Cricket World Cup matches between India and Pakistan usually elicit talks of rivalry from the outside and respect from the players.
But the 2017 Women’s World Cup match between the two neighbouring countries produced one of the most uplifting cricket stories. Pakistan pacer Kainat Imtiaz shared a photo along with fast bowling legend Jhulan Goswami, recounting how watching the Indian bowl at full pace as a ball girl in 2005 inspired her to take up the sport in earnest.
Very few instances can capture the importance of Jhulan Goswami better than this story from across the border. Any woman trying to make her mark playing cricket in the subcontinent is unlikely to have it easy, even in India which now boasts of a top team and has had a series of extremely talented players through the years.
In that sense, Goswami’s story of working her socks off to go from a small town in Bengal to the highest level of cricket while battling multiple societal and logistical obstacles is something most of her peers have had to experience. And in all that, what sets the 37-year-old Indian legend apart is the impact she had on cricket not only in India, but all over the world.
She is the most prolific wicket-taker in the 50-over format, and at one time, one of the fastest; touching speeds of 120km/hr coming from India, a land known for spinners and spin-friendly pitches, was extraordinary. Goswami has spent decades extracting pace from unhelpful tracks and thrived with her unwavering consistency of length and unflinching commitment.
In 2017, she became the highest wicket-taker in One Day Internationals, overtaking Australia’s Cathryn Fitzpatrick – a player who partly inspired her to take up the game professionally when she watched the 1997 World Cup final as a ball kid in Kolkata. (Full circle and all that.)
In 2018, she became the first, and thus far only, woman to take 200 wickets in the 50-over format and eventually claimed her 300th international wicket.
At 37, Goswami’s storied career has already spanned 18 years; she has won the ICC Women’s Cricketer award, captained the Indian team and is also a two-time World Cup finalist: in 2005 and 2017.
An inspiring journey
And it all began in Chakdaha, a small town in West Bengal, with the biopic-worthy origin story of being a prodigy, not having supportive parents, facing challenges to access infrastructure, and going the extra mile to ensure she had the basic training.
Growing up as a sport-loving girl in a football-crazy family, Goswami played cricket with friends and cousins like any other child, breaking the occasional window. It is in this street cricket camp that she picked up the pace, just to be able to play with the boys who thought her bowling to be slow.
Eventually, this passion blossomed and her career goal was set when, as a ball girl, she saw the Australia vs New Zealand final in 1997. By 2002, she had made her India debut as a 19-year-old.
But from Chakdaha to the Indian team, she had to first navigate the 80 km-long commute to Kolkata and the doubts of her family.
A young teenager travelling alone early in the morning by train to Kolkata and taking a bus to reach practice that started at 7.30 am, understandably, troubled her family. As did the fact that women’s cricket was so low down the pecking order that it was not a viable career at all.
“In a Bengali middle class family, a girl is expected to be involved in extracurricular activities like dancing or singing apart from education. So what I wanted to do was ‘unusual’. I tried to explain to them and gave them a clear picture of why I took the decision. Moreover, the distance between Chakdaha and Kolkata was not easy to cover as a school going girl on a regular basis. There was also no professional guarantee as well.”— Via FemaleCricket
The commute also meant her academics were affected, but the determination wasn’t.
“My studies were affected a lot because, you know, the whole day I used to spend on cricket, and traveling a lot, so it was very difficult to continue with my schooling, but at the same time I put a lot of effort in my cricket. It was really difficult, as the ground was very far from my house, and I had to prioritise between my education and cricket. Because if you focus on school too, you feel sleepy, drowsy and not able to concentrate; as from 4:30 am to 5 am, I had to wake up, catch the train, walk to the ground, and then do heavy training there, before again rushing back, at which point your mind is unwilling to concentrate on anything. So, somewhere down the line, you have to choose what you’re truly passionate about and I have no regrets about what I chose. “— Via WomensCricZone
At one point, she had to stop her practice till coach Swapan Sadhu, her early mentor who shaped her into the seamer she is based on her high-arm action, intervened. He turned up at her home and spoke to her family and then on, there was no looking back.
In an interview with India teammates Jemimah Rodrigues and Smriti Mandhana, Goswami spoke about how she developed into the consistent bowler she is and the anecdote is a perfect example of her hardwork. The importance of line and length was stressed upon her as a youngster and that’s why she would bowl five to six overs extra after her regular session to get her target right. After all, you don’t get Mithali Raj out bowled for a duck in your first meeting without being really good.
“When I started, I didn’t know much about this. I was told to bowl as fast as I could. I couldn’t compare with the men, but among the girls I was told to bowl fast… I was told to hit the seam at the three-quarter length as much as I could... if I hit the seam off the wicket, there would be some movement which would trouble the batter. I have adjusted my action and run up a little over the years but have not tinkered with my basic strength,” said Goswami.
Even now, her commitment is unparalleled as is evident by her fitness level at 37, an age where fast bowlers don’t typically remain the country’s spearhead. As Pakistan’s Kainat Imtiaz wrote in that moving social media post, Goswami continues to inspire even now.