Jhulan Goswami had just checked into her room. It was the evening of December 7, 2005 and for her, it was certainly a happy moment. She had claimed her first five-wicket haul against England in Silchar that morning, guiding the Indian women’s cricket team to a convincing 10-wicket win.
While she was freshening up, the intercom in the hotel room rang.
“Hello Jhulan, this is a call from the BBC. Congratulations on your five-wicket haul. We would like to interview you over the phone in the next one hour…” a female voice said from the other end.
Jhulan spoke to the ‘BBC correspondent from London’ for a few minutes and then called up the coach and the team manager for permission.
And, an hour later, Jhulan was doing her ‘first-ever interview with the BBC’. While the interview was almost over, she heard someone giggling from the other end, but did not react. She finished the interview, walked out of the room to meet her colleagues and only then did she realise that all this while, she was being pranked by her dear friend ‘Mithu’ — Mithali Raj!
“Jhulu could not believe that all this while she was actually speaking to Mithali,” Sudha Shah, who was the coach of the team then, reminisces.
On their way back to the team hotel, Mithali and a few senior members of the team had decided to play a joke on Jhulan to make her first five-wicket haul memorable, and Sudha, too, was part of the plan.
“So, as soon as she entered her hotel room, Mithali called up Jhulu, claiming to be a BBC correspondent. Back in those days, the technology was not advanced, you did not have a smartphone, so Jhulu believed that she was actually talking to the BBC, whereas it was Mithali who was at the other end,” Sudha says.
“It was banter and the team was like one happy unit, so such pranks were taken in the right spirit. Mithali wanted to give a surprise to Jhulu and that’s why, we all were party to it…”
That’s Mithali Raj for you — a thorough professional on the field and a fun-loving, cheerful individual off it.
Having watched her right from her international debut in 1999, Sudha admits that Mithali, over the years, emerged as an icon because she had the ability to identify talent and also build a team. “She was a confident leader. When she broke into the team in 1999, she was the youngest member of the squad and very shy. While she was a powerhouse of talent, she would be calm and quiet, but gradually, she emerged as one of the most sought after cricketers and rightly so,” Sudha says.
The journey from Mithu to Mithali Raj wasn’t easy. Coming from a middle-class family in Hyderabad, Mithali made her presence felt in junior-level cricket and eventually earned a spot in the Indian team for its tour of England.
Back then, the team was led by Chanderkanta Kaul, who was known as Chanderkanta Aheer in her playing days. Chanderkanta fondly remembers those moments when a young girl joined the camp along with the seasoned campaigners.
“For us, Mithali became Mithu. Soon after, everyone started calling her that. I knew her personally and had been to her house, met her father and he told us to take care of his daughter,” Chanderkanta says.
By the time Mithali made it to the team, Chanderkanta was 27 and had already spent six years in the circuit. So, for her, it was important to make the youngster feel comfortable. “When she made her debut, I already had a lot of experience, but she was the youngest on our team. She was very quiet and when she would bat, it looked as if she was very calm, but inside there she had a fire. We were surprised with her batting, and we knew this girl will go far,” Chanderkanta says. “She was like Rahul Dravid, no one could get her out…”
By her own admission, in those days, women’s cricket only had a manager and coach travelling with the team, and “there weren’t so many people”. Women’s cricket still hadn’t come under the BCCI and despite the challenges, it was a happy unit. “Our batting department was solid. In that tournament, the openers Mithali and Reshma Gandhi got us good starts and then we had people like Anjum Chopra, me, so we knew that we were building a team for the future,” Chanderkanta adds.
After the baton was passed on to her, Mithali ensured that she took India’s women’s cricket team to greater heights.
But what set Mithali apart?
“Her dedication and the will to excel,” says Hemlata Kala, a former India captain and erstwhile national selection committee chairperson. Having known Mithali since her junior cricket days, Hemlata believes that Mithali always went the extra mile to achieve her targets. “If the practice session was in the afternoon, most of us would wake up a little late and then get on with our day. But Mithali’s day would start at 5 o’clock in the morning. She would do her fitness training and then hit the nets. She has done that throughout her career,” Hemlata says. “Her work ethics was far different from all of us. Another major aspect is that she is very down to earth. Despite being such a legendary cricketer, she made it a point to listen to everyone. She was always approachable…”
Mithali and Hemlata shared a good bonding as the two played together for the Indian team and the Railways. That partnership worked even when the latter was the selection committee chief, while the former was the captain.
