The future augurs well for women’s cricket in the country, but the journey for women cricketers has been full of challenges and tears in the early years, said Mithali Raj, one of India's most inspiring sportsperson, with a career in international cricket spanning more than two decades.

"The biggest challenge that women cricketers faced was the perception of people to accept women playing sports. For a long time, it was a male-dominated sport," Raj said while accepting the BusinessLine Iconic Changemaker Award on Friday.

Mithali, who has created numerous records in her long and illustrious career, including being the woman with most runs in the game, and the only Indian captain, male or female, to have led the side to two 50-over World Cup finals, says she did not have any idea about the history of women's cricket as she got into the sport way back in 1999.

As she started playing, Raj said she realised that women's cricket was not much in focus. "I saw men’s cricket rise. But our sport was still there. The 2005 world cup was not enough for the sport to come into the limelight," she said.

But that did not stop Raj from playing steadily and the runs kept adding up. During the 2017 ODI World Cup, Raj moved past England cricketer Charlotte Edwards to become the highest run-scorer in ODIs and the first woman to score 6,000 runs in the format.

Raj, who retired from international cricket in June 2022, says that with women's cricket coming under BCCI and a lot of other supportive changes taking place, including the support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there has been a growth in sports in the country, including in popularity of women's cricket. This has been more prominent in the last four-five years.

"I have seen the growth of not just sport in the country but also the acknowledgment and recognition of women athletes in all the fields. We have come a long way. And the future years for sports in general in the country will grow leaps and bounds," she said.

Role models

On role models, Raj said that there weren't many women role models in sports when she started out and just a few such as PT Usha and Karnam Malleswari were being talked about.

While her sports role model was Sachin Tendulkar and her mother was also a role model in life, it was Raj's Bharatnatyam teacher who impressed her a lot. "My dance teacher was my role model. She was an independent woman in the 1990s... I wanted to be like her. She was my foremost role model when I started playing cricket," Raj said.