She is called ‘Sachin Tendulkar of Indian women’s cricket’. She is the flag-bearer of the ‘women in blue’ brigade for nearly two decades now. She has been the first women to slam a Test double hundred. She is the second highest run aggregator ever in women’s limited overs international cricketer. She has led Indian women to their first World Cup final in 2005. She has led India to four successive Asia Cup titles. She is Mithali Dorai Raj. Mithali, though a strong advocate for women’s independence and self-reliance, believes women’s cricket is yet to get its due. The Hyderabad cricketer shared her views in this women’s day special tete-e-tete with the InsideSport Special Correspondent Astha Chadha.
InsideSport: Your Women’s Day message for the Indian women.
Mithali Raj: For me financial independence for every women is the most important thing. I feel every women should be financially independent because that makes you more stronger. That gives you a chance to live a life of your choice. You can take your own decisions if you are not dependent on anyone for your livelihood. That gives you a lot of confidence to live in a society like we have, which is still male dominant.
IS: How does it feel being a women sportsperson in India?
MR: It feels great. India, at one point of a time was not known much for women sportspersons, whole focus was on male players. Now time has changed. People have started taking women sports and players more seriously. They are talking about us also. We feel that we are also taking Indian sport to a new level. It feels great.
IS: This is a country obsessed with cricket. You are the only women to hit an international double hundred. How did media and corporate respond to this rare feet?
MR: See it all depends on the popularity of the game. Cricket of course is something in India, which has an unmatched popularity, but it is more associated with men than women. Men’s cricket sells far better than any other game. Women’s cricket has a long way to catch up in terms of branding and marketing of the sport. Everyone relates it to the men’s cricket when it comes to the popularity.
When I broke the world record in 2002, people were not even aware of women’s cricket existence. Even after scoring a double hundred, I did not get any corporate support or any brand endorsement as any male cricketer would. Our game was not visible on TV. So naturally brands were not interested in us. We still don’t have the brand value because our game is not televised, no one is following our matches or watching us playing on screen.
You can say, Jo dikhta hai, wo bikta hai. In today’s marketing world to sell yourself, you have to remain in people’s mind constantly. The more you will be on medium like TV, the more popular you will be.
IS: So do you think more and more telecast can add a brand value to women’s cricket?
MR: Yes, of course. There was a time when people knew me by my name but even if I was standing next to them they won’t be able to recognize me. But today, since our matches are being televised on channels, they have seen me playing on TV, they know me. They know my game. So, whenever we go out, they recognize me by my face. Social media has also played a big role in bringing us this recognition. What I feel is, the more you will promote women’s cricket on these two platforms, more better branding of women players we can do through this.
IS: Your take on sponsorship market’s response to women athletes’ achievements?
MR: It’s quite positive. Olympic medal is a remarkable achievement for any nation and its sportspersons. It carries a different value altogether. In cricket, we compare it with World Cup, since cricket is not a part of Olympics. So if you are winning a medal in that, it’s a great achievement and that is something which deserves recognition. These girls have done exactly that and of course their market value has increased and I feel they completely deserve it. Now what they have to do is to stay focused and remain constantly in form.
IS: From Diana Iduljee, to you, to Harmanpreet Kaur – India has icons to reckon with in women’s cricket. Do you think the brand market has started or will start accepting women’s cricket in India on a par with men’s cricket?
MR: Not yet, because we are still not getting our share of recognition. Only few matches are being broadcasted on TV, not the whole series or the tournament. It’s not on a par with men’s cricket. They play a lot of cricket and that means you are literally visible on TV every day. Log bahut jaldi bhool jate hain. For example Harmanpreet played so well in Big Bash league and I think only few matches were televised in India, so again there was no scope of any brand to notice her performance. We have to bring women cricket to the brand market through TV.
IS: Is cricket a career option for women in India?
MR: Yes of course I see cricket as a good career option. I have seen lot of changes in people’s mindset as well as in the game. BCCI has got in central contract and monetary benefits are also there. If you are representing your State, you are very well taken care of by the State bodies
IS: Please share with the changes women’s cricket has gone through during your 18-year international career?
MR: I think the first major change is we have a good domestic calendar around the year and all games are being played on very good grounds. Second is now we have an access to National Cricket Academy, like in Bangalore, which is best available facility. Players can access best physios, bowling consultants or facilities like rehab. They are really taking good care of the players because everything is centrally controlled by the BCCI.
IS: You are counterpart to Sachin in batting and Dhoni and Virat in leading the Women in Blue? Does the difference in recognition hurt, or there is more pride in being the flag-bearer of women’s cricket in India?
MR: I think I will take a pride in being a flag bearer because when I started, there was nothing in women’s cricket. I never expected this kind of transformation. We have come a long way from 90s to now. We have gone through a lot of changes, which is of course for the betterment of the game. I myself had no idea about Diana Edulji or Shanta Rangaswamy when I started playing cricket. But, now I feel happy to see new players that at least they know few names and a lot about game. From nowhere we have reached to somewhere.
IS: You once said that you were asked to choose between love and cricket. Please share more with us on that.
MR: No (Laughs) I never said that. It was between Cricket and Bharatnatyam. I was learning Bharatnatyam and then I left that for cricket.
IS: You are extremely successful as a cricketer. How satisfied you are with your career, achievements and response you should get and you are getting after all this success?
MR: I never thought of having a long career. When you start playing once, you just starts enjoying the game. I am very happy that I have come so far in spite of injuries. I never expected that I will play this long.
IS: Three quick ones in the interest of women’s cricket:
– A message to parents of young aspiring female cricketers
MR: Parents should take initiative. If they feel that their daughter is focused and taking the game seriously, they need to invest more time into that. They should give enough freedom to choose their career
– A message to corporate and market forces
Now women cricket is developing. They can start giving us enough opportunities to create a market or brand for ourselves.
– A message to cricket administrators
I have already given my recommendations and suggestions to BCCI which I cannot reveal that right now (laughs).
With nearly 9,000 international runs from all three formats of the game, Mithali remains the most successful Indian batsperson. She with her bat and leading abilities has laid a strong foundation for women’s cricket, which is proving to be the catalyst to make this sport a viable career option. Not on a par with their male counterparts for now though, still good enough for pride, recognition and a professional security.