My first face-to-face encounter with Jhulan Goswami was in Hyderabad in 2007. As I watched from the stands that day, my loyalties were severely tested. Photo: Ananya Upendran.
My first face-to-face encounter with Jhulan Goswami was in Hyderabad in 2007. As I watched from the stands that day, my loyalties were severely tested. Photo: Ananya Upendran.

“This is Ananya. She is the brains of the team.”

Jhulan Goswami sized me up, chuckled and said, “Why are you playing then? You should go abroad and study!”

I stood there, frozen, even more of a nervous wreck than I was at the start.

Why is she telling me this? Did she not think I bowled well? Was I really that bad? But I got a wicket!

I turned to Purnima Rau and she nodded, trying to encourage me to speak.

I took a deep breath, looked Jhulu-di straight in the eye and nervously croaked, “Because I want to play!”

She stared me down for a couple of seconds and just when I thought a barrage of angry words were headed my way, her frown turned into a smile. “That’s the answer I wanted to hear,” she said, giving me a high-five. “You are clearly the smart one! Well bowled, today! Practice karte raho. [Keep practising]. Hard work is the key to success.

Hard work is the mantra Jhulu-di has lived by all through her career and one that she’s preached to every young bowler who went to her for advice. Aside from her lively pace and pinpoint accuracy, it has been the key to her becoming the top wicket-taker in ODIs beating Cathryn Fitzpatrick’s haul of 180. She achieved this on May 9 when she dismissed Raisibe Ntozakhe of South Africa, the last of her 3 wickets, during the Women’s Quadrangular Series at Potchefstroom.

Whether it was enduring the long train journeys from Chakdah to Kolkata as a 14-year-old or diligently following her fitness and rehabilitation programs as a senior pro, Jhulu-di has always been extremely committed to becoming “the best she can be.” For 15 years she has carried the burden of India’s pace attack on her shoulders, and it is her perseverance, passion and love for the game that have seen her maintain her position as one of the world’s premier bowlers.

“Jhulan was one person who was bound to succeed because of her amazing work ethic,” Nooshin-Al-Khadeer, former India Women off-spinner and Jhulu-di’s teammate for close to ten years, said during a domestic tournament earlier this year. “She would always run in hard and give her all for the team. She puts in so much effort behind the scenes. It’s the reason she is still one of the top bowlers in the world.”

Ever since her international debut in 2002, Jhulu-di has inspired a generation of young girls to take up the art of fast bowling. She has instilled within them a desire to send stumps cart-wheeling, zing in toe-crushing yorkers, and watch the ’keeper wince as the ball thuds into her gloves. She has made the art of fast bowling seem cool again!

My first memory of watching Jhulu-di bowl was during New Zealand’s tour of India in 2004. She played only two matches that series, but the sight of her charging in to unleash her thunderbolts was thrilling.

My first face-to-face encounter with her was in Hyderabad in 2007. She terrorised the Hyderabad Senior team, absolutely ripping through the top order. A barrage of bouncers was followed by a full delivery that caught the batters by surprise. It was fast bowling at its most lethal and as I watched from the stands that day, my loyalties were severely tested.

During the first half of her career, Jhulu-di was all about speed. She was fast, fiery and frankly, quite scary. She would hit the pitch hard and get the ball to jag around, beating most batters for pace. But as the workload began to take its toll, she realised the need to reinvent herself.

“As cricketers, we need to keep developing,” she told me in 2014 in a training camp in Alur ahead of India’s tour of England. “You need to keep looking for new training schedules and techniques that suit your style of play and allow you to become a better player.”

While her pace is still one of her strengths, she has added a few more weapons to her armoury. A lethal off-cutter and a deadly yorker have made her one of India’s main threats in the death overs. Her ability to read the play and counter it has, in recent years, become her forte.

“Since we play more limited-overs matches, it is always important to read the batter quickly,” she said. “You need to understand the areas she is trying to target and formulate a plan to put her off. Basically, you need to be able to stay calm under pressure and think on your feet.”

She credits much of her recent development to her focus on fitness and training. “In my early years, all the focus was on developing my skill, but now, I realise that if I want to sustain myself, it is important to keep myself fit,” she had said in 2015. “If I am fit, I know I can contribute much more to the team. That’s why I make sure never to miss a training session — that is what is going to keep me out on the field.”

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“As a fast bowler, you need to have a big heart,” Jhulu-di has often told me. “You can’t afford to be worried about being hit. You have to run in, bend your back and bowl fast and try to get wickets. Fast bowler ka kaam hi woh hai. Dheere daalke kya milega? Achchhi analysis? [That’s what a fast bowler’s job is. What will you get bowling slowly? A decent analysis?].”

It’s her favourite piece of advice — one that she gives almost every young bowler she meets!

Advice is one thing Jhulu-di is never short of. She is always the first to come and have a chat if she sees that you are interested. A simple, “Good morning, Jhulu-di!” can be followed by a five-minute conversation about almost anything. She can talk all day if she has to — about the game and more — and has a treasure trove of stories to pick from whenever she wants to entertain.

During some selection matches in 2014 (most of which were rained out), I was fortunate to spend some time with Jhulu-di, discussing bowling, her career, how she trains and how hard she had to work to add another dimension to her bowling. She was honest about her struggles and willing to answer all my questions. She even showed me some bowling drills and taught me a few tricks of the trade. Although she had this aura around her, she also had the knack of making me feel at ease.

From starting her career as a tearaway quick to becoming India’s crisis bowler to now mentoring a new generation of fast bowlers, Jhulan Goswami has seen it all. Wicket no. 181 may have taken a while to come, but with the monkey off her back, there is little doubt that she will be back to taking wickets for fun.