From Chakdah, a small town in Nadia district of West Bengal, to Johannesburg has been a journey few would dare undertake. But the one who dared was a woman cricketer: Jhulan Goswami, all of 24. It was sheer determination which gave the impetus: a 70-km journey in a crowded local train and another 45 minutes of a bus ride everyday brought her to Vivekananda Park, in the southern part of Kolkata, where she trained.
Dreams generally evaporate with fatigue and sweat. But not for Jhulan. Each passing day strengthened her resolve to become a better medium-pace bowler. Following a very brief stint with Bengal, Air India signed her on and the India call followed soon after. Having made the cut among the elite, Jhulan did what she does best keep the ball in the right channel and wait. Her ability to extract subtle movement off the pitch, her promptness in adapting to different conditions and her pace made her accuracy vicious.
Another five years of patience and perseverance got her there: On the 2006 tour of England, her match-saving half-century in the first Test at Leicester and back-to-back five-wicket hauls in the second Test at Taunton, helped India record their first-ever Test series victory on English soil.
It made the International Cricket Council, the world governing body, stand up and take notice of the fastest bowler in the woman’s game following Aussie Cathryn Fitzpatrick’s retirement that year. The jury brushed aside Australian allrounder Lisa Sthalekar’s ODI batting average and adjudged Jhulan the ICC Women’s Cricketer of the Year 2007. She was the lone Indian on the Johannesburg podium that night of September 11. For the world, September 11, 2001, brings back memories of terror. For this lanky Indian, another September 11 six years later, remains the fondest day of her life.
It was only after Jhulan’s achievement that most in the cricket-crazy nation realised women too in the country play the sport. “For women’s cricket to get the crowds involved will take some time,” says former India cricketer and former Bengal coach Lopamudra Bhattacharjee. “Television and TV rights will have to play a crucial role. Just like in the men’s game, television will be needed for women’s cricket to penetrate into the drawing rooms. Only then would women’s cricket have household names, produce stars,” she feels.
However, with the Women’s Cricket Association of India merging with the cash-rich BCCI a couple of years back, things are beginning to change for the better. “Both technical and financial help from the BCCI have been a huge boost. When we played, it was only because we loved doing so. With the money coming in, it’s a career option now. So girls these days are a lot more serious about the game,” says Mithu Mukherjee, a national selector, who accompanied the squad to Sri Lanka last month where India won a fourth consecutive Asia Cup title.
On that tour, skipper Mithali Raj crossed 3,000 runs in one-day internationals the first Indian to do so. Jhulan completed a haul of 100 ODI wickets, the second after teammate Neetu David and the fourth in the world to achieve the feat, beating another teammate, off-spinner Nooshin Al Khadeer, who has 96.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India promptly announced a cash award of Rs 5 lakh for each in the 15-member squad that stayed unbeaten in the tournament. The country though, drugged by the Indian Premier League, let it pass as the victorious squad quietly touched down in Chennai.
“Winning the Asia Cup is not something to go overboard with. But winning it four times on the trot is no mean achievement, either. But I think with the IPL going on, there wasn’t much of a gathering to welcome the squad at the airport. But things will change,” believes Bhattacharjee. “Women’s cricket in India has come a long way since we played the first Test series in 1976-77 against the West Indies. We are among the top four countries in the world now (Australia, New Zealand and England are the other three) and with improved training facilities and more money, the standard is only going to go up.