Bowled decisions: A tribute to cricketer Jhulan Goswami

India’s record-setting woman fast-bowler is 38, a living legend and still knocking down wickets. Over the years, she’s won over doubters, inspired and led by example.
 (ICC via Getty Images)
(ICC via Getty Images)
Updated on Mar 22, 2021 01:38 PM IST
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BySnehal Pradhan

In the closing moments of India’s loss in the first ODI at Lucknow (on March 7), we caught a glimpse of how competitive Jhulan Goswami still is.

South Africa were perched at 172/1, just six shy of the winning target. Goswami brought the field in to deny easy singles. That gave Lizelle Lee, batting on 78, an easy boundary off the first ball, when Goswami drifted down leg.

Two runs to get. Goswami came back with an attempted yorker, which Lee bunted out. No run. The next was a fast, short of length ball, which Lee late cut, only to be blocked by short third. No run. Goswami then changed down, bowling an 85 kmph slower one. No run.

Lee, frustrated, allowed herself a smile. She had 62 balls more to get those two runs. Goswami’s face stayed deadly serious. She wasn’t giving up. There would be no winning runs in her over, not if she could help it.

***

There was a time when Goswami wanted just one wicket — just one — against her name, in an India shirt. First wickets are special to her.

Her first wicket in senior domestic cricket set her on the path to wearing that India shirt. It was 1999, a forgotten tournament in Raebareli, Uttar Pradesh. Goswami against Mithali Raj. Two titans, if teenagers could be called that, beginning their story. Raj had just made her debut for India and was opening the batting in that game.

She only lasted one ball, her stumps rearranged by Goswami, the fastest bowler in India.

It is the stuff of legend on the domestic circuit, as is the tale of Goswami bowling an untouchable over in an Under-19 tournament. With just two runs required by the opposition in the last over of the game, Goswami bowled a maiden. As the story goes, it was six hard-length balls outside off, and the batter’s bat came down after the ball had zoomed past, on all six occasions.

Growing up in Chakdaha, a small city by the Ganga in West Bengal, the cricket bug bit Goswami as she watched the 1992 men’s World Cup on TV. She began playing the game with her brothers, and practising by herself on the terrace of their home. Before she turned 15, she was boarding the 5.05 local at dawn every day to travel more than an hour to train in Kolkata.

Goswami earned her India cap at 19, and her ambition rearranged itself. Some credit goes to the Air India women’s cricket team, which now exists only in memory. The coaches there encouraged her natural pace, a stark divergence from the swing-dominated Indian women’s bowling of the time. Playing on a team where winning was a requirement also meant that her competitive streak flourished. It’s driven the girl from Chakadaha to 329 international wickets across formats.

She is today the world’s highest woman wicket-taker in the ODI format and the only woman fast bowler to have stayed in the field for coming on 20 years.

With every wicket she takes now, her record becomes a bit more rarefied.

***

I remember the first time I met Jhuludi. It was in my hometown of Pune, in the last game of her debut series in 2002. After India won that last game, my mentor, Amrita Shinde, introduced me to Jhulan. I had been following her and the series on TV. Until I saw her play, I’d been playing cricket for fun. Now I had a vision of where I wanted to be.

The next time our paths crossed was at a domestic game between our teams. I sat riveted through her entire first spell. Eventually the dream came true. I went from watcher to bowling partner. I discovered that even role models have role models, and hers was Glenn McGrath. It made perfect sense; his relentless accuracy was her goal.

For the 2009 World Cup, we were based in Sydney. One evening, I came down to the hotel lobby and sitting there was McGrath. I raced upstairs, fetched my camera, found Jhuludi in her room and said, “Neeche McGrath hai.” Now we were both sprinting.

He was still there. We got our photos. The next day, at training, I heard her say to herself, “Aaj mujhe McGrath ki tarah ball dalna hai.”

I’ve had the privilege of watching and recording some of Jhuludi’s milestones. I was her teammate as she took her 100th ODI wicket in Sri Lanka, my debut series. I recorded the relief in her voice after she passed Cathryn Fitzpatrick’s ODI record of 180 wickets (that game, criminally, was not televised). I was the only travelling media-person when she became the first woman to take 300 wickets across formats.

I was in the media centre at Lord’s as she bowled with all her heart in the 2017 World Cup Final.The emotion and desperation to win were palpable, yet tempered by experience. Her first spell read 5-2-9-0. She came back to disrupt England’s middle order, with a burst of three wickets across two spells. By the 40th over, she had figures of 10-3-23-3. As she took her cap from the umpire and walked away, I rose in my seat to give her a solitary standing ovation.

Press box decorum be damned. This could be the last time Jhuludi bowled in an ODI, I had thought. It wasn’t.

***

Goswami has given up T20s; if she could, she’d have become a Test specialist. But the India women’s team last played a Test six years ago.

She’s 38, closing in on 39. She’s slower but sharper, a merchant of muscle memory rather than just muscle. Time has mellowed her temper. In many ways, it’s now Jhulan vs Jhulan. Bruised heels, stray bone fragments, unwilling shoulders have seen her miss international games in the last five years.

Her white whale, winning a World Cup for India, still calls. In March 2022, she may net that one. But either way, her legacy is secure. The inspiration she has provided to countless, the example she has set for others, invaluable.

Even across that fraught border, in Pakistan, players such as Kainat Imtiaz have spoken of how they took up fast-bowling because of Jhulan.

As India lost 1-4 to the Proteas on March 17, she finished as highest wicket-taker in the series. As we marvel at the fact that she still does the heavy lifting, we can ask why there aren’t many youngsters nipping at her heels. But those are questions for another day.

Now is the time to recognise, with every ball she bowls, that we are watching an incredible athlete continue to redefine what is possible.

(Snehal Pradhan is a former India player turned commentator and writes a column for HT)

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Sunday, January 23, 2022