By Mithali Raj

A lot has changed since I was playing in the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup. The biggest difference is people are now aware of what’s going on with their national team. When I broke the world record for the highest individual Test score in 2002, people didn’t know about it unless they were going out to buy the newspapers.

But now, it’s seen by everyone all over television and on social media – a lot has changed not only in how people get their news but their desire for women’s cricket.

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We rarely got good grounds to play on back in our day. For example, at the 2000 World Cup we played at Lincoln University – quite different to the situation today where the top stars are getting to play at historic grounds like the MCG or the WACA.

We used to travel to different places all over the world to play but barely got any time to acclimatise. There was no travel or daily allowance, nor a physio or strength and conditioning trainer to look out for fitness. We travelled to matches with just our head coach and manager and just didn’t have any form of cushioning.

Back in my day, we only had male players as inspiration because that’s all we used to see on the television. Today a young girl can have a role model in the form of a female cricketer and I think that’s the biggest change I have seen.

I am very excited for this ICC T20 Women’s World Cup. The coverage and the reach of women’s cricket has grown so much since when I played in the 50-over World Cup in 2017, which is what is making it more popular.

And it’s not just the social media hype around it. For the first time, I don’t think there is just one contender, but four or five teams who could win it.

The gap between the top and bottom teams is closing. You can’t go by the practice matches alone, but it does give you a rough indication of how the tournament could play out. Take Sri Lanka beating England for example — there is a possibility that could happen again.

India also did well to chase 170 against the hosts Australia in the tri-series, where there were all sorts of different results. When you see these scores, and tight games, there is so much more quality now in the game, even just since the last edition of the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup.

Of course, they weren’t in a World Cup format but these glimpses show that the gap is closing. I think Australia go in favourites but we can’t push every other team aside. Teams like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh can compete too.

I am curious to see how Thailand fare against the big sides in their first ICC tournament. Women’s cricket has come of age getting a team like Thailand in to play the top nations.

This tournament will reach out to non-cricketing nations because of Thailand. They do not have a huge cricket culture there, but having a team playing at an ICC tournament will help people in Thailand become interested in the World Cup and countries who have never been into a team sport like cricket will be inspired by their journey.

There isn’t long left until the tournament gets underway and India’s opener against Australia is definitely one of the matches I’m looking forward to the most.

Australia go in as favourites, but India will be no pushover. They have some very talented players and I think it will be a very close, high-scoring game.

In the T20 format, you can’t really predict a winner because it all depends on how the main players perform on that particular day.

Both teams have exciting players, particular in the batting units, and it will be a case of whoever can score the runs that their country need on the day.

I do think Australia have the advantage because of their T20 record and have a slightly better chance of winning the first game against India but no matter what, it’s going to be a very exciting way to open the tournament.

(Mithali Raj led India in three ICC Women’s World T20s in 2012 (Sri Lanka), 2014 (Bangladesh) and 2016 (India). In 2019, she retired from T20Is to focus on winning the 2021 Women's One Day World Cup. Column courtesy: ICC)