“We trusted each other’s opinion and that helped. Having played together for long, Mithali knew that if Hema di is saying something about a player, then she must have seen something in her. It was vice versa. That was one of the reasons that the team did so well under her,” Hemlata says.
During the 2017 World Cup in England, India lost the group match against Australia, despite Mithali scoring 69. After the match, Hemlata, who was then touring with the team, had a conversation with the captain about her innings and how she could have scored more.
“I told her that running between the wickets could have been a bit quicker and also suggested running faster, going forward. To my surprise, Mithali sprinted faster in the next match against New Zealand. I had never seen her doing something like that and that shows how much she valued every feedback. That was Mithali’s uniqueness,” Hemlata says.
As the former national selector speaks, it opens floodgates of memories. “During a Challenger tournament, I remember one of our coaches told us on the eve of the final that Mithali’s team is the favourite and that she will score a century. Being the opposition captain, I differed and told the coach that we will dismiss Mithali early on,” Hemlata says. “But Mithali did not react and just said, ‘ground pe dekha jayega…’. She knew how to respect the seniors and at the same time, was fully confident of herself…”
Hemlata also remembers an incident when she saw a young Mithali dance to the tune of a Bollywood chartbuster, “Chal Chaiya Chaiya…” along with her team-mates during one of the domestic tournaments. And that defined her character — she was extremely serious about her work, but at the same time, knew how to enjoy quality time.
V. R. Vanitha has seen Mithali closely during her stint with the Indian team and she reveals, “Mithu didi does get angry. But she will never vent it out on her team-mates. If you see her closely, you will realise that Mithu didi is angry, but she knows how to handle it on her own…”
Vanitha admits that Mithali has shaped a lot of careers. “I often feel that due credit has not been given to her as a leader. In the 2013 World Cup, India had a disappointing outing and she ensured that the team learnt from those mistakes and came back stronger in the 2017 World Cup…”
“She has continued with the core and if you look at it closely, you will see that a lot of players have come back to the team after performing well in the domestic tournaments because they got the backing of the captain,” Vanitha says.
“Prior to the 2017 World Cup, the coach was changed and with Smriti (Mandhana) coming back from an injury, not many were convinced whether she would be able to deliver, but Mithali put her foot down because she knew what Smriti brings to the team. So, even after a few disappointments, she delivered. That speaks volumes about the captain,” Vanita says.
After the lockdown in 2020, Mithali was in Bengaluru for training and Vanitha once again had the opportunity of observing her closely. “Even after so many years, she maintains a diary where she charts out every activity. She did intense training, and whatever was required to be in shape. It was unimaginable that a player of her stature was so particular about everything despite playing at the highest level for 23 years,” Vanitha says.
While Mithali remains an inspiration for the younger generation, Smitha Harikrishna remembers when a young Mithali entered the dressing room and how she has progressed over the years. “I played with her in the Indian team and at Air India and she had a lot of talent. All of us had heard about her, so when I actually saw her play, it was obvious that she was a gifted cricketer. It was a joy to watch her. You don’t get to see talents, she was class apart,” Smitha says.
During the 2000 World Cup in New Zealand, Mithali was down with typhoid and had to be isolated. “Back in those days, we did not have so many facilities for women’s cricket, so we were one big family. I remember she was young and far away from home, so we ensured that she was well taken care of. The coaches and the support staff stayed with her at the hospital, and when she came back to the hotel, we ensured that she got proper home food, so some of us prepared rasam… Those were different times, but we were one happy unit,” Smitha, who now lives in the UAE, says.
As she experienced the highs and lows of Indian women’s cricket, Mithali has always led by example. In her long and illustrious career — a World Cup title might have eluded her, but she has mentored several cricketers who went onto make it big. As India’s women’s cricket grows onwards and upwards, Mithali’s contribution will always remain significant.
Coming in at a time when not many thought of taking up the game as a profession, Mithali inspired generations and it was her consistent performances that encouraged the younger cricketers to dream. Shabash Mithu!