These days she’s a global superstar with a social media following in the millions who is having a Bollywood movie made about her life. Fair to say a lot has changed since Indian cricket captain Mithali Raj slept in a South Island university dorm – with all of the other players – at the 2000 Women’s Cricket World Cup.
Without seeing the script, there’s a fair chance the Bollywood movie currently in production that will tell the story of Mithali Raj’s rise to prominence through cricket might well open with a scene at the St John’s Cricket Academy on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
Raj’s first day as the only girl admitted to the all-boys facility would certainly make for an effective scene setter for a tale about a sporting career that spans sleeping in a Lincoln University dorm as a teenaged competitor at the 2000 Women’s Cricket World Cup – to running out onto a sold out Lord’s ground in London 17 years later to contest a World Cup final watched by a global audience of millions.
Back in New Zealand to help promote the unveiling of the six cities that will host the 31 matches of the 2021 women’s world cup, the first female player to post a (still unbeaten) 20-year career admits her memories of her first trip here weren’t entirely positive.
“I didn’t play the entire 2000 world cup because I was down with typhoid!,” recalls Raj. “I just played three matches. But I did see the semifinals from the sideline when India played New Zealand.”
For the record, New Zealand won that match by nine wickets before going on to claim what remains the country’s sole cricket World Cup triumph for either gender.
Raj understands the fond feelings that victory evokes here, however there is no hiding from the fact it harks back to the dark ages for a sport that is only now fully emerging into the light.
In 2000, all of the matches were played largely out of view at Lincoln’s Bert Sutcliffe Oval. Only the final was televised live, and all of the athletes were housed in university dorms that had been vacated for the summer holidays.
“I do have fond memories of staying in the dorms but today you see [female] athletes being treated on par with men’s cricketers, being put up in good hotels, a very organized schedule on tours, which gives a very professional view of the sport.
“Yes, the host team won [in 2000] but with the World Cup being such a big platform, playing at a university ground doesn’t give it that significance,” Raj says.
“A lot of the New Zealand team’s family came down to watch but it wasn’t a stadium setup. In the last World Cup final when we played at Lord’s it was an historic occasion for the players. We were playing at a venue that has history. Same goes to every international stadium in every country.”
Next year’s World Cup will be played at first class venues across the country – their identity to be revealed at a media event in Auckland on Thursday – and all 31 matches will be televised.
The turning point, says Raj, was the women’s game falling under ICC control in 2006/7.
“Until then we played at university grounds and were hosted in dorms.
“Last year we played a series against New Zealand and it was quite different. When you tour under ICC you play in the best venues, international stadiums, and it gives a very professional appearance to the sport.
“When young girls come in and watch their idols play it encourages and inspires them to take up sport.”
While things had steadily improved since 2007, they took a giant leap in 2017, particularly in India where the cricket-mad nation’s run to the World Cup final captivated a new audience.
“Since the last World Cup we’ve seen a lot of improvement in the number of girls at school level who want to play a sport,” says Raj.
“India doesn’t really have a culture of women’s sport. It took a lot of athletes from various sports to actually make it to international level to get the attention of people back in India.
“That has changed for the better with a lot of support from the Indian government. And coming under BCCI was a huge thing for us. BCCI itself is a huge body
“After the last World Cup it did change drastically. A lot of parents now are more supportive, more encouraging towards their daughters taking up sport.”
The inception of the women’s IPL Challenge two years ago added another layer of impetus, with Indian parents now seeing a pathway to financial success as professional cricketers for their daughters.
“They are just testing the waters but once it is fully fledged there will be a flow of women cricketers and a larger pool of players. In another two or three years things will improve a lot for women’s cricket in India.”
Raj, whose official Facebook account has over 1.5 million followers, credits social media with greatly abetting the rise of female players’ profiles. Even when matches aren’t televised, social media provides a direct conduit to a rapidly growing fan base.
“It plays a huge role in terms of promoting the sport. There is a constant connection to the fans anywhere around the world.
“There are so many people who are waiting to follow women’s cricket. Even four or five years ago we didn’t have social media so we couldn’t relate to the fan base that each player and the sport fans. And generally people were ignorant about women’s cricket.
“Now we do have branding for the players, which wasn’t there before. Each player is a brand on her own. We do endorsements and TV commercials. We may not be on par with the men, but it is a start and it will grow. The market for women’s cricket is growing.
“A lot more people are aware of women’s cricket and talk positively about it. There is a lot of change in terms of young girls taking up the sport. It is no more a gender-biased sport. And it will only grow from here.”
Fair to say it wasn’t always that way. Raj’s father’s determination that being a female shouldn’t bar his daughter from pursuing greatness in cricket was, or course, pioneering enough to be worthy of a movie.
“Today the academies are filled with girls,” says Raj. “In any academy there will be 20 girls. There is no stopping girls from enrolling. But back then in India because of the culture it was very difficult. They would usually say ‘it is a boys’ academy so we can’t take girls’.
“That has been the biggest change – to actually accept girls playing cricket.”
As for that movie: “It wasn’t part of my dream. But it is nice that there is a movie being made. Cricket and Bollywood is what sells in India. One of course I am playing, the other is a medium to reach out to people on the big screen about how difficult and challenging it was before for a woman cricketer – and how things have changed. In the process it might inspire a lot people, encourage girls to take up the sport.”
Will she appear in it?
“I’m not good at acting,” laughs Raj. “I think they are zeroing in on an actress.”
Newsroom sports editor at large Steve Deane is the head of marketing and communications for Women’s Cricket World Cup 2021.