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‘Rejection made me determined to be a bowler’
Tête à tête

There is something about Jhulan Goswami that reminds you of a cheetah at rest as she sits slouched on a chair, under the shade of a tree. But you get the feeling that when the fastest woman bowler in the world — swifter than many of her male colleagues — springs into action, there is no stopping her.

“Power is in the mind,” says Goswami, the lanky 23-year-old near six-footer, tapping her right temple with her index finger as though it was the source of all her success. “Speed is in the mind,” she adds. “You can achieve anything if you think you can.”

Achieve she did. Goswami, who just won an international award as the fastest woman cricketer, can bowl at a speed of 120 kilometres an hour. That’s the upper speed limit in some superhighways across the world. And that’s more or less the same speed as the cheetah’s, the fastest animal in the world.

Her speed won her the International Cricket Council’s Women’s Player of the Year award for 2007. But the real triumph for her, she says, was not in the bagging of the award. It was in the fact that she was “good enough to be considered for it.”

I interrupt her prepared speech with an “Oh, come on.” She stops, displays a toothy smile, giggles and then finally guffaws, practically falling off her chair placed right outside the Cricket Association of Bengal’s office in Calcutta. Yes, she admits, getting the award was a little better than just being nominated.

She first heard about the nomination late in the evening on September 5. She was at Shopper’s Stop, a department store in a mall on Calcutta’s Elgin Road, looking for her favourite kind of clothes — formal trousers and shirts. Her cell phone rang when she was in the middle of zipping up an article of clothing in the trial room. “It was a friend of mine and she said she was surfing the Internet and she saw my name in ICC’s list of nominations for this year’s awards.” Goswami told her, “Oh, shut up,” and hung up. “I thought my friend was joking,” Goswami says.

“Then all these reporters started calling up to congratulate me and asking for a reaction. That’s when I realised it was true.” Goswami rushed to a cyber café and checked it out for herself and could hardly contain her glee when she called up her family in Chakdah, a Calcutta suburb, to tell them the good news. “People had already started coming to my house and calling up, so my parents already knew. They were really happy.”

But that is now. Time was when Goswami used to get smacked by her mother, Jharna, for hiding cricket magazines under her homework notebook and taking sneak peeks every time she thought no one was looking. Her younger brother and sister, good students at school, posed no such problems at home. “But my mother used to watch me like a hawk when I sat down to study in the evening, because she used to catch me reading about cricket or shadow bowling when I should have been doing my homework.”

Goswami has been obsessed with cricket from as far back as she can remember. She would collect cricket stickers, file newspaper and magazine cuttings on cricket and store up books on the sport.

Yet the boys in the neighbourhood in Chakdah refused to let her play with them. “But you can’t play cricket alone,” Goswami points out. “The girls were not interested in playing at all and the boys said they wouldn’t play if I did since I was a girl. ‘It’s too demeaning to play with a girl!’ ‘What if she gets hurt or something,’ they’d say.”

These were the kinds of comments that did the rounds every time Goswami stepped into the field. Then she gradually gathered around her a set of “loyalists” — comprising a few boys, mainly her cousins and friends. “They must have realised that having me on their side was good for them. They told the other boys that if I didn’t play, they wouldn’t either.” Still, she was not allowed to bowl because she wasn’t considered fast enough to get the boys out. “This rejection was what made me determined to be a bowler and a fast bowler.”

She practised and she practised. Gradually, when her parents realised that she was passionate about the game and wanted to pursue it as a career, they started to encourage her. In 1997, her parents — her father works for Indian Airlines — organised a trip for her to go to Calcutta to watch the Women’s World Cup Final between Australia and New Zealand. During the games, when Jhulan was asking for advice on how to pursue cricket as a career, she got to know about Swapan Sadhu, who coached at a club at Vivekananda Park in south Calcutta. From then on, every morning she got up at the crack of dawn to catch the 5 ’clock train to Calcutta. From Sealdah station it was another bus ride to Vivekananda Park. She practised from 7:30 a.m. to noon and took the 1:30 p.m. train back to Chakdah.

Goswami played in the Under-19 and the Senior Bengal teams before finally getting to play international cricket. That was in 2002, when she played against England and took 5 for 33 in the first innings of the Test at Taunton. In fact, Goswami’s phenomenal accuracy with the ball is illustrated by her economy rate of 2.10 in Tests and 3.17 in ODIs.

Goswami grows very quiet when the talk veers around to the wickets she has taken. She slows down and almost in a whisper, as if revealing the secret of her success, says, “When I am bowling I only see the ball hitting the stump. That is all that I am willing to see at that time. Nothing else. Even when it doesn’t happen, that is what I see. And then it happens. The ball hits the stumps.” That’s like Arjun seeing only the eye of the bird.

Goswami is not much of a reader, but she does rely on inspirational stories from the epics — the Mahabharat and the Ramayan. She also reads from her grandmother’s copy of the Gita. “She used to read out passages to me as a child,” she says.

Goswami also has a job at Air India’s commercial department as customer supervisor, which she got through the company’s sports quota. Though most of the time she is in her track suit while practising or is seen in the blue track suit of the Indian cricket team, she says she likes to dress up, in saris and jewellery, and has to do so often in her job. Though there is no man in her life now, she does plan to get married one day.

“No, he doesn’t have to be a cricketer. But he has to be attractive. Not someone you wouldn’t want to look at twice,” she says, laughing again. And about herself she says, “I wish I wasn’t this tall.”

But her height — five feet, 11 inches — didn’t come in her way when she walked up at a glittering ceremony in Johannesburg on September 10 to receive her award from Mahendra Singh Dhoni, champion skipper of the Indian team for the Twenty20 World Cup. As she held up the crystal-studded trophy featuring a crystal ball, Jhulan stood very tall.

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