“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others,” wrote the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. “Unfold your own myth.” In 2017, Mithali Raj, who in June at Derby was spotted calmly perusing some of Rumi’s work as she waited to bat in the opening game of the World Cup between India and England, seemed to have taken heed. She soon broke two records. Her 71 off 73 balls that day was her seventh consecutive half-century, the longest sequence in women’s one-day internationals. Two and a half weeks later, during India’s group match against Australia, she passed Charlotte Edwards’s one-day tally of 5,992 – another world record.
India had begun the year still needing to qualify for the World Cup, with few championing the cause of a team who were not just unsung, but under-resourced. But a triumphant campaign at the qualifying event in Colombo – where Raj was dismissed only once in making 207 runs – was followed in England by an against-the-odds rampage to their first World Cup final in 12 years. Along the way, the apple cart was well and truly upset. First, India knocked out the highly rated New Zealanders, with Raj scoring 109; then they sent reigning champions Australia packing in a semi-final memorable for the big hitting of Harmanpreet Kaur. Only a sensational late spell from England’s Anya Shrubsole at Lord’s prevented Raj from becoming a World Cup-winning captain.
Born in 1982 in Jodhpur, Raj has been playing international cricket since 1999, when she made an unbeaten 114 against Ireland at Milton Keynes. Three years later, aged 19, she became only the fifth woman to hit a Test double-century, against England at Taunton. By 2004, she was captaining her country. But for most of her time at the top, she has played under a board who have barely invested in the women’s game. The last time she led India to a World Cup final, in South Africa in 2005, many back home barely knew who she was. Not any more. Despite throwing away their chance of winning the 2017 trophy, India’s women now know what it feels like to be heroes. Raj had led them out of the shadows.
Rumi, she says, has taught her “how you deal with criticism, how you deal with pressure, how you deal with failure”. One way to overcome losing a World Cup final, for instance, was to understand that even reaching that final had transformed the standing of the women’s game. “Very few people were aware of women’s cricket in our country before the World Cup,” says Raj. “But young girls now see a career in women’s cricket. Today, when we walk on the street, even young kids recognise the players in the squad.” Perhaps they will even unfold their own myth. And with thoughts of retirement banished for the time being, Raj will be there to show them the way.