Just last week, Mithali Raj had made herself available for the upcoming T20I series against South Africa, even if she wasn't sure about the T20 World Cup, six months away. "I am definitely available for the T20 series next month but, at the moment, haven't really thought about the T20 World Cup," she had said. But, just seven days on, she had quit the shortest format. Speaking to ESPNcricinfo soon after the announcement, Raj looked back on the highs and lows of her T20I career, and discussed the youngsters who will take India forward in the format.
When did you first consider retiring from T20Is?
Retiring after the home series against England [in Guwahati in March] is something I had already decided during the New Zealand tour. So accordingly, I had kept the coach, WV Raman, and the chief selector (Hemlata Kala) in the loop during the tour. When I was having a chat with the coach [in New Zealand], I realised he was planning for the next T20 World Cup (in February-March 2020), and I didn't see myself playing that World Cup. So it fully made sense for me to keep the coach in the loop about my plan, and that is when I shared my plan with them.
Precisely at that point of time [in February-March], there were also articles doing the rounds about my retirement. So it was already out in the media. So as things stand today, it wasn't a decision I took all of a sudden, driven by emotions or impulse, because I'm still an active member of the one-day side and the captain. This decision to quit this format [T20Is] was made a long time ago and both the coach and the selector were aware.
"The highlight of my career would always be opening the innings for India. It will be at the top because that's a kind of feeling only a player can understand, as to what it really is to open an innings for her country."
Did you discuss your retirement with any team-mates before making the announcement today?
When I make a decision, it is solely and wholly mine. Once I make up my mind, I don't discuss much, or with anyone. When I made this decision in New Zealand, the only person I discussed this with was my dad. He had said I should not be retiring on foreign soil, which is why I had made up my mind that England would be my last series.
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It was just a matter of when I would have made the decision known to the BCCI and make it public. I knew all through that this announcement is something I wanted to come up with after the England home series because at that point there was no confirmation around the scheduling of the South Africa series.
What comes to your mind today as you look back at the closing phase of your T20I career, which also includes the controversy that broke out in the wake of the India's T20 World Cup exit last November?
A dear friend told me, "There's nothing you can get holding on to the past." So I don't have any bitterness at this juncture thinking about the controversy. Yes, it did project the sport in a bad light for those few months, but I don't have any negativity about the controversy or any not-so-good things that I may have gone through in my T20I career.
What about the good things?
I would roll back the clock to 2016, when we defeated Australia in Australia. It was the first time we achieved that feat. Leading the Indian team on that tour is something I cherish. That was the point when things started to roll for the Indian team, and a lot of good players have come up after that. That series win gave us a lot of confidence as a team. All of a sudden, we realised we do have the potential to be a better T20I side than what had been before that.
That was a turning point in the journey of Indian women's cricket. I look at it as a big stride forward for the Indian team. Since that tour, the team has really improved series by series and we have had more players getting opportunities in overseas T20 leagues, starting with Smriti [Mandhana] and Harman (Harmanpreet Kaur).
Would you be available for selection in the BCCI's domestic inter-state T20 tournament and the next edition of the Women's T20 Challenge?
At some level, yes. The other leagues [such as the WBBL and the KSL] have been up and running for four-five years, so they are on a better platform, so in the Women's IPL - or whatever form the Women's T20 Challenge takes up next year - we need established players to keep the tournament in a good space, given the last edition [where Raj captained Velocity to the final] has garnered a lot of attention. People are now keen to have a women's IPL, and it's something that will help our domestic players in a big way, so I will be available for that.
Who are the young talents you think have a good chance of making up the core of the T20I side over the next few years?
It all depends on the role that the young players are given. In my opinion, it doesn't only depend on the players' individual performances. Over a period of time, you have to give them opportunities in a given role, and if they do well, they should be picked because it will help the team perform as a cohesive unit and perform better.
We have had players who have done well individually, but in a format that's evolving so fast, you need those individual performances to fit into the larger needs of the team. Of course, you have Smriti, Harmanpreet, Jemimah [Rodrigues], and there's Deepti [Sharma], who, I read, has done really well in the KSL. That performance should give that girl a confidence boost because she's one player who's immensely important for the one-day side, and I believe in the future she will play a very important role in the T20 side.
