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Cricket news - "I keep to myself now and people can't judge me for that"

I feel that that the world should see the original me - Mithali Raj

The ongoing Women's T20 Challenge is considered to be a watershed moment for the future of women's cricket. Leading one of the teams there is a veteran of 20 years and someone who was in the eye of a storm, a few months back. Here, Mithali Raj gives a passionate appraisal of her journey as well as that of Indian cricket through her career, the controversies and much more.

(Excerpts)

Now that India's on the verge of having a league of its own, did you see this day coming?

I knew this day would come sooner or later because after how women's cricket took off [after] 2017 World Cup, it was just a matter of time to get things rolling on this path. It was important to get this league in a year or two, if you're going to build. India A - in women's cricket we don't have too many tours where the A teams have the opportunity to get such exposure - the bridge between the domestic and international [level] is huge. Especially with the Indian domestic standards. So this league will help in that perspective. And, for anything to kick off, we have to start small to see how it works. It was good that yesterday's game was quite close and interesting. So, it should set a platform for, in a year or two, to have more than three teams.

Do you think another year or two from here, as you mention, would be a little too late given the momentum built around India's two knockout appearances at back to back World Cups will frizzle?

Well, I can't say that because it's a private league. It has nothing to do with BCCI. In fact, BCCI has taken this initiative to organise this on their own with this one-leg tournament. Here the franchises come into picture. It is them who have to take the initiative to buy the players and form teams. So, I cannot really talk for them, but that's why I would give it a year or two. If all the franchises are eager to buy players and form teams, then good enough. Otherwise, I think having three teams or four teams and having a double-leg [tournament] will do.

Have the BCCI/CoA/Women's Committee met the senior players like yourself to chart a roadmap for this tournament?

BCCI people have spoken to me about 'should we go ahead with the league or not?'. And I said, 'Yes, you should and give it an opportunity to see how it works out'. But about the next year, there was not much of a conversation. Because this year itself to conduct this tournament I'm sure BCCI would have had a lot of issues to sort out. Because, it happened suddenly to get this rolling in this perspective and I still feel BCCI should be given due credit to get this one-leg going on their own. Knowing that this is a private league actually, but then still they have invested and got it going. BCCI definitely gets the credit. And they did ask us about to conduct it or not and I felt that you should at least give it a try.

You've never been shy of speaking your mind on many things..

I feel that that the world should see the original me. I don't see why they should be seeing something I portray. I genuinely feel what I really am is what everybody should get to see. I speak my mind, yes. Whether people like it or not, it never occurred to me. It's always been a fight too - when people look up to you, they always believe that there has been a lot of tussle, these days I see that sports people have to behave in a certain way because they're the role models. But at the end of the day, I believe everybody are humans and we're mortals, we're not perfect. There's nobody who's perfect. And I don't intend to chase perfection because I believe imperfection is what makes us human. We should believe in that being imperfect is what [makes us] want to try to evolve as humans. And I don't want to regret tomorrow that, you know, I am not who I wanted to be. Circumstances or stature doesn't change me who I am as a person. That's the most important thing for me. Cricket is there for a period, cricket is not everything for me, cricket is not life for me. For me what matters is whatever changes life gets me through or whatever circumstances that I go through - the biggest challenge for me is to be myself or be real to myself. And that is what I try to stick to.

Is it possible to have friendships in dressing rooms in a team sport?

Well, I personally feel that it is definitely possible to have friendships provided you have the person/teammate who is wise enough to understand the difference between personal and professional relationships when it comes to dressing rooms in a team game. Again, you know, it is a very thin line, having friendships. There are a lot of other factors that can dilute it. Say, if you're a captain and if you have your best friend playing, it may not look like that but people tend to create a lot of misconceptions about it. Again, it is up to you whether you want to have a challenge like that or, if that is something [that] can hamper you, might as well not have friendships in the dressing rooms.

Is it possible to be completely detached also when you play for a substantial amount of time around a bunch of people?

If you want to you can. There's always a way, it always depends on how much do you want it. For me, I am very clear, they are my teammates as long as I am there in the team and as long as I am on tour. But, once I am at home, that life is more important.

Do you feel your position has changed in the dressing room after the T20 WC episode?

I believe what has happened has definitely made me more wiser to people around me in the dressing room. I wouldn't say that I watch my step now, but I do know how things are and how things can turn out to be. I have always maintained from the beginning that I am here to play. I am not here to pacify or make people happy. If I justify my place in the team, that's what I care for. As long as I am doing well, I don't see any other reason that I should be looking at other than my performance. If there [comes the] day I am not performing, I would be the first one to walk out of the team. Because I do understand that playing for so many years, if I wasn't true to myself or to the sport, probably I wouldn't have sustained for so many years.

