Few drives can match the grace of Mithali Raj. She makes you sit back in anticipation of the next one. Every time the chorus of ‘shot’ reverberated across the Asian Institute of Technology Cricket Ground in Bangkok, on Sunday (December 4), more often than not it was Raj’s batting masterclass in progress. The handful of campus crowd that had gathered for the high-voltage India-Pakistan final was satisfied with just boundaries if they were going to be as admirably timed. Heck, even the singles garnered a loud applause. There was no brute forced applied – as is the norm to qualify for a T20 opener’s slot – no reckless shots played, no aerial routes taken, unless they were called for. And yet the flawless knock – not typical of a T20 game – from the former captain’s willow set the two teams apart in the 2016 ACC Women’s Asia Cup final. Gracious in defeat, Bismah Mahroof made it a point to note where it all fell apart for her side. Not that the distraught runners-up needed another reminder.
There was chaos in Pakistan’s chase of 122 – seemingly, a par score. Wickets fell at both ends, at regular intervals. Ayesha Zafar raised hopes before missing an attempted pull to see her stumps shattered that gave Jhulan Goswami her 50th Twenty20 International wicket. The experienced Javeria Khan looked in the similar ominous touch that she has been in, to keep Pakistan in the hunt by sticking to the basics – the rotation of strike. Pakistan looked in control right up until the 10th over where the in-form batter threw away the chance to make it count when it mattered the most. Mahroof anchored the chase forward and until her wicket in the 14th over, it was difficult to tip off a winner.
It’s the kind of chaos Raj shielded India from. For the umpteenth time in her career, and in this Asia Cup in particular, she dropped anchor and led India’s charge even as her partners made guest appearances at the other end. More than the sheer amount of runs she piled up on Pakistan, it is the kind of maturity that Raj showed at the crease that was missing in the rivals’ chase. The mark of a good batsman is often not just how heavily they score for the team but also the circumstances they did that in.
Raj doesn’t belong to the hard-hitters club but hits the nail on the head alright. There are few who argue if she is the right woman for India to open with if she is not going to go at at least a run a ball in the powerplay, but the numbers she has stacked up since her promotion to the top slot back up the well-thought out move of coach Purnima Rau. Captaincy or not, Raj has flourished in her role as an opener. Barring an odd match here and there, in the 22 games she has played in since being pushed as an opener, in 2014 against Sri Lanka at home, Raj has amassed 764 runs at an astounding average of 47.75. That includes seven of her 10 T20I half-centuries. She’s batted through the innings six times and her strike rate is nearly 99.
Rau’s approach is simple, pick the best to open and then sit back and watch as they use the field restrictions to their advantage and pierce the gaps effortlessly. While Raj admitted that she took her time to settle in to the new responsibility she was entrusted with, she now relishes it. Her reply tells you how, over the period of these two years, she has remodelled herself from a middle-order bat to a T20 opener even as the rest of the batting continues to revolve around her.
“It’s important that in the first six overs even if you don’t achieve the target that you had (originally) planned, but if you have a minimum score (and) also have your openers there in the middle, it makes up for it,” Raj told Cricbuzz.
It’s not the kind of approach for a powerplay you are likely to hear from a lot of T20 players, but still makes sense. “Because later on, you can always accelerate when you have wickets in hand. You lose wickets in the first six overs (then) the incoming batsman will no doubt have more overs but by the time they settle in and (start) scoring, there comes a gap (lean phase). I personally feel that if you don’t lose early wickets, there will always be scope to put more runs on the board,” she continues.
“After the six overs, you don’t take as much risk. That’s when you try and make up for those dot balls (earlier),” she suggests. “You’ll always get a phase where you can make up for those lost runs in the initial overs. So that’s where I feel you should be clever enough not to lose the wickets but at the same time, try and run between the wickets.
“On this (kind of a) ground, you will not get runs easily, so it makes sense that if you can convert those ones into twos you can always make up for those dot balls later on. And once that happens, you’ll be in that momentum, so you’ll start to get that flow of runs as well. If you stay till say the 14th, 15th over, and you build partnerships, that’s where the incoming batsman will have more confidence walking in.
“In key matches it is very important that you get a good start, because when you get a head start, it naturally gives a lot of confidence to the players back in the tent.”
On pitches where the ball was gripping, keeping low, and offered a sufficient amount of turn as well, Raj showed just how crucial it can prove to be for a batsman who is among runs to keep going at it. She was left stranded on 49 not out in their series opener against Bangladesh, anchored most part of the India’s low-scoring chase of 98 in the league game against their eventual opponents in the final, and then hammered her first half-century of this edition to knock Sri Lanka all but out of the competition. Coming in to a high-voltage final against Pakistan, with 300-odd fans cheering their guts out and bunch of cameras ensuring there are more expectations from those back home, she fed off the confidence from her previous outings, put her hand up and delivered, yet again.
“When I walk in to bat, there is always that one thought that runs in my mind and that is to play what is bowled to me. That literally blanks out every other aspect of the game. I just want to play on the merit of the ball,” says the 34-year-old when asked if the rivalry and the recent on-field history adds to the pressure.
“I guess there is always nerves probably because we have seen those matches where we lost to Pakistan. It has always been at the back of our mind. You know that if we don’t really upgrade ourselves, in terms of confidence and our game, then in a final like this there will be serious competition around.”
Upgrade she did. As much as you would like to find solace in the fact that Pakistan got the better of India in their 2016 ICC Word Twenty20 key clash on D/L method, the truth of the matter is that India fell short of what would have been a safe score. This time, there was a title at stake and Raj wanted to ensure the mistakes from nine months ago were not repeated.
As Raj kick-started the proceedings and mesmerized the handful of audience with her textbook cover drives, Smriti Mandhana fell cheaply at the other end. Raj was in no mood to let Pakistan capitalise on the breakthrough. With a youngster coming in, she assumed charge. Meghana Sabbineni was reduced to a mere spectator at the other end, during her 44-run partnership with the former captain who inflicted maximum damage without being flashy. The loose balls from Asmavia Iqbal were asking for punishment, the head-high no-ball was pulled to the boundary ropes to perfection and the six off free-hit – which again was sent straight over the bowler’s head – was a no-brainer.
Raj stresses on understanding the wicket as well as the team’s ability to score on it. And the she stresses some more on trying to not compromise on the initial target for as long as feasible.
“It’s practical that you need to understand that how much is the team’s ability to score and how the wicket is and then accordingly you set a target,” Raj had said ahead of the final. The three quick wickets – Meghana and Veda Krishnamurthy in succeeding overs and then Harmanpreet Kaur soon after – had her redoing the calculations in the middle until senior partner Goswami produced a breathtaking cameo.
“We got to 120 because of those two sixes,” Raj says of Goswami’s 10-ball 17 in her 33-run partnership with the pacer. “At that point of time I needed somebody who is fresh and somebody who could get those two good overs. Her knock definitely made up for those overs in the middle where we lost Veda and Harman and where we scored just 2-3 runs per over. Jhulan’s those two sixes actually made the difference to get us to 120,” Raj observes, again stressing on benefits of having wickets in hand to push the accelerator in the end.
Not that Raj slowed down when a new batter settled in quicker than she thought and provided the impetus for a late push. The initial target was in sight again but needed some fearlessness. Few audacious shots followed – some swept, some lofted – but not before she’d sensed Goswami’s comfort at the other end. 120 was the ask, and Raj delivered on the promise.