Since the start of 2018, there has been a lot of debate - and uncertainty - around the best candidate for Smriti Mandhana's opening partner. Among those that T20I captain Harmanpreet has tried, who do you think is best suited for the role?
It depends on what team they select. They tried out [Priya] Punia in New Zealand, and then in the home series [against England] they tried out Harleen [Deol]. In the Asia Cup, Pooja [Vastrakar] also opened for us.
Jemimah's got a lot of runs at No. 3 in T20Is. I am not sure about promoting her to the opener's slot because someone else then will have to fill Jemimah's No. 3 spot. So I would not disturb her at this juncture to push her to the opening slot. But Shafali [Verma, who Raj captained at the Women's T20 Challenge] is a good prospect.
What sets Shafali apart from the players you mentioned earlier?
Shafali is a really good prospect we have got after a long time who is so fearless. If moulded well, guided well, and given a good platform by the coach, the captain and the team, she will be a really good option. She needs that guidance because she is still very young, only 15-16 [years old] and her first big experience was the Women's T20 Challenge. Besides, she is a wicketkeeper-bat, so it's again a question of how they can utilise the talents of a young girl.
You started out young yourself and were part of the side that played India's first T20I. What are your most memorable knocks from your T20I career?
The match in Sydney against Australia... It was in 2008. We were in no position to win [from the outset] because we were not that good a T20I side, but we ended up losing by only two runs. I got some 50-odd runs in the middle order [51 not-out, at No. 4, in only her second T20I], and that is one match I would rate highly because even though we lost the game, it made me realise that despite our limitations as a T20I team, we can always take a match closer in the format, and probably eventually win. I also remember that Jhulan [Goswami] was leading us in that game and there is a picture of us walking back.
What kind of a future do you picture for the Indian T20I side which is now without you and Jhulan, two of the country's most experienced cricketers?
It had to happen someday, didn't it? Jhulan retired [from T20Is] last year, it's my turn now because nobody can play on forever. Everyone has to call it a day some day or the other, and the team will move forward because it has to move forward.
The way the current crop of players are performing, I'm sure they will do very well in the upcoming series and also in the T20 World Cup. Most of the players in the T20I side are mature adults. Most of them have 25-plus games under their their belt, and the BCCI will be organising a few series to ensure others to get that many games under their belt before the World Cup, so they have that maturity to deal with situations you require at top-level international cricket.
Is there anything you particularly enjoyed about batting in T20Is?
The highlight of my career would always be opening the innings for India. It will be at the top because that's a kind of feeling only a player can understand, as to what it really is to open an innings for her country. Apart from that, the runs I scored in Bangladesh [including three fifties on that tour] during the 2014 T20 World Cup.
Is there any advice you would like to give to the inexperienced players in the T20I side?
Look, we all must understand that the current players have a lot of challenges because the way the ICC is promoting the T20Is and one-dayers, especially the World Cup platform, everyone's eyes will be glued to both the Indian teams - no matter the format. So it's very important that the players remain calm, and just focus on what they are supposed to do, especially on their preparation. Preparation is everything. That's one aspect they shouldn't compromise on.
I believe our Indian T20I side has what it takes to perform well in the T20 World Cup because Smriti and Harman have played two-three seasons in the WBBL and they are the most experienced players in this side. They will be heading into the World Cup with a lot of experience and they should be able to share that experience with the other players, especially the youngsters, and I see that helping that team. As an Indian, I will be rooting for our team, and I want them to do well. At the end of the day, you want the sport to grow, you want more girls in our country to play cricket, take up the sport, and there's no platform better than the World Cup to inspire a generation.
If it were possible to turn back time, would you have done anything differently in your T20I career?
If I would have done anything differently, the outcome would have been different (smiles). As a player, I don't know if I would have got any different kind of knowledge had I done things differently, but I am happy the way things have turned out. Whether it is good or bad it doesn't matter as long as it helped me move forward.