Exclusive | Mithali Raj in conversation with WION Photograph:( AFP )
The captain of Indian women's cricket team in WODI's, Mithali Raj, in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, opened up on life under lockdown, cricket post-COVID-19, challenges of training indoors, the growth of women's cricket, India's chances in 2021 Women's World Cup, the emergence of young talents in the women's team and much more.
The captain of Indian women's cricket team in WODI's Mithali Raj, in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, opened up on life under lockdown, cricket post-COVID-19, challenges of training indoors, the growth of women's cricket, India's chances in 2021 Women's World Cup, the emergence of young talents in the women's team and much more.
DSD: Good to have you on our lockdown series Mithali, how have you been holding up?
Mithali Raj: Initially it was tough to adjust to the new circumstances. As athletes, we are used to being outdoors, so it is difficult to be confined to these four walls. For all athletes, it is a challenge to deal with such a shift from their daily routines and that has a mental effect on the person as well.
But as athletes, we are also trained to adapt to the conditions, so that's what I tried to do after the initial few days of the lockdown. I have tried to follow some sort of a schedule during this period.
DSD: I did scroll through your Twitter feed and clearly fitness and fitness tips have been top of the agenda through the last month and a half…
Mithali Raj: As international athletes, we have maintained a certain fitness level throughout our careers. However, we do not have access to the resources we have been training with, whether it be the gym or training ground. It is a challenge to train during this lockdown, but one has to try to do the best with the resources available. Some people might have access to a running track inside their society or some fitness equipment at home. But others like myself do not have those resources, so we are compelled to find creative ways to use our spaces inside our homes to maintain our physical fitness. I have been in constant touch with my trainer. It is natural that there will be some drop in our fitness levels during the lockdown, but we have to ensure that we maintain a basic level of training, so that once normalcy resumes we don't have to start from scratch.
DSD: Over the course of this series I have been speaking to some of India's top sportspersons and every sport has a different fitness routine….as a cricketer, how do you compensate for the lack of outdoor activity?
Mithali Raj: Initially I did some shadow and drop ball drills that I used to do when I had just started playing the game. But that becomes monotonous after a few days. So now I practice some shots with a tennis ball with the help of the kids in apartments. That way the children also have some activity and I'm in some way working on my skills.
DSD: Can you tell us a little about the way you have been contributing to those who are struggling during this crisis?
Mithali Raj: Yes I have tried to help out some migrant workers who are stranded here in Hyderabad. Most of them do not have access to essential services during the lockdown. I have also reached out to some university students who are stuck here because they too some times struggle for their day to day needs. I realise that I am in a privileged financial position and also fortunate that I can be with my family during this crisis. Everyone wants to be around their loved ones during this time and some aren't fortunate enough to be able to do that. I have some friends who are involved in various charitable activities and sometimes I just tag along with them to make myself aware of the reality around me. We become so engrossed in the rat race of our lives that we fail to realise how fortunate we are as people. When I see these people who are struggling, I realise what is really important in life. Sport is a huge part of my life and I am very grateful for the career it has given me, but it is not important than life itself.
DSD: One recurring theme through these conversations Mithali has been perspective. We are currently locked indoors by an invisible enemy. What are the lessons humanity has to take from this period?
Mithali Raj: I think this crisis is a great equaliser. The coronavirus doesn't see religion, caste or financial status. Everyone is equally susceptible to the disease. The government is trying very hard to encourage everyone to contribute towards the coronavirus funds. Everything else takes a back seat, once you see there are people struggling for access to the basic necessities of life.
DSD: As things stand international travel seems to be a big no-no at least till the end of September-October. For someone like you, that means it could be close to a year with no international action. Sunil Chhetri told me that every month that you don’t play makes it even more difficult if you are over 35. How challenging will it be for you to stay sharp?
Mithali Raj: The last One Day International I played was in November last year. After that, the team was preparing for the t20 world cup, so there wasn't any ODI series. Assuming things improve in the next few months, we will return to action in September or October. That means I would have been out of international action for about a year. I try to look at this break as a positive one for me to work on my fitness.despite the fact that I am stuck indoors, it does give me an opportunity to prepare physically and mentally for the next tournament, whenever it may come. I'm using this time to work on my fundamentals, be it for my fitness or cricket. There are so many aspects of your game that I don't get time to work on, because of the hectic schedule. So I am working on improving some of my weaknesses and hopefully this will bear some fruit when I am back in action.
DSD: The team will not get the opportunity to be together for a long time, how will this also affect the lead-up to the 2021 world cup?
Mithali Raj: I think the future is very uncertain. It is difficult to say when we will be allowed to train outdoors, or when we will be allowed to travel for international matches. But when things do open up, we will get a better idea of the time frame we have for preparation. I'm sure every country will have a plan in mind for the World Cup, but that will only come to fruition once the lockdown ends. Being the captain of the team, my priority will be to get the girls together and create a positive environment for them which will fast-track the progress that is needed for us to get back on the field.
DSD: That’s the last dance for you isn't it? You have come so near in the past, and as we speak, is that your biggest regret not being able to get over the line especially the last final?
Mithali Raj: Yes, that is something that keeps me going. I thought the 2017 World Cup would be my last and I gave it my absolute all, but unfortunately, we fell at the final hurdle. The fact that we were so close to winning and then gave it away, does hurt a lot. We reached the final in 2005 as well but we were comprehensively beaten on that occasion. The final loss in 2017 has given me extra motivation to prepare for the 2021 World Cup and hopefully, we can go one step further this time.
