was on the verge of quitting not just the World T20 campaign, but her entire career.
"Video analyst Mr Pushkar Sawant came to my room with the news that fielding coach Mr Biju George conveyed to him that Mithali is upset about not changing the batting order & not allowing her to open in Pakistan match. She has packed her bags to leave with announcement of retirement in the morning.
"I was shell-shocked to understand why? Team had just beaten one of the top teams (New Zealand) and Mithali Raj a legend is still complaining about her batting position(which she agreed upon) & threatening to leave."
Powar said he was "sadden(ed) and baffle(d)" by the senior player's attitude, which he summed up bluntly as: "for Mithali Raj she comes first and then team India".
To prevent any adverse effects on the team, Powar told the captain Harmanpreet and the vice-captain Smriti Mandhana that Raj would open on morning of Pakistan match. Simultaneously, Raj was also informed the same.
"We opened with Mithali Raj due to pressure from travelling selector and Mithali's threatening behaviour (retirement) to go back home if not given a chance to open the innings."
Chasing 134, India reached the target in the penultimate over with Raj finishing with a half-century but Powar said the late finish hurt the side's net run-rate, which tends to be a crucial determining factor in global events.
In all, Raj played out 17 dots in her 47-ball 56. Powar then gave her "one more opportunity" in the third match against Ireland to "prove her ability" as an opener and "execute the team strategies that is to bat with intent (dominance)." And Raj hit second fifty in a row to bag successive Player-of-the-Match awards. But the coach underlined the 25 dots in the 56-ball 51. "(That) added extra pressure & cost us Smriti, Jemimah's [Rodrigues] wicket & net run-rate."
Powar pointed out that Raj "questioned" the plan to dominate at all times and that the situation between him and her proved an unnecessary distraction on the eve of the semi-final against England.
Powar said Raj raised "tantrums" and created "chaos" and even told team manager Trupti Bhattacharya she "wanted to go back home as she was very upset that coach is not looking after a legend player like her." There are several references to attitudinal issues and reluctance to participate in fielding and practice drills.
Powar said that he and Bhattacharya had a telephone call with Karim, who advised them to sort out the matter "amicably".
Nagraj Gollapudi is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo