In her last 15 One-Day International innings, Mithali Raj, the India Women captain, has scored 833 runs at 104.12 with ten scores of fifty or more. Ahead of the Women’s World Cup starting in England on June 24, she’s been in blistering form.
Raj, 34, is just 212 runs away from becoming the highest run-getter in the history of Women’s ODIs. She spoke to Wisden India at length during the World Cup Qualifier in Colombo in February, demonstrating her technical expertise and absolute understanding of her craft.
Here are a few of her revelations:
* She struggled in the T20 format, but facing the new ball in T20 Internationals has helped her ODI game – “Once you start opening, you start working on what kind of shots you need to prepare for, what are your strengths.”
* She has been preparing for the quicker deliveries expected in England by adopting a more open stance and having an initial movement – “Your body should be slightly in motion before you actually play.”
* She now uses a lighter bat as more bowers these days are able to bowl bouncers and a lighter bat allows her to be prepared and play horizontal bat shots more often.
* The cover-drive is her “bread and butter shot” – “Because everything goes into it from footwork to the swing of your bat. If you hit a cover-drive, it shows that you are in for that match.”
* When she was young, the lesson was not to aim for hundreds, but to remain not out. That approach helps her, especially while chasing, when she can also plan her innings better.
Edited excerpts from the conversation:
It took you 15 years since your debut to discover a new facet in your batting.
When I started out, there were fewer matches. So, each time I went out to bat, I had to start from the beginning. When you start from the beginning, you always look for runs to get to that comfort level. By the time you reach a certain level, the series is almost lost. Then in World Cups, everybody is under pressure to do well. I had never really come out of that zone where I could play freely, or play the way I have prepared to play.
Mostly, the situation was such that 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.
I bat at No. 3, so if there is an early wicket, I start slowly because I don’t want another wicket to fall and the pressure to be on others.
Opening in T20s, where I have to face the new ball straightaway, has made things easier for me in ODIs.
I have worked hard to fit into the T20 format. Until 2014, when I started to open, I was not a big fan of T20s and I struggled in the format. I would just go and throw my bat, would never prepare as much as I did for one-dayers. But once I opened, I realised this approach won’t work.
When T20s started, I wanted to open. Coaches also advised me so that I get the full 20 overs. But the management insisted they wanted me in the middle order. I told them I can play a dual role, but I don’t think they had confidence in others in case they lost me early. But in the 2014 home series against Sri Lanka, we were looking for openers, and I said send me in and let’s see how it goes. I got a lot of runs, and at a good pace in the Power Play overs.
Once you start opening, you start working on what kind of shots you need to prepare for, what are your strengths. You study your batting in overall terms, you study you opponent, and all that registers in your mind.
Now with players like Harman (Harmanpreet Kaur, the T20I captain), 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.
You have opened up your stance in the recent past, and changed your grip over the years.
I have implemented a more open stance from the Asia Cup (2016). It is for quicker bowlers. In England, the ball can cut after pitching. So, you are in a better position to face even the one that comes in quickly. But to adjust immediately is impossible. It is better to try things before you try them in a major tournament. I had done this in the West Indies home series, but not much. By the Asia Cup, people had noticed that I had a bit of an open stance.
I was a long-handled grip player because when I started out, it was more of drives and back-foot punches. In women’s cricket, you never had bowlers who bowled so quick for cuts and pulls. So, it was in the ‘V’ with drives and back-foot punches.
Slowly, it got down to not exactly lower-handle grip, but somewhere around there. I never had a back lift, now I have one. I even changed my guard. Earlier, I used to stand on leg and middle. Now I have made that initial movement to stand on middle because the Australian and England bowlers are quicker. There is this scientific reason that your body should be slightly in motion before you actually play. This gives me that extra time.
I use two grips on my bat handle. I have not changed the way I hold the bat, but in terms of position, it has changed a little bit – sometimes bottom-hand, sometimes top-hand, depending on the pitch. On good hard tracks like in Australia, you need the strength to cut and pull. For that, you need to have a bottom-handed grip to have control over your bat. When the wicket is slower, it is better to have a top-handed grip as you can always check the bat and play your drives well. I have shuffled my grip over the years.
“Opening in T20s, where I have to face the new ball straightaway, has made things easier for me in ODIs. Until 2014, when I started to open, I was not a big fan of T20s and I struggled in the format. I would just go and throw my bat, would never prepare as much as I did for one-dayers.”
Taking middle-stump guard means you could be prone to being leg before, and have to cut out your cross-batted shots against good seamers.
It all depends. Earlier, I used to get a lot of lbws in England, though that time, during the series, I had a bit of an open stance, which helped me. I continued to do that, but later on … you compensate. Incoming deliveries are okay, but what about outgoing balls? Again I had difficulty in that.
Now with this stance, when I face boys, I make sure I don’t allow anything to hit my pads. So, if I can play their speed, then I am sure I can manage with the girls.
If they think of attacking me on the stumps, then my ratio of playing strokes gets better than if they attack only outside off-stump, which English bowlers do. They know I am very good in the cover region. Earlier, they had a plan to only attack outside off, but then it cuts down the options of getting me out unless I nick or mistime. If they bowl on the stumps, of course they have a lot more chances of getting me out, but it also gives me more options to play my strokes because it is right on my body.
The lbw rules have also changed. If the impact is outside then you cannot get out, so you play with those rules! But if you are right in front of the wicket, nobody can help you. If I am standing on middle stump and the ball is pitched in line and I take the impact outside off, then these days you don’t get that lbw.
Against Sri Lanka in the Qualifier, I was walking to one of the pacers. That is also something I have worked on because I am not someone who would want to move much while facing a fast bowler. But sometimes you have to take that risk of playing. It unsettles the bowler. That’s something I am working on. Let’s see how far it fetches me runs.
In men’s cricket, one of the approaches is to build a base for the lower middle order to attack. Does the idea work in women’s cricket too?
Someone told me that in the past, they were told to throw their bats in the last five overs. He said, you do that and if the incoming batsman makes up for it, then it is a good thing, but what if that batter is also scoring the way you would have done? Then what is the point of throwing your wicket? In the last six balls, if the new batter comes and gives you 15-16 runs, then I would understand. But if she gets you 10 runs, then I am in a better position than her to get those 10 runs. So, that hit me that he is right.
Suppose I am batting till the 40th over and we have six or seven wickets in hand, and I just go for it and I get out. If in the ten overs the team gets 40 runs, then what is the point? I would have probably got more than that had I played those ten overs at a run-a-ball. That is what people need to understand. It is still not men’s cricket where the last six overs you can see three-four sixers. It has not reached that level, it probably might, but it has not reached yet. Maybe it can work on one odd occasion, but not every time.
“From 2010 onwards, I have tried a lot of things in my batting. You can’t stick to one kind of set-up because every team would be reading where to attack you. It is better to have those subtle changes to your batting.”
How many times have you broken down your batting to elements and rebuilt it?
From 2010 onwards, I have tried a lot of things in my batting. That is when video analysis came in. You can’t stick to one kind of set-up because every team would be reading where to attack you. It is better to have those subtle changes to your batting. By the time other teams assess you, you would have already got a lot of runs.
How has your preparation changed with your latest new approach?
Initially there was so much pressure to score runs, no matter how you get it, that there were times when I was scared to go in to bat. And then there was a time when any time I would get, I would bat, bat and bat.
Now I am in a phase where I know how much I have to bat to gain confidence or how much I have to prepare for a series; how much my body can take. I can play from my experience. I know I have enough ability and skill that even if I don’t have a knock for a week, I can go in and get runs.
At what point during your innings do you realise that you have got your eye in?
When you get ten runs under your belt, and also how you get those ten runs is important for me. If it’s through snicks, then I would still be searching for that confidence. If I get those ten runs from the middle of the bat with drives and singles, that will help me play my shots.
The cover-drive is my bread-and-butter shot because I believe that everything goes into it from footwork to the swing of your bat. If you hit a cover-drive, it shows that you are in for that match.
Have you ever been in the ‘zone’ while batting?
I don’t think about these things in the middle, but later on when I try to analyse how my batting was in the match, I should be able to say this was a good shot, this is where I mistimed it because this went wrong, how many runs I got from a cut, how many sweeps I have played. That evening, if I am not able to analyse it, like in that 100 against Hyderabad (in the domestic T20 championship last season), which was the shot that gave me the confidence, how and where was the shot to, that shows that I was in the zone. Being in the zone is when you are completely blanked out while playing. I didn’t know, I just played on the merit of the ball. I didn’t try to innovate, like you do in T20s when you move around. I was just there playing my natural shots and it fetched me runs.
Do you remember every innings that you have played?
If I play a match today, I analyse tonight and then I am totally out of it by the next day. If you carry good things, then there are times when you also carry bad things along. I don’t want that. Today I might have played a good knock, but tomorrow I might play a better knock. That’s why I finish it off that day and move on to the next.
“The cover-drive is my bread-and-butter shot because I believe that everything goes into it from footwork to the swing of your bat. If you hit a cover-drive, it shows that you are in for that match.”
Which innings of yours would you rate as a complete performance?
My perfect innings would never be a 100. It will always be in the 80s and 90s where I have chased and won matches for India. The 94 not out I made against England (at Lord’s) in 2012 is one of my best innings because it was against one of the best sides in the world and we scripted a successful chase of 234 (230) for the first time.
Chasing has always helped me because I could plan my innings; get the batters to revolve around me according to the situation. While batting first, you can’t really plan the innings. My percentage of winning knocks while chasing is higher, but one match that still stands out is the 2005 World Cup semifinal. I scored an unbeaten 91 against New Zealand, the defending champions, in South Africa. They had really good fast bowlers. I was raw as a captain and had not matured as a batsman, and to take the team to the final – I would always rate it highly.
My dad never told me to score hundreds. He always told me to remain not out. I don’t know why he would emphasise on that. Even if it was 20, 50 or 70, he would say you come not out. My mother’s wish too is that nobody should be able to get my wicket (smiles). That has helped me a lot because once you come not out in pretty much every match. you know that the margin of error of playing or judging the deliveries lessens.
How heavy are your bats?
Now it should be around 1150-1175g. When I started, it was around 1500g.
The evolution in women’s cricket led to my changing bats. Women then had the strength to bowl maybe one bouncer, but now you can expect it every over. Those days, they never really worked on strength or conditioning, but now gym is integral for every sportsperson. Back then, we were predominantly front-foot players. Nobody bothered to bowl short. Now you can’t get a driving ball; that is juicy four runs. That has led me to change because if you want to play the square of the wicket, you cannot play with a heavy bat.
Like your front-foot game, you work on your back-foot game these days. Cuts and pulls are important scoring shots now. Earlier, anybody who used to play the sweep shot was not considered a good bat because that’s not a conventional shot. It looked out of the book. These days, anything that fetches you runs is a good shot.
Have you ever been hit by a bouncer?
No. I am used to playing with the boys, and it is natural to expect short deliveries there. That had kept me in good stead.
“I have always admired Karen Rolton from Australia, who is now retired. As an opponent, she was a treat to watch – a left-hand bat. I would definitely like to partner her and see what she thinks about batting and how she paced her innings.”
Who are the toughest bowlers you have faced?
The England left-arm fast bowler (Lucy Pearson) during my debut tour was taller than Jhulan, and she used to get the ball in and out from the same action. She was an immediate threat. I was so glad when she retired. Katherine Brunt – I have seen her coming in as a young pacer into the side, and now as a strike bowler. She is really consistent, and bowls at a good pace with a lot of discipline.
Who would be your dream batting partner?
(Laughs) I have never thought about it. I have always admired Karen Rolton from Australia, who is now retired. As an opponent, she was a treat to watch – a left-hand bat. I would definitely like to partner her and see what she thinks about batting and how she paced her innings.
I have played with Hemalata Kala (the current chief national selector). She played spinners very well those days. When she was there, I always felt the strike would rotate. I didn’t have to take the initiative of scoring from both ends. I enjoyed having partnerships with her, especially in Test matches. From the non-striker’s end, you could see how she used her feet against spinners and learn from it. I used to always tell her – you handle the spinners and I will handle the pacers.
Whose batting do you enjoy most in men’s cricket?
I have enjoyed watching Ricky Ponting bat, and Sachin (Tendulkar), of course. Sachin was more of learning for me. Whenever I watched him bat, I was learning, but I would enjoy Ricky Ponting’s batting. Michael Bevan is another one. There were a few matches where I would see him for half an hour, he would have already got to his fifty and you would be wondering how he got there. He has won matches for Australia with the tail. It’s something I have always admired in him.
What have you learnt from Tendulkar’s batting?
One is that when he prepared for every series, he had a different set of things, the way he picked up bowlers. As a non-striker, he used to watch the bowler’s grip. I never used to do that earlier, but started doing so a few years ago.
In 2009, when I was a non-striker, I saw Brunt getting a couple of our batsmen out with slower deliveries, which she holds as a normal outswinger. So, when other batsmen came in, I told them not to get fooled thinking she is going to bowl a quicker one. As a non-striker, you need to know what the bowler is doing so that you can analyse and help your partner. The more batters you have sitting in the dressing room, the better it is for the team to get runs on the board.
“Visualisation never worked for me. I write a journal. After every game, I try and pen down what thoughts ran through my mind during the innings and what better I can do.”
What do you turn to when there is a dip in your form?
Visualisation never worked for me. I write a journal. After every game, I try and pen down what thoughts ran through my mind during the innings and what better I can do, something I have tried and if it has not paid off, things I am doing different.
Right from the beginning, my coach (Sampath Kumar), who passed away in 1997, taught me to write journals. I pretty much have a library of journals by now. He would ask me to write what kind of a ball I should play the square-cut to. As an 11-year-old kid, I used to write short ball, outside off, the elbow should be up – literally small things. When I go back and read those now, I can actually understand he taught me how to analyse my own game, how to realise what are the important things that go into playing a particular shot.
Over the years, I have written so many things every series – when I look back, I get an idea of what I had worked on and what are the changes. When I look back and read, there are so many mistakes – the language and the spellings. But that was as a kid, so that’s okay!
What is your advice to young batters?
It depends on the level the person has played. I would like the Under-16 or Under-19 players to bat as much as they can because the more you bat at that level, the stronger you get in terms of your technique, your foundation. For an international cricketer, it will be more about getting stronger mentally.
When you are in the centre and you are challenged, you don’t give in. There is a way out; you just have to hang around.
In international cricket, you are always challenged with your technique and plan. If you don’t have a plan, you will not survive. You need to have a plan for how the opponents are going to get you out. You have a counter plan to play accordingly. That’s the challenge. If they have cordoned off my off-side, how would I score runs in spite of that? That’s the challenge. That’s basically your mental aspect. That time you can’t think of getting your bat in line. You just have to get going.
This is developed as a youngster when you start taking every match seriously. When I play boys, I see that they read our game far faster than we, as players, can understand. One ball and that is enough for [Under-19s and Under-23s boys] to find out where I am a little weaker, and they start bowling on that side. When you play these matches, you also learn how the other player is analysing your game. It’s not just about how you are analysing your game, I have to see it from your perspective – what you see in me that you want me to attack there.
With inputs from Karunya Keshav