For more than 18 years, Raj has been the rock around which the Indian batting has revolved. That it continues to do so is a tribute to her commitment and her longevity, but also a reflection on the lack of consistency around her. © Getty Images

For more than 18 years, Raj has been the rock around which the Indian batting has revolved. That it continues to do so is a tribute to her commitment and her longevity, but also a reflection on the lack of consistency around her. © Getty Images

Responsibility: The state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone.

Burden: A load, especially a heavy one.

So, when does responsibility segue into burden? Is it when the enjoyment goes out of the duty that you have performed for so long? Is it when you feel that, despite giving your best day after day, the load of the world is entirely on your head? Is it when, having put others before you, you begin to feel that you are gradually losing your individualism and the freedom to express yourself?

Mithali Raj’s words in the aftermath of India’s defeat to Australia in the Women’s World Cup the other night set off this chain of thought. It was a day of personal triumph for the Indian captain, inarguably one of the finest willow-wielders ever in the history of women’s cricket. Raj, the wonderfully talented right-hander who is as stylish at the crease as they come, had just gone past Charlotte Edwards to become the most prolific scorer in Women’s One-Day International cricket. For good measure, she also became the first woman to top 6000 ODI runs during that same innings, an extremely watchful 69, off 114 deliveries.

The individual milestones, however, counted for little in Raj’s book as her team slumped to an eight-wicket defeat at the hands of Australia, putting their campaign in the World Cup on the line. Having won their first four matches, India now must get the better of New Zealand in their final league tie to make it to the semifinal. It is that, more than the fact she is now at the summit of the run-scoring charts, that has seized Raj’s attention.

Raj has justifiably been celebrated and eulogised; her exploits now mean that India have both the highest run-scorer and the highest wicket-taker (Jhulan Goswami) in all women’s ODIs. That’s a huge accomplishment, especially given that only recently has the women’s game seeped into the collective Indian consciousness.

But back to responsibility and burden. One hasn’t played cricket at any worthwhile level to be able to claim to empathise with her, but we surely understand where she is coming from. For more than 18 years, from young sensation to seasoned campaigner, Raj has been the rock around which the Indian batting has revolved. That it continues to do so is a tribute to her commitment and her longevity, but also a reflection on the lack of consistency around her.

Raj’s sentiments also were in remarkable harmony with Sunil Gavaskar’s when, in the mid-1980s, the master batsman expressed a desire to drop down to No. 4 in the Test line-up to ‘enjoy’ his batting. Having manned up to the responsibility of shoring up a talented by brittle order for close to a decade and a half, he felt that in the latter stages and especially with the emergence of such glittering stars as Mohammad Azharuddin, he could afford to wind down his career by playing with greater freedom.

Raj’s sentiments also were in remarkable harmony with Sunil Gavaskar’s when, in the mid-1980s, the master batsman expressed a desire to drop down to No. 4 in the Test line-up to ‘enjoy’ his batting. © Getty Images

Raj’s sentiments also were in remarkable harmony with Sunil Gavaskar’s when, in the mid-1980s, the master batsman expressed a desire to drop down to No. 4 in the Test line-up to ‘enjoy’ his batting. © Getty Images

He did drop down the order on the tour of Sri Lanka in 1985, but it is not sure how much he enjoyed himself. He made two half-centuries, but the first of them, at No. 5, came in nearly six hours and the second, at No. 6, occupied more than four hours. India lost the series 0-1, the middle-order experiment was shelved and Gavaskar returned to pile on the runs again as opener, even though his highest Test score – 236 not out, which was then a record 30th Test ton – came at No. 4.

The responsibility that had turned a burden had become a responsibility again for the maestro who produced inarguably the best innings ever on a minefield in his final hit in Test cricket. Gavaskar’s magnificent 96, in 320 minutes, fell just short of carrying India to victory in Bangalore against Pakistan, but in a match where the next best tally was 50 by Dilip Vengsarkar and which only saw two other knocks in excess of 40, it was a masterpiece, one for the ages. At a few months shy of his 38th birthday, Gavaskar showed the focus and the concentration of a man much younger and fresher, everything a blur by his own admission apart from the tiny red orb and its unbidden doing off a surface-of-the-moon pitch.

Leadership in any walk of life brings with it a massive slice of responsibility. Everything ceases to be about you; it is about problem-solving, primarily, but it is also providing an atmosphere in which all individuals within the team set-up can feel comfortable and secure enough to be able to perform at their optimum. Some people thrive when entrusted with the responsibility. These are what we refer to as ‘born leaders’ and ‘naturals’, the first to put their hand up in a crisis and never asking anyone to do what they themselves would not. They command rather than demand respect. The leadership role brings the best out of them, but also inspires them to bring the best out of those around them too.

It’s a bit like the pressure of expectations; the truly driven artists want to experience this pressure. “I would be shattered if there were no expectations of me,” a member of the current Indian Test squad once told me. “If they expect me to do well, it means I am doing something right. But if the fans aren’t disappointed when you fail, then what does it say about you?”

Then, there are others who are weighed down by the same responsibility to the extent that it becomes a burden. They take other peoples’ failures to heart so much that they look at it as their own personal failure in the inability to motivate the team. While they are excellent leaders and performers themselves, they retreat into a shell when the rest struggle, and that begins to impact their own mindset, psyche and therefore their own performances. That’s when you know that what was once an enjoyable responsibility has now become an unbearable burden.

It’s a bit like the pressure of expectations; the truly driven artists want to experience this pressure. “I would be shattered if there were no expectations of me,” a member of the current Indian Test squad once told me. “If they expect me to do well, it means I am doing something right. But if the fans aren’t disappointed when you fail, then what does it say about you?”

Such is Raj’s cross to bear — like it was Gavaskar’s, like it was Sachin Tendulkar’s even at the very end of their careers – that the Indian batting will continue to bank on her till such time that is an active cricketer. In time to come, the Mandhanas and the Rauts and the Kaurs might embrace consistency and kick on to the next level. But Mithali Raj will forever remain the first among equals.

Oh, and since we are on responsibility and burden, wonder what Messers Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman feel about making up the Cricket Advisory Committee. Ushered in by Jagmohan Dalmiya and Anurag Thakur with much fanfare, the CAC have been reduced now to merely picking the head coach of the Indian team when they have so much more to offer. And through thinly veiled half-truths and more blatant lies, they have been pushed into a corner. How spectacularly has a singular responsibility mutated into an onerous burden!