By Shashank Kishore in Sylhet
India Women’s captain targeting a turnaround in fortunes with new-look team for ICC World Twenty20
Raj’s side has been in Bangladesh for a little over two weeks now. It is coming off a clean sweep in the three Twenty20 Internationals against Bangladesh, but Raj doesn't want to look too far ahead, as the conditions in Sylhet are likely to be very different when India begins its ICC Women's World Twenty20 campaign against Sri Lanka on Monday (March 24).
"This has been our first trip to Bangladesh and the three T20Is provided good exposure for the girls, though the wickets we played on at Cox's Bazar were completely different to what we played on during the warm-ups," she said.
India's last outing at a global event ended quickly. The team failed to advance to the Super Six stage of the Women's World Cup at home in February last year. Prior to that, India failed to win a single game in the group stages of the ICC Women's World Twenty20 2012 in Sri Lanka. Raj presided over both losses. Even if she was hurt by them, she didn't show it, and was instead warming up to the possibility of better things ahead.
"The time away from cricket after the World Cup gave us a lot of time to introspect," she said. "But honestly, in Twenty20 cricket, we have a lot to do in order to catch up with the Australian or English standards. We don't even play as many games as they play among themselves, and as a player I'd want to play good sides so that our standard improves.
"That's why, I think those games against Bangladesh were very important in a way, because we didn't really play cricket for almost a year after the World Cup," she assessed. "We played Sri Lanka at home recently and then Bangladesh. It's very difficult to continue the momentum from over a year back. In spite of me playing for years now, I still find it difficult to come back and play after a gap of nearly a year. Within that span, the international standards just rise. But then, given the circumstances, we've worked in the best possible way to prepare for this tournament."
India has nine new players this time around - a squad with little experience, but also with no excess baggage from the 2012 edition. Raj listened carefully, thought for a while, and then spoke on the new-look squad in her trademark style that was convincing and had the stamp of authority a leader should possess.
"That's definitely one way of looking at it," she warmed up. "But every team wants to improve from last time around. If we try and play more games, it will help the girls get adequate experience. Any young player would take at least three to four years to mature, so for them to suddenly come here and be expected to deliver under pressure would be tough.
"Talking of the other side, if you have experienced players, you may pull off a pressure situation. Our young players will be tested no doubt, but we have a team that's going to play for four-five years together, so it's an ideal stage for them to perform."
Captaincy isn't the only thing on Raj's plate. It's hard to imagine how she manages to absorb pressure while batting, motivate her young group of players, focus on her own game, and is still expected to deliver match after match. Not too long ago, the batting line-up was a one-woman army, with Raj shouldering the burden. The emergence of Harmanpreet Kaur has reduced her load somewhat, but not her responsibility.
"See, I guess there was a period when whole batting line-up was depending on me. It puts added pressure, because you can’t take the liberty of playing freely to serve the requirement of the team," she said. "There are thoughts at the back of your mind at all times. But having someone like Harmanpreet Kaur in the team has once again given me a chance to express myself. The only reason I've promoted myself to open the innings is because of that."
As the interaction gradually shifted from captaincy and batting to Test cricket, there was a glint in Raj's eyes. A realisation that India would actually play a Test match in England later this year came as a massive surprise, she said, but hoped it would indeed be another fresh start as far as opportunities were concerned.
"Initially it was a big surprise," said Raj, who converted her maiden Test ton into a double against England in 2002. "When I last played in 2006, I thought I may never play a Test again. It's an opportunity to revive Test cricket and also revive the days' game in domestic cricket to get quality players, which we haven't been getting for a while. Playing a Test has its own charm and in a way, I'm thrilled to be a part of the Test game."