In a Women’s World Cup final marked by more ‘clutch moments’ and ‘turning points’ than you can count, there was for me one moment that defined this Indian team and its leader.
The last wicket had fallen, the cup was England’s and Heather Knight’s mates were celebrating. Off in one corner of the field, the Indian team milled around, with drooping heads and tear-blind eyes. And in the thick of it all, captain Mithali Raj walked from player to player, giving each a hug, a few words of solace; on occasion, her hand reached up to wipe away the tears.
As she walked over to the next player, you saw the eyes of the player she had just left following her, fixed on her as you would on the light of a candle in a dark and dismal world. In her actions was a sign of how much she felt for her players, girls who she had inspired when they were mere toddlers, and shepherded into the big leagues and, on this day, onto the biggest stage the game has to offer. And in their eyes you saw just what Raj meant to every single one of them. Defeat was their lot, but they were finding it bearable, just, because Raj was there with them.
And then, with the same imperturbable calm, Raj walked over to the presentation area for her post match press conference. With her smile in place, she spoke of how well the opposition had fought and how they had deserved to win, she spoke of her disappointment at the result but immediately leavened it with fulsome praise of her mates, calling them the lodestars for the next generation of Indian talent. With no change of expression, she said she hoped to be able to play for a year or two more, but added that this was her last World Cup.
If at any time she felt the hurt, if at any time the most prolific batsman in the women’s game felt the pain of being unable to add the ultimate accolade to her impressive collection of laurels, it never showed. On this day, on this stage, she was careful to never reveal, by word or gesture, her own disappointment. Her wards, she must have figured, were feeling bad enough without being reminded of her own angst.
And thus, with that zen-like calm, she exited a stage she had adorned for 18 years. And in the manner of her exit she taught one last lesson: that sport, when you come right down to it, is not just about skill and fitness; finally, and at its best, it is about grace, about being able to “treat those two impostors just the same”. And thus, in the manner of her leaving, she left Indian cricket, and the game itself, just that little bit richer. And poorer.
Jarrod Kimber, arguably the freshest, feistiest voice in cricket writing today, sums up what Raj has accomplished, and against what odds, in this lovely example of writing to tight deadline.
Mithali Raj ran for 18 years, all around the world, for her women, for her India, and she ended up a foot short. Some say she should have dived for the crease, thrown herself, but she had already thrown every part of her into cricket all her life.