Mithali Raj, the batting maestro as well as the flag bearer of women’s cricket for almost two decades in India, inscribed her name in record books yet again with the 200 ODI appearances.
But her appearance in T20s seems to be uncertain. What’s happening?
From the ICC World T20 last year to the recently-concluded New Zealand series, Mithali Raj has not been regular in the playing XI.
To build a strong team for the ICC World T20 2020, India has shuffled their opening slot in order to stable their batting line up.
Her exclusion from the playing XI during the semi-finals of ICC World T20 last year against England led them to a big controversy where India lost by eight wickets.
While the decision of her omission was backed by the-then coach Ramesh Powar, captain Harmanpreet Kaur, vice-captain Smriti Mandhana, and the selector Sudha Shah, the controversy led Ramesh Powar’s non-renewal tenure as a coach which led to WV Raman’s appointment as the head coach.
But in an age where one often favors exuberance of youth over the importance of experience, here’s an attempt to understand why the right-hander (with 2 decades of experience) is relevant, rather needed.
Mithali Raj last played as an opener in the ICC World T20 in 2018 against Ireland, wherein she scored a stable 56-ball-51 with 4 fours and a six.
She debuted in T20s in 2006 against England. Here, she began as a number 3, quite similar to her ODI career. Apart from opening, she’s played 31 games and has nearly 700 runs.
As the years gone by, the pattern of the shortest format of the game has changed too. In order to maintain a fine balance, Mithali Raj was pushed to the opening slot by the then coach Purnima Rau.
This was because she’s had the ability to score even against most challenging bowlers and has honed the fine art to anchor an inning.
As she didn’t announce her retirement, it was obvious that she was named in the T20I squad for the tour of New Zealand. It was expected that she will open the innings but she didn’t get the chance in the playing XI for the first two matches.
As India lost the series and Dayalan Hemalatha was injured, Mithali Raj was brought back in the playing XI for the final game. Though India lost the game, her effort to cross the line till the last ball was unquestionable.
Though there is still a question mark in her selection in the squad. Now, it’s time to look back to some of the numbers related to her opening slot.
India’s most successful batter has amassed 2307 runs in 86 outings so far. Mithali Raj is India’s most successful opener in T20Is as well with a total of 1,356 runs in 43 matches. She has also scored the most half-centuries as an opener for India-13.
Mithali Raj and Smriti Mandhana are India’s most successful opening pair in T20Is. They have scored 902 runs in 27 innings at an average of 33.40 including two century and five half-century partnerships.
As an opener in the shortest format of the game, Raj has scored 13 of her 17 fifties and her runs came at an average of 40.60. In 2018, she has amassed 575 runs in 19 innings at an average of 35.93, and a strike rate of 105.89.
However, India too experimented their opening slot with the change of the game. The wicket-keeper batter Taniya Bhatia was sent to open the innings alongside Smriti Mandhana in the opening match of the ICC World T20 between India and New Zealand in Guyana, last year. Bhatia managed only nine off seven with a boundary.
In the post-match ceremony, the captain Harmanpreet Kaur explained that Bhatia was sent to take advantage of the power play and to keep Raj in the middle order as the batting line-up was rather inexperienced.
But, in the next game, Raj was back as the opener against Pakistan as she is the best player against spin and as usual she anchored the chase, with a wonderful half-century. Her scoring abilities against the spinners led India to 48 without loss in the powerplay— with Raj on 20 of 16 and Mandhana on 16 of 20.
Though the opener Smriti Mandhana and the captain Harmanpreet Kaur guided India to win against Australia in the league match of ICC World T20, they were unable to perform as a unit which caused their loss in the semi-final against England.
The recently concluded T20I series against the White Ferns showed the same result. Apart from opener Smriti Mandhana and youngster Jemimah Rodrigues, everyone was struggling to score, including the captain Harmanpreet Kaur against the pace and swing. As a result, the team was further failed to win a single match.
Chasing a target of 162, India were once again on the verge of winning as Mandhana and Rodrigues added 47-run stand after Priya Punia’s dismissal. But Rodrigues and Kaur’s dismissal showed another collapse apart from Mithali Raj’s existence in the middle.
That time India needed 60 off 49 balls when she came to bat. She rotated the strike and allowed Mandhana to play her natural game. They both added 21 runs off 22 balls where only seven were dot balls.
India needed 39 off 27 balls when Deepti Sharma joined Mithali Raj. From guiding Deepti Sharma to finding gaps in between, Mithali Raj took the chase to the final ball. Though she was unable to find the gap and hit the boundary in the last ball and remained unbeaten on 24 off 20 balls.
That was the second time she was batting at No. 5 in her career. The first time was against Sri Lanka in 2009 where she scored an unbeaten 32 and after 10 long years she came into bat in the same position, yet she was looking completely in sync with the run chase.
We can’t ignore her ability to score big runs, can we?
In a tight run chase, apart from the skills and technique, the players should be able to absorb the pressure instead of panicking and who else is fit in this situation except for Mithali Raj?
Raj allows Mandhana and Rodrigues to play their natural attacking shots without worrying about a batting collapse. The batters can play sans stress as they know that they have Raj to depend on.
However, no matter how big the score, Raj is one of the best options as an opener while it comes to run chase. Her record speaks for herself in T20s
In 16 matches, she’s scored 450 runs at 40.90 at a strike rate of 95.5 including five fifties. In 2018, she scored 239 runs in 8 matches, at 39.83 with a strike rate of 101.27.
Not too bad are they?
Here’s what you need to note. Whenever Raj opened in the second innings alongside Mandhana in 2018, India won.
Yet, it is still being debated whether she should open the innings. It would be wonderful to note a concerted effort to solve the matter?
That told, some thoughts on what lies ahead.
As Priya Punia seems too inexperienced albeit talented to handle pressure and Taniya Bhatia’s still to overcome her inability to use the power-play well, isn’t Mithali Raj the best solution in the recent future as well as for the T20 World Cup next year?