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A fantastic feat

Mithali Raj's achievement is not just a moment of pride for Hyderabad but for the women's cricket in the country. V.V. SUBRAHMANYAM reports.

PROUD MOMENT: Mithali being congratulated by Governor, K. Rangarajan and Sports Minister P. Ramulu

FOR SOMEONE who didn't fit into the game plan of the brains - trust on the English tour in 1999, the dancer-turned cricketer from Alwal Municipality, near Hyderabad, demonstrated to one and all that footwork comes to her naturally - be it her first love, dancing, or keeping the bowlers at bay with the willow. And, when 19-year-old Mithali Raj set the world record by scoring the highest individual score of 214 in women's Test cricket on the English soil a few days ago, many of the knowledgeable officials might have wondered whether it was fair enough on their part to keep such a gifted cricketer on the sidelines while the lesser mortals got the chances to play for the country.

It is imperative to remember that she is a product of a system, which doesn't even provide proper cricket grounds for women's cricket. There were many instances when even Lal Bahadur Stadium was denied for them on flimsy grounds. The untiring efforts of the A.P. Women's Cricket Association, which is the only one of its kind in the country to run the league for 27 years without a break, are big influence on the girl. Or else there is very little to cheer about for them even in the twin cities.

However, Mithali Raj, the senior clerk in the Engineering section of South Central Railway, is not even inclined to look back, particularly when she deserved a better deal, primarily through competition exposure. The simple fact that she didn't play too many Tests speaks volumes of the problems women's cricket in India faces. Primarily, due to lack of sponsorship. Thereby, it is genuine talent that suffers the most.

To the credit of Mithali, she didn't let any of these factors dampen her spirit. Her average of 92.66 in the three Tests can well easily make some of the senior cricketers do a thorough introspection. Interestingly, Mithali played more one-dayers (21 to be precise) scoring 593 runs at 39.53. A consistency, which is as rare as finding a sponsor for the women's cricketers. It is worth recalling here the early days when she used to accompany her brother, Mithun Raj, to the nets at the St.John's Cricket Coaching Foundation (Marredpally). Late Sampath Kumar, one of Hyderabad's `real' coaches, saw something special in the eight-year-old girl at the nets. He gave her a bat and asked to play. He was surprised that the young girl did that with a straight bat and more importantly gave an impression as if she was already in the game for quite some time. That was the moment when Sampath Kumar decided that a star was in the making. Within one year, she was in the stand-byes for the World Cup.

She was a Bharatnatyam dancer till 1991. And when Mithali was asked to choose between cricket and dancing as the programmes clashed with her `nets', she took a predictably long time to decide. "It was a very difficult choice and now in hindsight I think I made the right move,'' says a smiling Mithali Raj. Fortunately, Sampath Kumar, whom the late Eddie Aibara rated as one of the most dedicated and technically correct coaches, saw to that Mithali got the right breaks in big league. Consequently, she made her debut in the Junior Nationals in 1994 though a dismal one scoring just one run against Vidarbha in Guwahati. Next year, the young girl represented the State in the Senior Nationals at the age of 14 years and since then she has been a regular with consistent performances. Credit goes to her parents (Dorai Raj and Leela Raj) too for taking such a big risk in letting her daughter continue with the sport.

This No.3 batswoman loves to go after the bowling and admires the way the Australian wicket-keeper-batsman Adam Gilchrist attacks and Sachin Tendulkar for his complete mastery on the art of batting. It is not for nothing that her batting is a perfect blend of technique, temperament and strokeplay. Hours of long training sessions initially with former Hyderabad Ranji star Jyothi Prasad also helped her smoothen some of the rough edges in her game. Now, she is a member of the formidable Railway trio - the other tow being Rajni Venugopal and Vanita Viola, a force to reckon with in domestic cricket. "I enjoy talking to Rajni and our own Purnima Rau (former India captain). I keep discussing to know which strokes I should curb in a crisis. The discussions are normally centred around stroke selection,'' says the unassuming youngster. Andhra Bank cricketer and coach of Mithali of late, N.S.Ganesh, says that the major plus for this cricketer is the fact that she plays against league cricketers (boys) in the nets. "Her abundance of patience and a very strong defence should take her a long way,'' he says of the product from the Sports Glory Club.

For someone who set a world record, Mithali knows that she cannot rest on her laurels and accolades. She is visibly pleased with the State Government's gesture of announcing a cash incentive of Rs. 3 lakhs for her feat. There were words of appreciation from the Governor, Dr.C.Rangarajan, and Chief Minister N.Chandrababu Naidu, when she called on them. Gestures which were unimaginable for her not long ago. And, she is in a mood not to let them and the cricketing fraternity down in her future assignments. "Let me put it this way. I never expected the world record particularly after a dismal one-day series. I was definitely elated at the feat. But, there is a long way ahead. My target is to be a member of the World Cup winning team,'' the vice-captain of Indian team says quite honestly to a question.

It is widely believed that Mithali Raj's stunning world record might just well result in respectable sponsorship for the sport and to the individuals, in particular. For long, women's cricket has been ignored for pretty obvious reasons. Naturally, T.N.Pillay, organising secretary of AP Women's Cricket Association, says that they will make every effort to capitalise on Mithali's performance in the coming days.

What is in store for the women's cricket can be a fair guess for the more knowledgeable. But, it is an indisputable fact that when the cricket pundits dig deep into the record books, it is a matter of great pride and satisfaction that two Hyderabadis - V.V.S.Laxman (the highest individual score of 281 for an Indian in Test cricket) and Mithali Raj (for the world record) - figure prominently. To be in the elite group is itself a great achievement for the ever-smiling youngster.

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