One made her debut in 1999 as a 16-year-old. She has gone on to play 177 One-Day Internationals so far, the most by any Indian cricketer. She has captained the country in 100 of them, by far the most. She has a total of 51 fifty-plus scores to her name in ODIs, 32 more than Anjum Chopra, who is a distant second. She holds pretty much every batting record there is for India.
The other made her debut in 2002 as a 19-year-old. She has gone on to play 155 ODIs, the second-most by any Indian cricketer. She has captained the country in 25 of them, the third-most in the list of Indian captains. Her 185 wickets make her the highest wicket-taker in ODI history. She holds pretty much every bowling record there is for India.
Opposite in approaches, united in belief
Born eight days apart, Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, still going strong at 34, are the two pillars of Indian cricket. Come Saturday, Raj will walk out as the captain, playing her fifth World Cup for India. Goswami, playing her fourth World Cup will stand next to her when the national anthems are sung. Two women, who have racked up some staggering numbers in their career, will hope to add a World Cup medal to their cabinet.
“It’s incredible what they have done for the country,” says Snehal Pradhan, a former Indian cricketer turned journalist. “Even more than the numbers, what is staggering is to have such a long career in a country where the sport was not financially rewarding until very recently, where you just played for the love of the game if you are a woman. To persist for all these years speaks volumes about their passion and fitness.”
Sudha Shah, who herself knows a thing or two about longevity, having played the sport for 15 years starting from 1976, is in awe of the duo as well.
“From their very first days playing for India till now, their work ethic has not changed one bit,” Sudha told The Field. “I have seen their careers unfold in front of my eyes and it is great to see that their pride of playing for the country has remained the same over all these years.”
The longevity factor
For Raj, being the captain has become second nature. Leading the country for so long – she has captained in 72 ODIs more than Anjum Chopra – has seen her evolve as a person, says Shah, who was the manager of the team in the 2000 World Cup, Raj’s first. She announced her arrival at the world stage in style, with scores of 69 not out, 51 and 32 in the three matches she played.
Unfortunately she was ruled out of the semi-final against New Zealand due to an illness, a match that India lost. Shah recollects spending time with 17-year-old Raj in the hospital, and understanding how gutted she was to not be out there. It was clear to her then how much it meant for Raj to play for her country.
“I remember her as this shy teenager in that first World Cup of hers. She didn’t say much at all and mostly kept to herself,” recalls Shah. “Over the years, she has matured into a real leader, and all that experience of handling the media and the attention has made her tough. One thing that has not changed is the cool head on those shoulders. Anyone who has seen her play will tell you she never gets hassled.”
A successful partnership
Goswami, on the other hand, is a live-wire, on and off the field. Pradhan, who idolises “Jhulu di” and became a fast bowler herself, feels that contrasting personalities is part of the reason why they have gone on to forge their successful careers.
“Mithali is not the most expressive cricketer, she is calm, almost detached when she is out there,” Pradhan told The Field. “Jhulu di, on the other hand, loves to express herself. Her celebrations, her reactions when a fielder drops a catch – she puts it all out there. Mithali and Jhulu di are opposite poles when it comes to their personalities, and that is perhaps why they have gelled well.”
And now after all these years of playing together, the two legends of the game will have one more shot at lifting that World Cup trophy. One last shot, perhaps. But how important is it for them to win a World Cup to complete their legacy?
“Important? No, it’s not necessary that they have to win the tournament to seal their legacy,” says Pradhan. “Both Mithali and Jhulu di have already achieved so much in their careers. More importantly, they have inspired so many girls in that dressing room to take up that sport. Their legacies are secure, a World Cup win would just be the icing on that cake.”
Raj, for her part, had said in a recent interview with bcci.tv that her current squad is well-prepared and if they play to their potential, with the world watching as the tournament is telecast,they could become part of a revolution. A revolution that would not be unlike the 1983 World Cup win.
“I have seen the transformation of the team. I have seen three generations. The first time when I led India in the 2005 World Cup, I had so many seniors under me and then I had my players of my own age group and today, I am leading a young brigade,” Raj said.
And this young brigade have two heroes of the game to look up to for inspiration. Sudha Shah, who grew up watching men’s cricket and idolising the likes of Sunil Gavaskar and GR Vishwanath, points out that irrespective of whether they return with the trophy or not, they have already made their biggest contribution to the sport.
“I was part of the first Indian team and I had to look up to idols like Gavaskar. But for any young girl in the country today, you don’t have to look beyond Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami for inspiration. That, for me, is their legacy.”