Those who know her say that Mithali Raj can be a prankster. While she never lets her guard down in public, she dances to ‘Muqabala, Muqabala’ and pouts while taking selfies with Veda Krishnamurthy, one of her best friends on the circuit. Glance through Veda’s Instagram posts, and it feels as if the team management has given her the responsibility to keep the child alive in an otherwise reticent Raj.
Their friendship has, however, not extended to many partnerships on the field. Since making a century on her One-Day International debut in 1999, Raj has had to play many roles, forcing her to bat restrictively. She spoke about the burden she carries recently after her slow 69 against Australia made her the first in Women’s ODIs to cross the 6000-run mark. The individual milestone would have mattered little had India failed to make it to the semi-finals of the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017.
On Saturday, in the company of Harmanpreet Kaur and Veda, Raj put on 240 runs for the third and fifth wickets respectively as India posted 265 for 7 and then bowled out New Zealand for 79 in Derby. It was a massive statement from a team pushed to the wall, and Raj’s graceful 109 allied with Kaur’s stable 60 provided just the right platform for Veda to hit 70 off just 45 balls.
Many records were broken during the course of the 186-run win that took India to their first semi-final in an ICC event after the ICC Women’s World Twenty20, but it was the aesthetics of how Kaur and Veda played their role that mattered the most.
Kaur battled through a tough start to rotate the strike with Raj and push the fielders back after India was 21 for 2. When Kaur and Deepti Sharma fell in quick succession, threatening to leave Raj stranded, Veda breathed in oxygen into the innings. Initially jittery, she got going after stepping out to hit Leigh Kasperek to the long-on fence. It was the spark that had been missing from India’s batting since Smriti Mandhana’s 72-ball 90 in the first game against England.
Veda’s 108-run stand with Raj was India’s highest fifth-wicket stand, and showed the fighting spirit that this team is building a reputation for.
“The girls wanted to do well today, give their best. It was the one game that can get us to the semis. They knew about it,” said Raj. “I am extremely happy the way the girls made a comeback. I think this is a new Indian team. In earlier editions, we have seen one bad day and then we never made a comeback into the tournament. This is a good win for the girls and will them a lot of boost and confidence.”
Runs came at a fair pace in the first four blocks of 10 overs before Veda shifted gears. India scored 90 in the last 10 overs, making it one of its best ever death-over performances. For perspective, Veda’s strike-rate of 155.55 is the third-best for any batter with 50 or more score from No. 6 or below in the history of One-Day Internationals.
“I think she (Veda) really changed the game. She allowed Mithali to keep going and playing the anchor, and she took off the pressure. She came out and showed a lot of intent,” said Suzie Bates, New Zealand’s captain. “She was willing to hit the ball over the top and that was the momentum they needed in the innings. We were not able to slow it down, and she did not really give a chance.”
Tushar Arothe, the India coach, has often stressed on the need to up the scoring in the death overs. Veda’s knock has now set a new benchmark, and attempts to match it will bring a cultural shift within the dressing room. Not that things will click every time, but the mentality will keep pushing India towards new-age batting.
As much as Veda enthralled a crowd of around 1000 people with her seven fours and two sixes in less than an hour, it was Raj’s moment in the sun – scoring a century in her last World Cup while becoming the first Indian to cross the 1000-run mark in the tournament.
“It was important for me to stay ‘til the end. If I am around I can sense that the girls are more confident to play their own games. It was important to have the partnerships going, and it happened the way we expected,” said Raj. “Harman to score, Veda to score, that crucial partnership in the last 10 overs. We still hadn’t touched 200 by then. It was important to get those runs for her own confidence. It did benefit hugely to the team’s total.
“As a batsman I didn’t have anything planned in my head, I was just telling myself to play the next ball. It is important for me to score as usual,” she added. “But I know that the wicket is good, there was a lot of pressure because we lost two wickets early in the innings. It was important for me also to play with a bit of freedom, knowing that a game can go either way. But again I didn’t want to burden myself with the responsibility. Its different to say it but I still feel it. Overall I am very happy. I have not planned innings like this, but in all honesty I have enjoyed being in the middle and getting runs.”
The more time Raj gets to bats with Kaur and Veda, the more she will enjoy her time both on and off the field.