DSD: Just before the COVID-19 crashed our lives you were at the MCG for that T20 World Cup final. It Didn’t go our way but what a sight for the women’s game to have a packed house…
Mithali Raj: Yes, women's cricket has come a long way since I started playing back in 1999. I never thought I would see a packed house in a venue like the MCG for a women's cricket match. It was not just the fans inside the stadium, the final between India and Australia also attracted record viewership. Women's cricket is definitely growing across the world and we are on the right path. There are people who closely follow women's cricket and importantly there are people who see it as a viable source of income, in terms of marketing and investments.
DSD: Consistency though doesn’t always guarantee results, clearly the occasion got to the team in March and also in the World Cup final …how do you learn from these losses as a team?
Mithali Raj: When a team loses by a small margin, it is never because of the ability of the players. Usually, the team that is able to handle the pressure and keep its nerves comes out on top. So there have been a few occasions when we have reached the final of a major tournament but not been able to cross the line. We certainly have to work on being able to handle the pressure of playing in a big game. I have also noticed that even in the bilateral series we have played in the last two years, we have won the opening couple of games but lost the final few matches. We need to maintain our levels throughout the series because, in major ICC tournaments, it is during the latter stages of the events that you need to step up your game. I don't think we are any less capable than any team in the world, it is just that we need to be more mentally focussed during high-pressure games and believe in our ability as players.
DSD: Lots of talks right now that with boards across the world bleeding money the women’s game could be sacrificed. Does that frustrate you?
Mithali Raj: I haven't heard of any such development, but if that does happen it would be very disappointing. Women's cricket has come a long way and this coronavirus shutdown should not break the momentum that has been built over the last few years. I am very optimistic that the 2021 ODI World Cup will take place in February and that might attract many new fans to the women's game. The event might happen at the perfect time when people are longing for some sporting action. So that tournament will hopefully widen the fan base of the game and also draw in some major revenue for the game of cricket.
DSD: The International Olympic Committee has over the last few years batted for gender equality. The Tokyo games will see about 47 per cent female participation. Yet when it comes to pay there is no parity in professional sport. The US women's football team is having to go to court against USA soccer for equal pay. Why is this even a discussion?
Mithali Raj: It's not just about equal pay, it is about what the boards or organisers are doing to promote women's sport. For the women's game to grow, it needs to be given the same platform as the men's game. A women's tournament needs to be marketed as well as any other event for it to become a revenue generator. These issues are sometimes ignored when we talk about equality in sport. If there is a game of football on TV and I have the option of watching a men's match or a women's match, I would probably tune in to the men's game. That might not be because the men's game is of higher quality, but because the game has been marketed better and the players I see are more recognisable. The perspective of the viewer has to change towards women's sport and that has to be addressed in a holistic manner. The problem is not limited to sporting authorities or organisations, our whole approach towards the sport has to change.
DSD: You started your career at a time when not many, even the BCCI, frankly cared about the game. Things have changed now and with women’s cricket coming under the BCCI fold, lots of things have changed. The two World Cup final appearances have really helped the public image of women’s cricket as well, now you are also featuring in campaigns along with the men’s team...
Mithali Raj: I think it was a great moment when women's cricket in India came under the umbrella of the BCCI in 2006. Since then there have been a lot of positive changes for women's cricketers in India and the national team. When I started playing the game internationally in 1999, we didn't even play in stadiums, we used to play in whatever local ground was available. But now things have changed substantially because of the BCCI, the national team plays in international stadiums all over the world. The BCCI has elevated the status of the women's game in the country. We are given access to excellent facilities and grounds, at par with the men's national team.
When I started playing with the national team, we barely had any support staff. There was just the coach and manager who travelled with the team. The recent T20 World Cup contingent was probably the largest in terms of the number of people in the support staff for the women's team, that just shows how far the game has come. This is a result of the steps taken by the board for the growth of the women's game. Initially, the board did struggle to come up with a structure for the game in India. However, there is a framework in place for the game now, with the emergence of the India U-19 and India 'A' teams. These teams will act as feeders to the national team and will make us an even stronger unit in the long term. Back in the late 90s, even if a couple of senior players retired, it would take a few years for the team to get the balance right again.
DSD: You made your international debut in 1999…we have lots of young prodigies now breaking into the current team. What do you tell a young prodigy like Shafali Verma, Jemimah Rodrigues about adjusting to the 50 over format from T20?
Mithali Raj: I think every generation has a different approach to new challenges. Every approach to the game has pros and cons, there is certainly a difference in the way the younger generation plays the game, but that is only natural and positive for the growth of the sport. As far as their progress is concerned, it is important for them to stay grounded and focus on what is important. There are a lot of distractions in the age of social media and it can be tough to deal with. You can become an overnight star, but also lose everything you've got in a matter of days. The youngsters need mentoring and guidance so that they have the right balance in their lives. Anything that is done in extreme has an adverse effect in the long term. Even passion has its limits, it can prove to be detrimental. It is also important for them to have fun, that is part of the learning process. But they should never forget that they are India cricketers and representing the country. At the end of the day, it is their job to play the game of cricket and that is what earns them their bread. They have to realise that they are role models to millions and the way they conduct themselves is what people will remember them for.