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Interviews

Mithali Raj: 'Happy women's cricket is now sustainable for young girls in India'

"The way my journey ran parallel to the growth of women's cricket, to still be part of something so huge makes me very happy"

Vishal Dikshit
Vishal Dikshit
14-Feb-2023
Mithali Raj watches a Women's T20 Challenge match, Sharjah, November 9, 2020

Mithali Raj watches a Women's T20 Challenge match  •  BCCI

More than five years after she said that "the time is right for a women's IPL", Mithali Raj became part of the auction ahead of the inaugural Women's Premier League, when she sat on Gujarat Giants' table in her capacity as the team's mentor. She spoke to ESPNcricinfo after the auction about the occasion, how emotional and overwhelming it all was, the challenges of putting together a team for the first time, and more.
How does it feel to finally be here and be a part of the first day of the WPL, so to say?
I would say it is quite an experience to be a part of the auction for the first time. I got to know a lot of things, how an auction happens. And yes, there had been a lot of talk in the last three-four years about a women's league and finally it's happening. The first stage, or the auctions, are done, and now the main tournament begins in a couple of weeks. I'm excited to still be part of something big in women's cricket because the way my journey ran parallel to the growth of women's cricket and saw so many changes in the way the sport evolved stage-wise, and to still be part of something so huge - maybe in a different capacity, not as a player - I'm very happy.
What was it like when you got a call from Gujarat Giants to join their coaching staff? What does it mean to you to groom youngsters and be a part of the auction?
When you have a new franchise, you try and get in all your experience, your learnings, the info about all the players you've played with and watched because you want to give the best. And you have the opportunity to set up a good foundation and that is why I felt it was very important to be a part of the auction and try and come up with the best strategy, along with the experience I could garner along with Rach [Rachael Haynes, the head coach] and Nooshin [Al Khadeer, the bowling coach].
Was it emotional to walk in to the auction room with Haynes and see the grandness of the auction and the buzz around it?
When I came here, I was just soaking in the atmosphere of people coming in. I've not really seen how the auctions happen in the men's IPL, but it was like preparing for your exams. You have a syllabus but sometimes it can go out of syllabus. I just wanted to be there and not get lost in the grandeur of this environment. I'm just happy that it has come to a point where women's cricket now is a sustainable sport on its own for young girls in India. Not just in India, even club cricketers abroad in two-three years' time, maybe even they would probably want to be a part of a set-up like this.
How did you approach the auction? You have known Nooshin for a long time but how much time did you get to prepare with Haynes?
When we got her onboard, we started homework about putting things together. It's been like a week-and-a-half to put things together, work on how we want the team to shape.
There's not much data about the younger or unknown domestic players. You and Nooshin, who has coached the Under-19 girls and domestic teams in India, must have come together to put your information to use?
That works well for us because I've played domestic whenever I've been in India, and she's been part of the domestic set-up as a coach for quite some time. Not just the young players, there were many that we felt as and when we see them, we register in our mind that we have to give it a thought [to buy or not], and that helped us pick up uncapped players.
At the press conference you said you had learnt from the franchises that have been part of the IPL auctions in previous years. What did you learn?
Sometimes you get to see how a franchise was a little late in picking up their first player. By then there were some who had already picked four or five players. These are the things you try and understand, like which franchise is playing the waiting game, who is buying right from the word go, who is looking for what sort of squad composition in terms of domestic and overseas players. It's a learning curve.
Did anything about the auction surprise you? Like how many players went for over INR 3 crore [Smriti Mandhana], or how Harmanpreet Kaur and Alyssa Healy got relatively lower bids?
That's part of the auction. Sometimes you expect certain players to go high and some to go low and vice-versa. But that's what is fascinating about auctions and about the other franchises, how the players are rated in their scheme of things.
What do you take from here now? It was a long day, you will have to start preparing soon.
Yes, the prep will start but first I'm heading to South Africa [to commentate on the Women's T20 World Cup].

Vishal Dikshit is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo