Editor’s Note: Free Hit: The Story of Women’s Cricket in India, written by Suprita Das, is the story of determination, grit and perseverance of women cricketers like Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, who despite facing many obstacles for their gender — be it pay gap, lack of sponsorship, or the biases of cricketing officials — still made it as some of the most celebrated women cricketers in India, who have done the country proud by always bringing their A game to the pitches.
Here is an excerpt from a chapter of the book titled, Lazy Girl’s Long Innings
By Suprita Das
When Jhulan Goswami took her maiden international wicket in Chennai in the year 2000, the fielder at slip
who took the catch to send back England’s Caroline Atkins, was Jhulan’s age. Mithali Raj, nineteen, was at the time the Indian team’s vice-captain. By the time Jhulan was playing U-19 cricket for East Zone in 1999–2000, Mithali had already made it to the national team.
But unlike Jhulan, who had the Herculean task of convincing her family, her father especially, for Mithali
cricket was already chosen as a career – by her father. Born to Indian Air Force sergeant S. Dorai Raj and Leela Raj in Jodhpur where her father was last posted, Mithali grew up in a joint family in Hyderabad.
The Rajs were like most orthodox Tamilian families where daughters were trained in some form of classical singing or dancing. Mithali was a class three student at Keyes High School for Girls when she decided to enroll for Bharatanatyam classes. But little did she know that her school on-weekdays–dance-on-weekends routine would come to an end even before she finished junior school.
At the time, Mithali would tag along with her elder brother, Mithun, for his cricket training at the St. John’s Academy in Secunderabad, often taking her homework with her to the ground. At the all-boys camp where she wasn’t allowed to play, she threw the ball back when it came to her. But she got bored of it soon and ended up hitting a few balls at the nets once the boys were done with their session. That’s how Mithali says her cricketing journey began.
But in the account of her father, Dorai Raj, ‘Mithali was a lazy girl’, who used to cry every morning when being woken up early. So, to put her into some sort of a healthy routine and disciplined lifestyle, Dorai Raj started taking her to his son’s cricket classes. A sleepy Mithali would hop on to the carrier of her father’s motorcycle at 5.30 a.m. to be at the cricket ground.
Coach Jyothi Prasad, who would teach the boys, and happened to be Dorai Raj’s friend, suggested Mithali might as well learn the game since she was coming to the ground anyway. The way she moved her feet and stepped forward while putting her bat down in an arc convinced Prasad that the young girl had potential. Dorai Raj agreed and Mithali’s life changed from thereon.
At the age of nine, she received her first bat, albeit a small one, by Prasad, who started teaching her the basics in an informal way – she picked up the tricks in no time. Prasad told Raj Senior that he should focus on making his daughter, not his son, play cricket, as there was too much competition among the boys.
Being the only girl at the coaching camp had its advantages. Mithali was let in to bat first, and that got her somewhat interested. On Prasad’s suggestion, Raj enrolled Mithali into the cricket team at Keyes High School, where Sampath Kumar, a well-respected coach who previously taught Purnima Rau, taught the girls cricket after class. Kumar was also in charge of two age-group teams in Hyderabad.
Just three months into training her, Kumar realized that Mithali was an exceptional talent. She was picking up difficult things with relative ease, and he had no doubt that she would go on to represent the country one day. In fact, he said she would play for India by the time she would turn fourteen. Of course, Mithali and her parents were pretty sure he was joking, but Kumar was dead serious. He was aiming for the stars, but he didn’t think he was overly ambitious.
Coach Sampath Kumar never set the bar low. And he didn’t want Mithali to concentrate on studies alone or get lost
amongst books. As a regular south Indian family, the Rajs had a few obvious career choices for their daughter – medicine or engineering. Anything else would’ve been too adventurous.
They did, however, decide to take a leap of faith. Kumar agreed to teach Mithali in exchange for the commitment that her parents would get her to the ground any time he demanded. While she worked on her shot-making and footwork with Kumar, it was the steps at the weekend Bharatanatyam classes where Mithali’s heart was. From being the lazy kid, as her father claims, suddenly, the young girl became so busy that twenty-hour hours seemed insufficient.
Childhood, and indeed life too, was never going to be regular for her from that time on. At one point, the cricket training became so rigorous that the Bharatanatyam had to be sacrificed. The ‘military life’ as Mithali describes it started with waking up at 5 a.m., leaving for the ground, located in the school premises itself, at 5.30 a.m. Cricket coaching went on from 6–8 a.m., following which Mithali changed and ate breakfast there itself as school began at 8.30 a.m.
Once school was done, and she’d eaten a meal brought over by her mother, it was time to hit the nets. By the time she was done, it was past 7 p.m. In all of this, her mother’s role was the toughest. Leela Raj toiled day after day but went about her job quietly for years.
To ensure that Mithali was eating nutritious food, she used to be up and in the kitchen before the crack of dawn. She prepared Mithali’s breakfast, lunch, and snack, and made sure Mithali wasn’t digging into a packet of chips or sipping on a cold drink. She channelized every bit of energy she had into Mithali’s ten-year-old mind and body. If there was a reason why Mithali’s grades never dropped in school, it was because of her mother. Her homework was always done, just not in her own handwriting.
Soon, cricket started making its way beyond the school ground. The cricket crazy Dorai Raj had now become obsessed
with his daughter’s future in the game. So much so that cricket became a part of dinner table conversations as well. Mithali really didn’t have a regular childhood. She didn’t have friends as such, didn’t do the kind of things girls her age did, she didn’t make it to any social gatherings and didn’t even have time for sibling rivalry. Mithun would be fast asleep when Mithali started her day at 5 a.m. and by the time she was done for the day by 10.30–11 p.m., he would be tucked in bed already.
Once the teenage years set in, Mithali’s life revolved around cricket 24/7. Dealing with teenage pangs, believing her peers cared more for her than anybody else in the world, sneaking in a Mills & Boon novel to bed, bunking classes or trying on her first lipstick – Mithali doesn’t have any such memories.
All she knew was that she wanted to grow old very quickly.
(The following excerpt has been published with permission from HarperCollins Publishers, India. Written by Suprita Das, the paperback of Free Hit: The Story of Women’s Cricket in India costs Rs 499.00)