A fifteen-year old girl who was passionate about cricket, was watching the ICC Women's World Cup 1997 final between Australia and New Zealand when she was told by one of the organisers to get inside the ground, sit near the ropes and pass the ball whenever it crossed the boundary, back to the players. This moment put this girl very near to the live action as she watched the likes of Mel Jones, Belinda Clarke and Cathryn Fitzpatrick playing at a close distance, and as she watched, she made a promise to herself, "if these girls can play, represent their countries, I too can".
Twenty years later, the same girl went past Fitzpatrick, who was playing in that final, to become the leading wicket-taker in women ODIs. That girl, today, is one of the biggest inspirations for women cricketers and goes by the name of Jhulan Goswami.
Goswami says had she not watched that final as a ball girl at Eden Gardens, she may not have taken the sport professionally ever.
Before this moment, she used to play tennis ball cricket in her village in West Bengal with the boys, who would not give her a chance to bowl as they did not expect her to bowl at their pace. But Jhulan would fight for the ball, run in and put all her effort to bowl as fast as she could. Gradually, she got better at bowling but she did not know, at that time, that women's cricket existed. These matches were all for fun. There was no knowledge of women's cricket or what its future was until she saw the Australia vs New Zealand final game at Kolkata.
That is why Indian cricket fans need to thank those who made the decision to give complimentary passes to the girls schools in and near Kolkata to watch the final of the World Cup. Using one of those passes, Goswami saw the match between Australia and New Zealand and took inspiration to chase the sport professionally.
Recalling the match, she told Firstpost, "I saw the players from a close distance and thought 'arey yaar these girls are also playing for their country'. I also started dreaming about playing for my country, hearing fans shout my name. I never thought practically that it was going to happen. But yes, I started preparing myself with the leather ball."
Coming from a middle class family, in an age where pursuing sport was a radical idea, let alone women's cricket, it was difficult to make her family understand why she wanted to play cricket. There was no data on women's cricket, no knowledge about it. But she marched on. Her story of travelling a long distance in train to get coaching in Kolkata is nothing new.
However, the journey, as inspiring as it sounds, could have come to a stop had she not got her first stipend as a professional cricketer. And that was the second turning point in Jhulan's career – getting selected in Air India team.
"Also, one more very good thing happened to me is that I was financially supported by cricket. Cricket is an expensive sport and coming from a middle class family, it was not easy, buying all the cricket equipment, proper gear, proper shoes. And you needed money to support yourself. In 2000, I was selected to play for Air India. They used to give us stipend. That stipend was a motivating factor. It supported me and my cricket," she said.
The financial support meant she could carry on pursuing her dream to play for India one day but she was concerned that the national call-up should come at the right time.
"For me, the other turning point would definitely be the debut for India in 2002. That is one of the key moments in my life. When you are playing domestic cricket, you are performing well but after a certain period of time, if you are not getting selected at the right time then you start getting demotivated. You start not putting that much hard work into your game. That was one of the key things I was selected for at that age and continued playing. 2002 debut for India was the right time, it was the biggest thing," said Jhulan, remembering the days when she was still waiting to play for India.
The first ODI between India vs England in 2002 became her debut. A nervous Jhulan did not sleep properly a night before the game because many thoughts would float in her head.
"In those days, we did not have all this mental toughness training and all. Nobody taught us how to control your nerves and how to calm yourself down in tough times. All that you were told is go and play and enjoy your game. But what is the way? Nowadays, people have mentors, coaches etc. Players are being taken care of. In those days, it was like you were out down in the deep water, and either you were going to learn how to swim or you would drown. It was like that for me during that time. I did not know how to talk, how to behave. I was just very raw coming from the village, just wanted to play for India, it was my dream," she said.
In the ninth over of the match, Jhulan removed England's Caroline Atkins to pick up her first international wicket. It settled her nerves and she spoke to herself, "I think I can play the next two series for sure for India". Today, Jhulan has played international cricket for 18 years, and has grabbed over 300 wickets across formats. She has carried the burden of leading the pace attack for almost two decades now, with one of her best moments being the Test series win in England in 2006/07, where she had grabbed 15 wickets in two Tests.
Even after 18 years of service, Goswami is in no mood to stop. She still wants to run in hard and bowl as fast as she can.
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