Mithali Raj sets sights on World T20

 

Mithali Raj does everything unhurried. When a wicket is taken, she is usually the last to reach the celebratory huddle. She doesn’t bustle with great urgency to her fielding position between overs. When she takes a catch, she doesn’t fist pump excitedly or sprint to high-five the bowler. She leads India in ODIs, but not in T20Is. And she seems to like it. She suggests the occasional field change to her captain Harmanpreet Kaur, and perhaps offers tactical advice to the bowler, but other than that Raj simply does her thing.
Batting is her thing. On Saturday, she played another signature innings in Cape Town and set up India’s series win in the five-T20I series. Coming into the game with a 2-1 lead, after a washout in Centurion, India were asked to bat first. Soon enough, Raj had South Africa regretting that decision. Assured against pace and sure-footed against spin, she constructed a sublime 62 off 50 balls. By the time she was dismissed in the 16th over, India had 130, and the impetus to launch an assault that carried them to 166 for 4. South Africa would finish well short.
It was Raj’s third 50-plus score in four innings of the T20 series, after an underwhelming one-day series that produced scores of 45, 20 and 4. She finished the T20s with 192 runs at an average of 96, and was named Player of the Match as well as Player of the Series.
“Honestly, I am not someone who is very fond of the T20 format,” Raj told ESPNcricinfo in Cape Town, not long after collecting her collecting her trophies. “But since I am preparing for the T20 World Cup, it was important for me to start scoring runs in this format to gain that momentum. I am very happy that this series has given me that confidence that I can be a T20 player.
“It is a conscious effort to turn my game so that I can get used to the T20 format because as an opener it is important that I have all-round shots and also see that aerial route, because the first six overs are crucial so you can give a start to the team.”
Raj is 35. She is the talisman of this Indian women’s cricket team and is comfortable in that role. She chuckles with a “do I look old?” when reminded that she is the veteran in this group of effervescent, young women who captured the nation’s attention in their stirring run to the World Cup final last year.
Now, with the World T20 in West Indies in October, Raj is conditioning her mind and style of play for that challenge. Around her a solid core has formed – Smriti Mandhana counters the new ball, Harmanpreet and Veda Krishnamurthy provide middle-order muscle, and in 17-year old Jemimah Rodrigues, who shared a 98-run stand with Raj in the series clincher, a star is being nurtured.
“Yes, that has helped my batting, knowing that the team is not completely dependent on me,” she said. “I can at times take that initiative to try out a few strokes in the middle, without getting bothered if I get out. I am very happy that we have more than one or two match-winners in the squad. That makes it a very strong squad.”
There’s work to be done though if India are to be serious World T20 contenders. Raj wants more runs from the lower order so the team isn’t dependent on the top five. She expects the spinners to play a key role on slower pitches that are likely to be on offer in the West Indies. Next up is a three-ODI series at home against Australia in March, followed by a T20 tri-series in Mumbai that also involves England, an Asia Cup, and a tour to Sri Lanka.
Following the dual series triumph in South Africa, Raj is convinced that the profile of the women’s game can continue to rise in India.