Did it feel like a lonely world out there when support from within the team started pouring in favour of Ramesh Powar?

Well, for me, it has been a lonely journey right from the beginning. Because debuting for India at a very young age and you don't have teammates of your age. I had to grow up very quickly from being a 16-year-old. I had a very good period in between when I had teammates of my age. I enjoyed the dressing room the best at that point of time. Again, back to dressing room where I had a lot of youngsters in the side. So it is a very lonely journey.

I wouldn't say I felt lonely but I definitely feel that I was betrayed. I will not mince my words, yes? Because when you try to think the bigger picture and when you try to play for the team. And when you hear terms like 'selfish' and all, it only makes those people very small. A lot of people have also written articles about my strike-rate, but had people been more wiser and more human to understand whatever the leaked emails were about, it was more about the behaviour meted to me as a cricketer, as a player. Performance on the field happens and doesn't happen. You may like me for my batting or you make not like me, that is a very personal thing for people and I don't push it. But as a player, whether senior or junior, everybody deserves respect. And I am not someone who would quietly take someone trampling over my self respect, whether I play for India or not - it doesn't matter to me. Because at the end of the day, I see myself as an individual and a self-made woman. That was the gist of my vent but people very much made it a very different thing.

What was the betrayal you felt about - being left out, was it what was being said, or was it the way support came for Powar?

Well, I cannot stop anybody from supporting anyone or making opinions. But I felt betrayed because when you reach out to people who are very important, who hold a post, and you tell them exactly what happened and then you get to know that there's a big controversy or conspiracy in fact has happened. You'd sometimes wonder you know what happened after the Sri Lanka tour. There were so many interviews where pretty much the management felt I was doing a good job at the top and what made things change drastically in the World Cup. It's something even today I can't comprehend. What had happened. I felt betrayed because when you put your team first - and I know for a fact that it's the Indian team and not a state team where I can do whatever I want, I have a responsibility to do what's the best because you're playing for the country. You're representing a country and so many people, so that's not a platform to vent out personal vendetta. That is so very wrong. And in a World Cup! Every team comes prepared, every team comes to win, every team wants to have their hand on the cup. And we were cruising very well I felt. And at that point of time to get things very personal is I believe that is a betrayal to the country. And I being a part of that phase is something I feel very, very let down [about].

You were accused of "throwing your weight around to get what you wanted" and not putting country first...

Honestly, I wouldn't even want to justify to someone who's termed me as a selfish player. Till date, in 20 years of my career, I have played under numerous coaches. Did anyone come out and say that I was a pain in the arse? Nobody! So, why should I even try to justify? After so many years of playing for country, if I was that bad then probably I wouldn't have played for so long. There's something that is right in me that I continued to play for so long. He's pretty much accused me [my] commitment for country. A coach is telling to not come out of the dressing room, have you ever seen or heard that before? If I wanted to make it very dirty, I could have made it. Because I have chats with me. But I have not come out with it because I see it as the sport is getting a very bad image. And that is why I kept quiet. Otherwise, after playing for so many years, what can pull me back from coming out completely. I have nothing to lose. I could have made it more dirtier and people would have written.... but at the end of the day, what have I done for the sport. I can play like them, I am different than them. I had to hold back because I am not someone who would wash dirty linen in public. I would never do that. Because if that was the case, there were so many things in 20 years I could have come out [with]. But I haven't. And it's very sad that as a coach if somebody is talking about the dressing room things with the players.. It's very sad.. a coach is supposed to protect that.. that certain players don't get along well. That is stupidity. To cover up their own stuff, you're bringing out dressing room [secrets]. They are supposed to be in the dressing room. There's so much things people have done wrong, why do people ignore that.

If I really had to make an issue, I would have done it. At the biggest stage. I really wanted...

So you're denying that accusation that you put your foot down to play as an opener...

Yes, obviously. If I had to put pressure, why would I.. in the first opening game only I would have done. Why would I be sitting in the dugout. I didn't even bat at all, if you noticed. He sent pretty much everybody. So, if I had to use my pressure, I wouldn't have done it [then]?

It's very simple but I feel sad.

Let me play the devil's advocate. Okay, a player has done all this - assuming , is it right for somebody to use their authority like that and behave like the way he did? Not allowing me to train? He's calling the extras out. Assuming - I am not saying I have done it - but assuming this, isn't that so wrong?

You tell me there are so many players in international cricket you hear they throw their weight around. Do their coaches behave like that?

They were going in, even though I was sitting out, I wanted to cheer them because it's the semifinal. It is the match for us. And it was a very close game. If we're in the huddle, how can a coach say that only the playing XI will be there? I don't think I've heard that even in club games! And I am hearing that in the Indian team.

That's absolutely unheard of, yes.

You tell me who is trying to show their power and who is trying to throw their weight around.

