It has become a national debate. There could be a movie made out of it. India’s No.4 merry-go-round in ODI cricket has become one of the side’s biggest talking points.
Her bowling average of 16.62 in Test cricket would put her at No.6 among all bowlers with ten or more matches if she was playing the men’s game.
What is even more remarkable is that she has played her Test cricket entirely in the 21st century. Among bowlers operating in this century, she stands alone at No.1 in the rankings.
The only bowler, man or woman, who would remotely approach her average, having also straddled this century in the course of his career, would be Glenn McGrath with his 21.64 runs per scalp.
That is simply stunning.
She also happens to be the highest wicket taker in women’s one day cricket with a staggering tally of 195 victims from 164 matches giving away an average of 21.95 runs per wicket. Reigning at the top of women’s cricket for the best part of 15 years, and at her peak widely acknowledged as the fastest bowler in the world, she is Jhulan Nishit Goswami.
Goswami was born to middle-class parents at Chakdah in Nadia district of Bengal on 25th November 1982. Wisden recounted in a tribute earlier this year about what motivated a young Jhulan to take up cricket:
“Soon, she would assume the position of a ball-girl as her cousins and friends played cricket. She would throw the ball back every time it went past the boundary line. She continued with it and ended up as a ball-girl in the 1987 World Cup final of Women’s cricket being played at Eden Gardens. After watching such legendary figures of women’s cricket like Belinda Clark, Debbie Hockey and Cathryn Fitzpatrick, she decided to make her career in cricket.”
The dedication and hard work had been evident from the time a 14-year-old Jhulan (affectionately called Jhulu) would make her way three times a week from Chakdah to Kolkata to pursue her passion for the game, notwithstanding the two-hour long train and bus journey each way.
At 7.30am, she would be the first to line up for practice. At 9.30am, the journey back would start again so that she could attend classes at school.
There is nothing quite like adversity and hard work to toughen you up mentally. Jhulan was no exception, and this toughness was to stand her in good stead in the future as she made her way into one of the most arduous and unrewarding pursuits in India – women’s cricket.
She was to say in an interview to Sportskeeda years later,
“Cricket is everything in my life. It is only because of cricket I am here. My life started literally with cricket. I started it simply because of this indelible, indescribable passion and that has brought me here. I indulged in it purely for love and happiness – and there was ONLY one other thing – that if given a chance – I wanted to be good, to give my all, no matter how harrowing or gruelling. When we walk with a strong motive – milestones will automatically come but we don’t rest and bask in it, do we? We may take a breather but we walk on because we have to walk on – there is no point in stopping. My journey started 15 years back but honestly, it just feels like yesterday.”
Indeed, from the time she made her first-class debut for Bengal at the age of 18, the sixteen years that have flown past have only been about cricket. Making her debut for Bengal against the mighty Maharashtra, Jhulan scored 30 and then had the opposition reeling at 17 for 5. It was clear to the few hundred spectators that day, a phenomenal talent had just been unleashed.
The international journey started when she was 19 at the Guru Nanak College ground in Chennai, opening the bowling for India against England in a ODI. In her third over, Jhulan sent down an outswinger, and Mithali Raj at slip snapped up the edge from the Caroline Atkins.
Jhulan’s journey on the path to her 195 wickets had started.
Over the next 15-years, ‘Caught Raj bowled Goswami’ would become an oft repeated sight on the scorecards of the matches India played. In the Women’s Asia Cup many years later when Goswami would bag her 100th wicket, it would be Mithali Raj again who would take the catch at short cover.
Throughout her career, Goswami has exhibited something that is common to the best players ever to play the game. She has been phenomenal against top teams.
Four of her best spells have come against the big teams in women’s cricket: Australia, England and New Zealand. Her best ODI figures were against New Zealand as she picked up 6 for 31 in 2011. But probably her best spell was against England as she sent them to the cleaners with her spell of 5 for 16.
In Tests, her best again came against England with a magnificent 5 for 25 and in T20s it was Australia’s turn to face the music with Jhulan’s best being a remarkable 5 for 11 against the world’s most competitive and consistent team.
Last month in front of an unprecedented packed house at Lord’s, as the Indian batting imploded from pressure and inexperience it needed Jhulan to come in and save the day as she has done countless times in the past. Instead, an uncharacteristic wild swipe on the first delivery she faced added to the woes and eventually handed England a World Cup they should rightfully have won.
An abiding memory of that evening would be the sight of old comrades in arms, Raj and Goswami, standing together looking distraught as the carpet was pulled away from beneath their near victorious selves.
But that nine-run loss, while it will continue to rankle Goswami until the end of her days, will not take anything away from what she has achieved. The fact that she took the three best English wickets in a high-pressure final to bring India to a stage where victory seemed all but assured, is in itself an achievement she and the country must recognise and treasure.
We have come to expect nothing less from her, and she has always delivered.
Against all odds, the girl from a small town in Bengal who defied society to pursue her dream of playing cricket has emerged as the most effective fast bowler the world of women’s cricket has ever known. For 15 years she has carried the weight of expectations of a billion people on her shoulders and become an inspiration to millions of young women across the country.
Mithali Raj, captain, long time teammate, confidante and close friend of Goswami for much of their careers together, said it for all of us at the end of the World Cup: “Jhulan is a player India should celebrate.”
That is the least a grateful nation can do.