If one is asked as to what was the most exciting development in Indian cricket during the last half-a-decade, a reply would emerge without any hesitation that it was the coming of age of the women’s game in the country. Though the Indian eves had acquired the skills and expertise to play Test matches during the 1970s, women’s cricket had lagged far behind the men's game, both in terms of popularity and success, till a sudden change came about since 2017. Nothing could exemplify the improved stature of the game and the players involved, both within the country and outside, than the fairy- tale send off accorded to Jhulan Goswami, the senior most lady cricketer in the country, recently. A guard of honour by players of both sides at the hallowed turf at the Lord’s, accompanying skipper Harmanpreet Kaur to the middle for the toss, leading the side for a short duration during the game, all topped by the national side clean sweeping the One-Day International (ODI) series was indeed the perfect farewell for this hardworking fast bowler.
Born into a middle class family in the small town of Chakdaha in Nadia district in West Bengal, Jhulan started playing the game from the age of 15. She was such a natural that she moved up the ladder very quickly and was in the state side within no time. In 2002, at the age of 19, she made her ODI debut, against England at Chennai. This was followed immediately by a call to the national side for the Test match against the same opponent at Lucknow. Jhulan went wicketless on her Test debut despite bowling tight spells. Incidentally among the four Indian players who made their Test debut in that match was one Mithali Raj, who also had an unceremonious entry with a zero against her name in the scorecard. Little would these two cricketers have realised on those days that they would, together, rewrite the course of women’s cricket in the country.
The Jhulan and Mithali combo showed their mettle when India toured England in 2006. In the first Test at Leicester, which ended in a draw, Jhulan came good with the bat scoring a plucky half-century (69), besides picking up five wickets. She was in brilliant form with the ball in the second Test at Taunton, where India trounced their opponents by five wickets to clinch the series. Jhulan bowled with sustained pace and hostility to pick up 10/78 in this game (5/33 in the first innings and 5/45 in the second), to guide her side to a sensational win. This performance led to she being nominated as the International Cricket Council (ICC) Women’s Cricketer of the award in 2007.
This was the beginning of Jhulan’s stint in international cricket that saw her play in 12 Tests, 204 ODIs and 68 T20 Internationals. During the two decades that she played top level cricket she picked up a total of 355 wickets - 44 in Tests, 255 in ODIs and 56 in T20 Is. More importantly, she played the game with a rare passion, which did not diminish even the smallest bit, despite her long career at the highest level. She made sure that no batting side could afford to look at Indian bowling with disdain so long as she led the attack and hurled the red cherry when it was new and retained its shine.
Jhulan was appointed as captain of the side in 2008 replacing Mithali, under who she had played as deputy. She served in this capacity till 2011, when she reverted back to her favourite position as the strike bowler of the side. Whether leading the side or not, she was widely accepted as the “go-to” person for players in times of difficulties. She lent a patient ear to her teammates and offered helpful advice, which invariably benefited those who sought it. During the latter part of her career she also started mentoring young bowlers, thus contributing substantially to the game and the society that made her a star and elevated her to the status of an icon. She also finds time to coach upcoming cricketers and spends hours with them at the nets in Eden Gardens.
At her peak, Jhulan was considered as the fastest woman bowler in the world. She was blessed with the skill to send her deliveries accurately, which she polished to perfection by long hours of practice. A tall person, she used her height effectively by releasing the ball higher than most of her compatriots, which endowed her deliveries with a higher bounce as well. Her USP was the cutters - both off and leg - which she used to good effect when conditions did not favour seam and swing bowling. The extra bounce that she was able to generate along with her incredible accuracy made the cutters she sent down more deadly and helped her to pick up wickets even on flat pitches.
Records sit lightly on Jhulan’s strong shoulders. She is the highest wicket-taker in women’s ODIs with 255 scalps. She is also the only cricketer to take more than 200 wickets in women’s ODI’s. The fact that the next in line is Shabnam Ismail of South Africa with 191 wickets shows how far ahead of other compatriots her position stands. She is also the only bowler in women’s cricket to pick up more than 300 wickets in international matches. Incidentally, the 68 catches taken by her in ODIs places her in the second spot with regard to maximum number of catches taken by a fielder. She received the Arjuna Award in 2010 and a grateful nation honoured her by bestowing the prestigious Padma Shri in 2012. A biopic on her life titled “Chakda Express” is under production and is expected to hit the theatres shortly.
Jhulan’s life and the her achievements stand on a par with those of Mahendra Singh Dhoni in men’s cricket. Like Dhoni she hailed from a middle class family in a small town with no history of cricketing excellence. They both started playing the game out of sheer passion and graduated to higher levels based solely on the weight of their performances. They grabbed every opportunity that came their way and kept themselves going at the highest level by maintaining top physical fitness. Dhoni proved to the world that a wicketkeeper- batsman could be a good captain; likewise, Jhulan showed that it was possible for a fast bowler to play international cricket for more than two decades. And they were both trailblazers whose triumphs have inspired thousands of youngsters from similar background to chase their dreams with confidence.
It is often remarked that Jhulan and Mithali were part of a generation that saw women’s cricket in India move from the dormitories to five star hotels. The truth is that this duo was an integral part of the revolution that scripted this changeover. The two not only transformed the national side by their performances but also managed to bring about a shift in the attitude of officialdom and lay public towards this sport so much so that today it stands not far behind men’s cricket in popularity ratings. Their efforts are comparable with that of Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar in placing India firmly in the top league of cricket playing nations, which in turn went a long way in improving the standing of the game within the country.
Well played Jhulan! The nation shall forever remember your contributions to the game with immense gratitude. You will remain a beacon of hope and inspiration for millions of budding cricketers in this country. Wish you many more years of committed service to the game as a mentor and coach.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)