Look, I'll admit I don't know who's call it is about the huddle - the coach, captain or vice-captain...

But mujhe bhi kharab lagta hai (I feel bad) when media people write so many things. In that time I think people have not actually understood. Even assuming that whatever had happened - I will ask you today, in what way is my strike [an issue?]

In the first game [of Women's T20 Challenge], there were a couple of players whose strike rate was below 100. Was it made an issue? No. Because it doesn't come in the radar because it is not Mithali Raj. In the last game of India, there was one top-order player who had a strike-rate of fifty, in the match that we lost by three runs. The last England home series, a top-order [batter] had a strike rate of fifty. Did I make an issue? Was it made an issue? Still people are trolling me only! Because from the non-striker end I have to go and play. I played four dot balls and I was trolled. That's what I am saying - it's not fair. If today I am turning out to be a rebel then you should know which situation has made me like that.I'm not saying the fact that I am the best T20 player. No! I know where I stand. But to unfairly pinpoint at the only thing you can pinpoint in my whole batting analysis then I can pick out numerous players in this current Indian team and I can question you. But why is it that only I am being questioned?

If you're seeing everybody with the same yardstick, I don't mind. I know very well where I stand. I even tell that I am not the best In this format, I'm not the best. But I'm not the worst also, like how people keep writing, talk and troll. I am not the worst, I can say that. But the way things are being told or written or spoken about, I feel that it is not just... There are certain players who have played women's cricket are using the platform of social media to lash out. That is very sad.

I cannot name because I don't want to. But as a player you feel sad that at this level you are being singled out for the fact that I stood up for myself. I have not done anything wrong standing up for myself. And I have not done anything wrong in reaching out to the board because I am under the board. I have not gone to the media. I reached out to them [board].

Unfortunately it got leaked...

I can't do anything about it.

So now, Mithali Raj keeps to herself in the dressing room?

I do keep to myself and people can't judge me for that right now. If they even have a little bit of humanity in them, they would understand what I have gone through to put myself to be on my own. In a team when people say it's unity and you have to be open and you have to communicate more and it actually doesn't work out, then obviously one tends to get into a shell and then you can't blame that individual person because that person has done through enough emotionally to get cocooned.

What is difficult to go back to the dressing room?

Well, for me it wasn't difficult. Because if it was difficult, then consciously I probably would have been guilty. And I have not done anything wrong in any way that I should feel guilty to get into the dressing room. And I have always seen it as I had done something [wrong] then I wouldn't have deserved the respect that my teammates still give me.

Are you saying that everything - between you and the people who were there at the time and are still around - everything is cordial at least a professional level?

It has to be. Because I have also gone through that phase where I have disliked certain players because of their very nature. But I also understood that they are very important for the dynamic of the team. They are important players! So, I wouldn't get my dislike to not pick them up. I will, because, and I'll say that again, it's Indian team. It goes beyond my own dislikes and likes. I keep that to the side and today I do the same thing. for me, I don't like to look at somebody in my own team but if I am going to play on the ground I am a thorough professional. People can say whatever they want. In the past also I have played with players who I disliked, and even if that is the case now, whatever has happened, but on the field I represent my country and there's nothing that will come in between that. Whatever has happened has happened outside the ground, so why should I carry it on the ground.

Would you put all of it down to a communication breakdown?

If it was something to do with on-field, it would have come out very differently. Things I was upset about was off the field. I was upset about the way I was dealt with. I was upset about the way I was made to feel. And the fact that you're trying to - at that stage, whatever's upset you, . personal things is not the right thing. If you're at the top in management, most important in today's world people understand the role of a coach and how important it is to take everybody along with you. Everybody comes from different backgrounds, different regions from India. At that level it is more of man management. you should know which player is important for you and which player has to be tagged along. I think that, you know, if it was more about the sport it wouldn't have hurt me so much, A lot of people don't know that as a vice-captain there was time when I sat out. I would be glad if there was somebody doing a better job than me. But only to make one sit out you promote somebody who's not even opening these days. After that series, that player is not even in the contention for top order [slot]. So I can sense that it was more so to show [me] my place. I have not really understood what made them feel that way or what has conspired for them to behave in such manner to me. When I have not done anything like that when I was at the helm of things. Because I believe at the end of the day you need to keep your team very happy. Everybody comes there to perform and everybody works hard. Abusing power is the worst thing. Power is such that today it's with you, tomorrow it will be with me. you never know. You're doing something just because you have the power to do it then it's very sad for the sport and you're setting a very bad example.

Has the new management communicated what your role is or what they expect of you?

Honestly, not yet.

Do you not feel the urge to talk to the coach as a senior member of the team you would expect to know your role...

Eventually, the captain and the coach will be having a lot of things in their mind. Picking the players and working towards a role. I don't see myself playing the T20 WC, so...

