Not all heroes wear capes; some simply wield a cricket bat ever so quietly and go about doing their job.
The end result of their simple, heartfelt endeavour is that they end up inspiring the next-generation cricketers; those who look at the sport as a way of life; as a determiner of fortunes.
That Mithali Raj did so with much humility- and for 23 years- has actually bore rich fruit for Cricket, on the whole, and not just Indian Cricket.
Twenty or thirty years hence, as one will look back to appreciate figures who helped the Women’s game come a long mile, walking past an era besieged by toxic masculinity, then in Mithali Raj one will find a colossus.
One will recognise in Mithali a towering figure who lorded the sport so often only described by the feats achieved by Sachin Kohli, de Villiers and Gayle.
All of her 10,169 white-ball runs, 7805 of which came just in ODI’s, came for her team’s cause; not in an act of self elongation.
The quiet blue hat wearer, admired by her own teammates, respected by her opponents and celebrated by media that can often be tin-eared and unsparing at the back of an ordinary series result or two, Mithali Raj gave back more to cricket than she took from it.
And what she took, lest it is forgotten, were the countless opportunities and challenges that she dutifully turned into run-scoring opportunities; efforts that iconic figures- past and current- tip their hats to, whether one speaks of a Sachin Tendulkar, Alan Wilkins, Harsha Bhogle, Nain Abidi, Sana Mir, or Rahul Dravid.
Though, what she’s given back, over and above a gigantic order of runs and records, is a certain cricketing culture, which it may not be wrong to say, is fast dying out or fizzing away.
In an age where everyone desires instant results, where everything is fast, not just the pace of bowling but the duration of the shortest format of white-ball game; Mithali Raj was a throwback to a period where patience was still the gold-emblazoned mark of victory in the sport, not just the wildly-attempted hoists or disdainfully slammed sixes that win the game.
While both fetch victories today, back in the day, the former was paid more importance as audiences have changed and so have their incessant demands from the sport today; where perhaps the big hits or a tank full of sixes in highlights watched on a handheld gadget generate more TRPs than witnessing a live game, where an athlete puts all the stamina and patience to build an inning.
After all, where’s the time to sit through the whole of an inning in front of the idiot box, right?
That Mithali became a star later and a fulfilment of talent first also, in a way, symbolises the process cricket was once known to afford its practitioners as opposed to operating in an era, where one makes headlines on any random day playing leagues that are too similar in theme, too many to note, where you may end up a hero but not necessarily at the back of a notable domestic record or thorough body of run making.
Which in some ways explains why Mithali’s exit from the sport may not sadden or draw much of an emotion from the armchair blogger for whom Test cricket, for instance, is nothing more than a sleep-inducing punishment whilst T20s, a celebration of cricket.
Though to her India, to which she was an inspirational leader, until the last day at office, circa the 2022 World Cup ODI game (versus the Proteas), Mithali’s exit leaves a massive void.
A classic ambassador of the low-risk-high-reward brand of batting, where one persisted amid difficult periods and didn’t necessarily cut loose from ball one, Mithali, let it be clear, was no Alyssa Healy, Hayley Matthews or Smriti Mandhana.
If you wanted someone to belt four sixes in an over to get you over the line, you’d turn to Harmanpreet, not the Rumi reading captain of the Indian Women’s team who was calmly head buried in the book minutes before she walked out to bat against England and scored a winning fifty (2017 ODI World Cup).
If you wanted someone to score a run-a-ball century, probably Smriti would be your first rate choice, not Mithali as such.
But when it came to repairing an inning that was going nowhere and holding onto an end single-handedly or lending solidity to the middle that the team so desperately sought, Mithali Raj would be the go-to bat.
She stood for temerity, a classic example of which was her not losing heart, when despite scoring a ton upon her Test debut, the Rajasthan-born was ignored for the fast-approaching Women’s ODI World Cup.
She was just 16 then. Only three years earlier had the Jodhpur-born cricketer begun playing league games in Hyderabad.
Few today put a price on their wicket and build sustained moments of pressure in the white ball game.
Cricket’s fast winding down the path of hit it right away and smash the ball to the smithereens, which isn’t entirely strange but is the game just that?
That Mithali demonstrated courage, got her eye in before bursting out and didn’t just hang in there, but scored for as long as she occupied the wicket, made her’s a prized one.
Make no mistake she faced some of the greatest challengers with the white ball; opponents failing against whom would compel fans to take snide digs at you.
But that she faced them all equally well whether- Marizanne Kapp to Asmavia Iqbal, Lea Tahuhu to Shabnim Ismail, Chanida Sutthiruang to Diana Baig, Anya Shrubsole to Anisa Mohammed, Shamilia Connell to Shauna Kavanagh- marked Mithali’s batting with a stamp of distinction.
Truly speaking, spending nearly two and half decades in any profession is something worthy of respect. That Mithali didn’t just hang around for 23 years in the sport but remained right on top was testimony again to the value system that may seem a touch dated today in the fast paced world; where there’s little regard for patience; where the practitioner of the virtue may even run the risk of being dubbed boring.
Surely, had Mithali upped the tempo of her run making, she may even have occupied pedestals one deems coveted than the rest; ones to which a Healy, Lanning or Devine belong.
But again, cricket doesn’t work on the imagined or predetermined; it is a result of how best one utilises one’s potential.
That Mithali did her part as she could, being the highest ODI run maker in the history of the Women’s game, the first Indian to score 2,000 T20I runs, leading the team to not one but two ODI World Cup finals, are evidences of a cricketer, who despite being a trailblazer, didn’t desire as being looked as one.
For not everyone aspires to the epicentre of a glitzy selfie; some just wear a look of humility and move on giving everything to their team.
Go well, Mithali!