The Dropping of Mithali Raj: Do We Finally Care Enough About Women’s Cricket?

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The Dropping of Mithali Raj: Do We Finally Care Enough About Women’s Cricket?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

“M

ithali Raj” was the top trend in India on Twitter at 5.30 am on a Friday, as the Indian women’s team took on the English in the semi-finals of the Women’s T20 World Cup. Previously, this kind of dedication to set an alarm for 5 am, only to sit in front of the TV set on a working day, had been reserved for the men’s cricket team, when they toured Australia, New Zealand, and the West Indies. But with an impressive run in the tournament, the Women in Blue had made it to the semi-finals and the country was rallying behind them.

Mithali Raj wasn’t trending because she had scored a hundred, dropped a sitter, or changed the course of the game in any way. In fact, the game hadn’t even begun, merely a coin had been flipped. The reason everyone was talking about Raj, was because the experienced veteran had been left out of the squad in a crunch knockout game. “Why is Mithali Raj not in the team?” “How can you leave your best batsman out,” fans outraged online.  

And all that ranting wasn’t for nothing – the Indian batting line-up collapsed from 89-3 to 112 all out. A strong case could be made that the calming and assured presence of Mithali Raj at the top could have made all the difference in a pressure game, a role played by Meg Lanning in Australia’s title victory. Harmanpreet Kaur was questioned, first by angry fans on Twitter, and then by the media in the post-match press conference.

And that, is a good thing. This outrage, this demand for accountability, this questioning of the Captain’s decisions, this discussion over petty politics in the sport, is a good thing. This churn is a good thing.    

The fallout between the coach, selectors, and former captain is playing out in the open, and fans are following it keenly.

After all, it is the constant questioning, criticism, and scrutiny that has powered the men’s team to a formidable position in world cricket and it is only healthy that the women’s game is put through a similar test. They say you can tell a lot about a person based on the questions they ask, and as a cricket-crazy nation, we have started asking the right questions when it comes to women’s cricket. Questions about cricket, and not about the women. Gone are the days of relative ignorance – asking which channel would air the match, whether the rules of the game were the same, whether the boundary was shorter, what is the name of the opening batswoman, or what tournament were they playing. Our knowledge of the game and the players has evolved. With the exploits of stalwarts such as Anjum Chopra, Mithali Raj, and Jhulan Goswami, and popularity of young guns like Smriti Mandhana and Deepti Sharma in the shorter formats, the interest in the women’s game has peaked.

Mithali Raj’s controversial exclusion from the squad has now been discussed for almost a week, with more fervour since her letter to the BCCI became public. In fact, when I wrote a piece earlier this week, defending Harmanpreet’s decision to drop Mithali Raj, Facebook commenters put up a spirited, well-argued defence for Raj. One said: “Let’s stop being patronising. All the girls have ever asked for is to be looked through the same lens as men. This was not bold, this was harakiri. Leaving out your most experienced batter who was better equipped to handle the changes in conditions, 4 semis? Also what’s with the persistence with Reddy, when Mansi Joshi in her only outing clearly proved far superior?… Leaving out Mithali Raj is much worse than Ganguly’s decision to field at the 2003 World Cup Final. Imagine Dhoni had dropped Tendulkar @ 2011 world cup final & India had lost. He would have been ripped to shreds. So shouldn’t Harmanpreet be criticised in the true spirit of the game?”

This, right here, is a good thing.

The fallout between the coach, selectors, and former captain is playing out in the open, and fans are following it keenly. But as we already know about cricket in India, with great love comes even greater scrutiny. The questions have advanced from who and what to why. Why did Harmanpreet Kaur decide to bat first in overcast conditions? Why is Mithali Raj playing in the middle order and not at the top? Why didn’t we go with an extra spinner on this wicket? Why did Smriti Mandhana play a rash shot at that moment in the game? Why did Poonam Yadav not bowl that all-important over?

Fans have started treating the women’s team with the same yardstick as the men’s – putting incredible pressure and raising fingers in case of failure. As expectations grow, they are no longer treated with kids’ gloves.

Hopefully, some day we will cheer for Harmanpreet as loudly as we cheer for Virat Kohli. Like Kohli, we expect Kaur to give us a win every single time. And when they falter we boo them.

It is a burden that comes with playing cricket for India, and it is something that the men’s team has been enduring for as long as we can remember. Today, the woman are being held up to the same level of scrutiny. And that’s always a good thing.

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