Do you have a sense of closure about what happened?

Honestly, it will take time for me. It will because when things happen all of a sudden and you did not expect it to happen the way it has happened, it will take time for me to get over it. Yes, sometimes it still flashes. Eventually, I will get over it at some point. Yeah.

Moving on, did you see yourself playing for 20 years?

When I started, for me it was only important to play one international series to make my dad happy. That is what I saw for myself. I didn't see myself playing for 20 years.

Have you surprised yourself?

Most of the times, I have surprised myself. So, that's why when people ask me tell us something about yourself that people don't know, I say - I am still trying to understand myself.

What do you think has been the secret of your longevity?

I am a very regimental and habitual person. Cricket has been more of a habit thing. One thing I made a pact is that as long as I am playing I will play at my best and the day I feel I don't think I am giving it all and then the day I will walk out. I am still committed to working hard, and I continue to do that.

What differences do you see in a youngster making a debut today compared to the times you made your debut?

Privileges, yes. Facilities, money. A lot of support system is there for today's youngsters, definitely. But I would also like to say that the domestic standard is not what is used to be. Because there were times when people used to score hundreds. Hundreds! And they still wouldn't get a place in the Indian side. And there are, in my opinion, a lot of cricketers who are far, far better in terms of technique and because they could not get into the Indian team, they had to let go. And today, I see [players] with 20s and 30s coming in to the Indian team. That is why we struggle to bring youngsters who have that skill to adapt to international cricket sooner. We have to invest in them for two years for them to mature. Whereas, in those days, because they were scoring so heavily in domestic cricket so when they came to international they were already so much more confident about their own skill. Which, sadly, I don't see now.

But yes, again, because we're struggling to have a pool of players, we have to go ahead with rotating within that 20-player [pool]. If we have something like this [Women's T20 challenge], where the said player gets exposure, then, these experiences will help them when they are actually making their debut for India. They might be much better then, but without these leagues, they would take at least a year or two to understand what is international cricket. With these leagues, probably a series or two should be good enough for them to start performing for India.

What do you want to be remembered as?

(Thinks) I've never really given it a thought. I have no answer to that, honestly. Maybe, someone who has seen the best of both the worlds, WCI and BCCI, and lived through it. And is fortunate to see where women's cricket is now.

Five years from now.. wishlist?

In five years, I would see obviously not a full-fledged but a better version of this league. It's just the beginning now, so maybe 4-5 teams or a double-leg tournament where a lot of people turn out in the stadiums. And it also creates the same hype as the IPL in five years time. If at all, ICC comes up with an U23 World Cup I would like to see our team doing well. That will definitely add up to the strength of the World Cup.

And, we have two World Cups - I hope one will be a jackpot!

Is that what keeps you going? That lure of that elusive silverware?

Well, it is something every cricketer wishes for. So I am no different. And having been very close [to winning one] I know how it feels. If we were not close, I probably wouldn't even have had that urge. Sometimes, you know, when you've been very close you realise what it is and you become desperate to cross that final step.

Are you looking at 2021 (One-day World Cup)?

I will not say I am looking at it. It's 2019 and it's close to another two years. You never know what happens. I take one series at a time, and I have always been that way. I have never really planned or seen further than 2-3 series.

Is there a retirement plan?

Could be. Plans usually don't work out. But I do have a lot of thoughts.

What's that one thing you'd do the day you realise there's no more cricket from today?

I'll go to a Safari. The day I take off, I'll go to Kruger National Park. I'll plan some travel, yeah.

Do you see yourself coming yourself back to cricket, maybe after a break?

It all depends on what interests me. For me it is more important that I enjoy being in that atmosphere. I have always maintained that I was never a person to take up sports and it was never my personal choice. But I am a sportsperson and I am an athlete and I know how difficult it is to pursue that doesn't interest you at all. the challenges as a person that I've felt, to play cricket, that's taken a lot out of me. So I wouldn't want to do something where my heart isn't. So, if something interests me, then only I will take a dip in again.

I believe that attachment is not good. That is why I have never attached myself to any position or any team. I am loyal to the team I am playing in, my loyalty lies there and as long as I am playing I'll be very loyal to the team I am representing. But I can also detach myself. I am attached to cricket right now because it is 20 years of habit. It's like breathing and living cricket. Even in off season I don't miss playing cricket. Earlier, as a kid, I felt there's something wrong with me because I don't miss playing. A lot of cricketers say that but never have I felt that I am missing out on batting or playing matches. Even today you give me six months off and I'll be very happy. I don't have that attachment for the sport. But, having said, when it is time to train, I am right there. Very regimental. That is why sometimes I feel that, with what has happened, I am better away from cricket. Because there are lot of people who are very keen to get in and do the job. So, sometimes, I feel the sport doesn't need me.

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