Jhulan, pace spearhead and bridge between generations, bids adieu

In the 1997 women’s World Cup final at Eden Gardens Jhulan Goswami was a ball girl and was wowed by Australian seamer Cathryn Fitzpatrick’s pace and movement. After that final, the Diego Maradona fan made up her mind about wanting to play for India one day.

About two-and-a-half decades down the line, as Jhulan is set to play her final game for India, she has been accorded a rare honour that eluded even the likes of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman – retiring on the field and playing the farewell game at the Mecca of cricket.

The third ODI between England Women and India Women at Lord’s on Saturday would be Jhulan’s last. She leaves the international scene as the highest wicket-taker across formats in women’s internationals – 353 and one more chance to add to the tally tomorrow. An international career that began in January 2002 revelled in its consistency. But more importantly, along with Mithali Raj, who bade adieu to the game earlier this year, Jhulan acted as a bridge between a generation that had to fight indifference towards women’s cricket and the present generation of the Smriti Mandhanas, when women’s cricket attracts global eyeballs, commercial space and sponsors. When Jhulan started, women’s cricket wasn’t under the BCCI umbrella. Things have changed enough for the BCCI to finally start a women’s IPL in 2023.

There was no surprise that Jhulan’s final pre-game press conference in India colours, held virtually, was very well attended. She was the biggest story in Indian cricket today, trumping the second men’s T20I between India and Australia at Nagpur. The 39-year-old spoke from the heart.

There had been a few injuries over the last two-three years. Jhulan fought them and at times played through the pain. Eventually, though, Father Time held sway.

“For the last two years, I was thinking every series could be my last, especially with Covid-19 postponing cricket to 2021. I was going through a lot of injuries. I was taking it series by series. After the (2022 ODI) World Cup I thought maybe the tour to Sri Lanka would be my last. But during the World Cup, I got injured and I wasn’t fit enough to tour Sri Lanka,” Jhulan said at the presser, adding: “This is the last ODI series before the T20 World Cup and so I thought I will go to the NCA, do a lot of rehab, and come to England for my last series.”

The glittering career has one void, and not winning a World Cup hurts. Twice Jhulan came close to achieving the crowning glory, in 2005 and then in 2017, when India stumbled on the final hurdle. The 2017 final at Lord’s was a painful memory, her team going down by nine runs – so near and yet so far.
“If we would have won one of those, it would have been great for Team India and women’s cricket. That’s the ultimate goal for every athlete. When you put in so much hard work, you prepare for four years and if you win the trophy, it’s a dream come true. Unfortunately we played three finals including T20 (the 2020 World Cup) but weren’t able to win the final. It has hurt feelings and that is one regret,” she said.

If Ranchi boy MS Dhoni had an untold story, Jhulan’s 20-year journey in international cricket, too, deserved a biopic. Chakda Xpress is in the making, which would go back to the roots of the Chakdaha girl – taking the first train from the district town – about 80 kilometres off Kolkata – to come to the maidan for training. Jhulan always wanted to bowl fast and at her peak, she clocked 130kph-plus.

“When I started, I never thought about playing for so long. Those days we used to represent WCAI (Women’s Cricket Association of India), and since 2006 we (have been) in the umbrella of the BCCI. I used to undertake a two-and-a-half-hour one-way train journey from Chakdaha, practice and go back home and then go back for practice the next day. Of course, the best memory was when I represented India; getting my India cap from my captain (Anjum Chopra) and bowling the first over in my career. That was the most important moment in my life,” Jhulan said.

She rewound to the 1997 World Cup final. “As a ball girl in the 1997 Women’s World Cup, I saw the final at Eden Gardens between Australia and New Zealand, and that day I dreamt that one day I might represent my country. That’s how I started and put in a lot of effort just to represent my country.”

As she says fare-thee-well, tributes are pouring in from all quarters. Only a few days ago, India men’s team captain Rohit Sharma was full of praise for the veteran seamer, recounting his experience of facing her at the NCA nets and calling Jhulan a stalwart. “I think she is one of India’s stalwarts in terms of what she has done for the country,” Rohit had said.

When Jhulan started, women’s cricket in India barely had any future. Now the future is bright. But will she be a part of the razzmatazz? “Let that (Women’s IPL) announcement happen officially, and then I will decide,” Jhulan signed off.

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