Sri Lanka. May 8, 2008. The day started with confidence and certainty: the new ball would bring wickets, hopefully, two. Two was how many Jhulan Goswami needed to become only the second Indian and fourth female cricketer to take 100 ODI wickets.
Almost 50 overs later, Goswami was on 99. Her first wicket came in the third over of the day, a flush LBW. Her opening spell sniffed for another, for the one that would silence the monkey in her mind. I watched from the sidelines, a part of the squad but not the XI. Sitting in the makeshift dug-out at the boundary’s edge, I was tense whenever she bowled, ready to sprint in, hydration in one hand, the celebration in the other. It’s not every day you get to see your role model enter the statistical stratosphere.
Eventually, it came. ‘Jhulu di’ took her 100th wicket with the penultimate ball of the match. I remember it vividly; with the massive Kurunegala mountainside in the backdrop, she surged in from the near end like water out of a dam, a force even in her tenth over. The tailender’s edge came from a defensive prod, the catch taken safely at first slip, and relief and joy on her face. That evening in the team meeting, we presented her a Sri Lankan 100-rupee note, signed by the entire team. A cheap souvenir, a priceless memory.
Sri Lanka doesn’t print 300-rupee notes. If they did, Goswami might have gotten one today. As she bounced out Nipuni Hansika in her fifth over, she became the first woman to take 300 international wickets. 40 in Tests, 56 in T20Is, and now 205 in ODIs. ‘I am not chasing milestones any more’, she says. Easy to say when you’ve got so many of them when every wicket you take is a record. So many, that you don’t even notice the shards of another glass ceiling at your feet. “I didn’t even know about the 300,” she laughs after the game.
She rates her Test wickets the highest, maybe because she was made to wait for her first. “First wickets are very important for me.” Her first ODI wicket came quickly, on debut: England’s Caroline Atkins in Chennai. The manner of dismissal should command an entire chapter in the History of Indian Women’s Cricket: c Raj b Goswami. Two titans, their beginning tied together, forming the rock to India’s church. Only now, with Goswami’s retirement from T20Is, can we see the façade changing.
Her first T20I wicket featured another legend: Charlotte Edwards. A sharp, searing delivery, like a bolt of pain that burns the nerves, and Edwards’ stumps were rearranged. That was Goswami of 2006, at the height of her powers, on a tour where she won India their first Test series on English soil with a haul of 10 for 78 at Taunton.
Which brings us back to her first Test wicket, coming in her second Test, in 2002. Her first was in Lucknow, on a surface so docile both teams batted only once. That game saw 19 fruitless overs from the then 19-year old. Even before opening her account, the format taught her patience. Two months and 9000 kilometres later, amidst India’s first ever Test series win, she found her beginning in Paarl, South Africa.
Then there are the specials, the ones whose muscle memory she could recognise in her sleep: Karen Rolton in Australia in 2006, the left-handed colossus of Australian cricket, well set on 63, undone by an old red ball that ducked in sharply, trapping her in front after lunch. “I remember the release, how the ball came in, how it felt from the hand,” Goswami says. She remembers how the breakthrough helped the team, but only briefly. India would lose by an innings. “There were so many special spells in games we didn’t win.” And in consolation wins, like her five-for a T20I against Australia, preventing a whitewash in 2012. Among those five was the scalp of Lisa Sthalekar, one of Goswami’s favourite cricketers, the ball scything through bat and pad much like Goswami cut through the batting order.
And of course, she names the delivery to Meg Lanning in the semi-final of the 2017 World Cup. That was where the match was won, with all due respect to Harmanpreet Kaur’s 171*. Pitching on that quicksand length that confines the batter to the crease, straightening just a tad and beating the outside edge but not the off stump. The best batter in the galaxy, undone by the ball of the tournament. For that brief moment, Goswami was twelve years younger, the irresistible tearaway she was in 2006. Simply, the best bowler in the world.
Now she is a creature of one format, a species endangered in the women’s game, the long-enduring pacer. Now she is all of her 35 years. Ask the stray piece of bone in her elbow that has given her pain for the last five years. Ask the ever-present Kinesio tape, today on her left thigh. “T20 is a bit fast and I’m slowing down day by day,” she says, all candour and no regret. “I found that I was mixing T20 and ODI. The thinking wasn’t clear; the driving force I wanted wasn’t there. Us chakkar me I wasn’t enjoying my bowling.” If women played Tests regularly, she would have happily become a Test specialist and given up the shorter formats. The dark red ball, the crisp white shirt, these appeal to the purist in her, the one that was born before the one-day miracle of 1983.
“When I started, I just wanted to play one match for the country, and to get one wicket.” Jhulan Goswami may not be chasing milestones, but they are chasing her. Now there is less fatigue, more recovery. There is more clarity and more fun. Ask the bouncer that climbed from the left-handers leg stump to take the glove. Ask wicket number 300.
Watch Snehal Pradhan interview Jhulan Goswami here: