“I had never really come out of that zone where I could play freely, or play the way I have prepared to play,” Mithali Raj, India’s captain, had said while breaking down her early batting before the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017. India was in the middle of a remarkable 16-match winning streak then.
“I had to stabilise the innings and build partnerships with new batters coming in; which meant the shots that I had worked on could only be played in the latter half of the innings. I am always told by the management to stay till the end. That’s how my batting was shaped during those years. Now with players like Harman (Harmanpreet Kaur), Veda (Krishnamurthy) and Smriti (Mandhana) around, there is a bit of a window where I can take those chances and go for those runs, which I had never done earlier.”
These words were not excuses or a sign of arrogance or selfishness. An average of 51-something to go with 6000-plus runs in One-Day Internationals over a career lasting 18 years and 183 matches lends itself to neither.
It was almost a plea from a 34-year-old icon looking to enjoy her last years in the game.
Unfortunately for Raj, her ‘bat freely’ pass seems to have been retracted on the high-pressure stage, and it’s like old times again, her plea falling on deaf ears.
India began the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 with a bang, but has since slipped back into being a tentative side with a dot-ball problem, playing around the record-breaking captain. None of those characteristics can help in a tournament where even 300 is no longer seen as a safe total.
Raj, of course, has continued to do what she has always done. After a record run of seven half-centuries in a row, which was only halted by a 46 late last month, she has added two more to her tally, including a history-making 69 on Wednesday in a disappointing eight-wicket loss to Australia.
During that innings – she barely had time to get into her now famous book in the dugout, given that she had to step out in the fourth over – she became the highest run-scorer, the first woman to cross 6000 ODI runs, and took her 2017 average to 77.62.
Those are the numbers of greatness. Yet, she will remember what should have been a special day as the one where India unravelled again on a big stage. “Individual milestones are good, but it’s a team game. If you don’t win matches, nobody would want to be on a losing side and celebrate the milestones,” she said.
During India’s eventual 226 for 7, she dug in for 37 overs, but played out 114 balls for her 69 at a bewildering strike rate of 60.52.
Those numbers suggest a burden of responsibility.
“I have enjoyed batting, always did, especially when the team requires me to get runs,” said Raj after the game. “But one thing always constant is the burden that I have carried all through my career. I felt that somewhere if I had few more batters to support me, maybe my game would have been much better. Even coming into the World Cup, considering how the team has been performing in the last two years, I felt it was the right time for me to elevate my own batting standards. But again it has come back to the same phase where me being in the middle gives a lot of confidence to the other batters, and it keeps the dressing room confident.
“Poonam (Raut, the opener) did tell me, ‘you stay there’ (while Poonam was the aggressor). She feels confident when I’m around. If not for myself at least for a batter scoring runs, I need to be around.
“Because of that partnership we had a few more runs in the end. Had we lost my wicket, the whole responsibility would be on the middle order, which hasn’t been performing. I knew that I was taking a lot of time in the middle, but I was in a situation where I need to (stop) feeling bad that I’m taking many balls to get those runs. That was what the team required me to do, even (though) as a batter I wouldn’t have done that.”
On the same day, Meg Lanning, her opposing number, at only 25 and already holding the record for most centuries with 11, finished at 2999 ODI runs. Her 76 not out on the day came at a strike rate of 86, and she put on an eighth 100-plus stand with Ellyse Perry, who, like her captain and Raj, is in the 50-plus average club.
Lanning could well be the one to break her record, agreed Raj, partially because of the team she’s in. “Playing for a stronger side, with more players to stand up and win games for you, it gives you the freedom to play your shots, you don’t have to think about what happens if you get out,” said Raj. “There are times when you want to take calculated risks. ‘What if you get out’ has always been in the back of my mind through my career. There were times where I could push it to the next level, but I’ve never got that opportunity in the teams that I’ve played.
“It is a plus for Meg Lanning, because they have a strong batting line-up. The way their openers have given them a start. I will not take away any credit, she’s a world-class batsman and she’s played amazing strokes. But to repeat the same kind of innings time and again, you have to have back up. With that kind of a positivity you can score those runs.”
Lanning seemed to agree with that assessment.
“I go out there and play my natural game. That’s something we speak about a lot in our team, is everyone to go out there and play how they feel they play best. We do think that we’ve got a long batting line-up... we’d rather try to take the game on and push it forward knowing that we’ve got some really good batting to come.”
After Raj did get out trying to up the ante, India lost five wickets for 17 runs. With collapses like that, it’s hard to fault her reasoning. Consolidation before attack seems a dated approach, but with 'attack' lacking, consolidation is the only thing keeping India afloat.
Mandhana has a string of four single-digit scores after an early hundred. Harmanpreet hasn’t made more than 25 all tournament. Veda has 32 from three games. It could be argued that the last two have got out trying to hit out only because the top order had eaten up all the dot balls they could afford and were lax about the singles. But that cannot explain the inconsistency.
Urging the likes of Veda, Harmanpreet and Shikha Pandey to “work on their game and contribute in a way that complements the team”, Raj added, “We do have players like Poonam who’s made a comeback and has been scoring runs for us. But especially the youngsters, Smriti, Deepti, Veda – these girls need to step up, to be consistent in their scores. It’s good to see when Smriti scored a hundred and 90-odd. It is equally important that you work on personal preparation. It’s not going to be easy, unlike earlier years where we didn’t have video analysis.”
The one missing honour in a glittering trophy cabinet will again be out of reach for Raj if India fails to win its final group clash against New Zealand on Saturday, and the captain was frank. “If we are going to perform the way we did today, personally I would say it is not enough against the New Zealand side,” she said. “Faced with crunch matches, the team doesn’t step up, whether it’s the T20 World Cup or the one-day World Cup, or a even bilateral series.
“As far as skill is concerned, I believe the girls are talented. It’s just a matter of how well they pull themselves up after a defeat. That’s what makes world champions.”