This article first appeared on Scroll.in

 

Potchefstroom had been producing glorious days since the Indian women’s team landed there, with the weather perfectly poised between the summer and winter. Cool mornings and evenings, and not too hot in the middle. Not exactly England’s cloudy and nippy, but still good weather for fast bowling.

Yet, Jhulan Goswami had been wicketless in her first spell against South Africa in the show piece match of the women’s Quadrangular series. She had taken just one wicket in the first game of the series, against Ireland. Before that, she had last played an international game in December, and missed India’s ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier campaign with a shoulder injury.

After a long wait, she was now perched on 178 One-Day International wickets, creeping towards the milestone of Cathryn Fitzparick’s tally of 180 ODI wickets.

The crowning glory

She came back for her second spell in the 36th over. South Africa were six down, and her job was to polish off the tail. Her fourth ball trapped the debutante Nadine de Klerk in front. 179. Eight balls later, she disturbed Masabata Klaas’ stumps. 180. She was now level with Fitzpatrick.

Ekta Bisht claimed a wicket in the next over, and Goswami must have been wondering if she would be stuck on 180 till the next game, like she was stuck on 177 for six months. But then on the third ball of the 40th over, Raisibe Ntozakhe took strike, only to be struck on the pad. Goswami had a moment to anticipate what was about to happen as she appealed, and then the umpire raised his finger.

181.

Almost 20 years ago, Jhulan Goswami had bowled another 40th over that was perhaps not as momentous, but certainly prescient of what was to come.

A glimpse of what was to come

In the 1998-‘99 season, the Maharashtra Under-19 team travelled to Hazaribagh in Bihar for the Junior Nationals. Former India all-rounder Devieka Palshikaar was on her first tour, and on arrival at the Hazaribagh railway station, got her first glimpse of a 16 year-old Jhulan Goswami.

“I noticed her immediately because she was taller than me”, she said. Palshikaar, stood at 5’10’’, and was used to being the tallest girl around. “She was very very scrawny though, and was wearing a lumpy sweater and a funny hairdo,” Palshikaar remembered.

Maharashtra were pitted against Goswami’s team Bengal, and went in as heavy favourites. News of Goswami’s talent had reached even the callow newbie Palshikaar, and the coach’s instructions were clear: Goswami was to be seen off, and the rest should be easy.

Defending two off the last over

Instead Palshikaar walked in to bat at roughly 17 for five in 10 overs, after Bengal had made 150 odd batting first in the 40 over game. The pace of Goswami had accounted for most of Maharashtra’s vaunted top order.

In her first ever game, Palshikaar went on to make 86 and along with Soniya Dabir, helped stage a stunning recovery. She made most of her runs after Goswami’s first spell, and brought Maharashtra to within touching distance of the target. Then Dabir was dismissed, and two more wickets fell cheaply. Palshikaar was starved off the strike, and when the last over came around, she found herself at the wrong end with Maharashtra needing two runs to win.

“I tried to keep strike on the last ball of the 39th over, but my partner Mayuri Chavan didn’t run, and she was on strike for the 40th over,” remembered Palshikaar.

The 40th was the last over in that game, and it was bowled by Goswami. All the batter had to do was get bat on ball, pinch a single, and give the strike to Palshikaar.

Goswami had other ideas.

For the next six balls, Palshikaar was reduced to a spectator, as Chavan couldn’t connect with even a single delivery. Such was the precocious Goswami’s pace, that by the time Chavan’s bat came down, the ball was already halfway to the keeper.

Defending just two runs, Goswami bowled a maiden over. Bengal won. About three years later, Goswami made her debut for India.

‘We never think about the records’

“When we start, we never think about the records”, Goswami told Scroll over a WhatsApp call from South Africa. “I started because I loved the game. I had the passion for the game. With time I progressed in the game, and responsibility came. And I learned to perform with responsibility”, she added.

The tale of how she travelled two hours one way in crowded train for training is now part of the Goswami legend. That journey has now seen her put herself, and thus India, at the top of the ODI bowling charts. And she is likely to stay there for a while. Cathryn Fitzpatrick held the record for more than a decade. And out of the top five, only Anisa Mohammed (136 wickets at number five) is still an active player.

Goswami’s longevity is a tribute to her work ethic and her commitment to quotidian fitness. It is also what allowed her to go past Fitzpatrick’s mark at 34. Fitzpatrick claimed 127 of her 180 scalps in Australia, England and New Zealand, all traditionally good hunting grounds for fast bowlers. She played 77 of her 109 matches in those countries. Goswami has played 77 of her 153 matches on the subcontinent, where each ounce of pace and movement has to be extracted from the pitch like a roughneck drilling for oil. Once can only wonder what her tally might have been had she not been born in a fast bowlers abattoir. It is additive to her greatness that the best bowler the land of the spinners has produced, is a quick.

“Whatever came , I enjoyed it and I just kept going”, she finished the call with. And she has gone a long way. From Chakda to Potchefstroom. From teenager with a bad hairdo, to captain, and now veteran. From inchoate talent, to a legend of the game.

From 0 to 181. And counting.