Jhulan Goswami's career is ending, but her intensity is still at max

Heading into her last international series, the great Indian bowler is still giving it her all

Annesha Ghosh
Annesha Ghosh
Once more, with feeling: Goswami treats her net sessions like she does matches  •  Annesha Ghosh

Once more, with feeling: Goswami treats her net sessions like she does matches  •  Annesha Ghosh

It's bedlam at the East Bengal and ATK Mohun Bagan tents overlooking Eden Gardens. A Kolkata derby in football's Durand Cup is just two days away and fans, desperate to get their hands on the few tickets still available offline, are jostling for footholds.
The queue, skirting the periphery of the maidan grounds overlooking India's oldest cricket stadium, runs over a kilometre. It starts to drizzle. Tempers fray. The din swells by the second. Passers-by stop in their tracks, necks craning, to watch the chaos, seemingly content to suspend all the pressing business of a late-August weekday morning.
My mind drifts to the quiet of Eden Gardens and its vicinity on days when no games are scheduled. Having grown up in the city, I am also acutely aware of how normal it is for people here to go bonkers ahead of, and during, any East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan fixture.
Before long, an SUV rolls into sight from the Esplanade side of Goshto Pal Sarani, named after the former Indian football captain from the city. My reverie is snapped as the sole occupant in the imposing black beast of a vehicle comes into view.
The context for Jhulan Goswami's entrance to the stadium is fitting. She is here for one of her last training sessions at her home ground, a few weeks out from her impending retirement. Football holds an important place in the 39-year-old Goswami's journey. It was the image of a tearful Maradona after Argentina's loss in the 1990 World Cup final that first kindled the love of sport in Goswami, who was eight then.
It is an improbable genesis to a tale of an even more unlikely rise: of a girl from small-town Bengal who went to the top of the game in women's international cricket, and who now has a high-profile biopic in the works.
That last explains why the guard at Gate 14, noticing the camera around my neck and Goswami's nod at me from behind the wheel, politely asks if I'm there in connection to the movie about "didi". I say I'm there to watch her train. Elaboration is not needed, I soon gather. "Lord's will be her swansong, I know," the middle-aged guard says, visibly proud he knows where Goswami's career will end. Her brief stay in the city is sandwiched between visits to the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru, from where she flies to England for her final bow in international cricket.
Odomos "is a must", bellows Goswami, half in jest, about the mosquito-repellent cream she swears by, a sentiment echoed by most Bengalis
I follow Goswami into the reception area on the ground floor. No sooner does she arrive than members of the Bengal senior women's squad magically spill out from the two change rooms nearby, almost as if on cue.
Most of these players are about half her age, and none as towering in stature, figurative or literal. Their good mornings come thick and fast, their reverence apparent. You sense that long before she became their team-mate and "Jhulu di", Goswami was the Pied Piper who drew them, and a number of other young girls in Bengal and beyond, into the sport.


The clock has just ticked past noon. Goswami, having changed into her training clothes, is smearing her limbs with a substance that has nothing to do with athletic performance. Odomos "is a must", she bellows, half in jest, about the mosquito-repellent cream she swears by, a sentiment echoed by most Bengalis.
More solemn pre-training precautionary measures follow. The team physio goes across to where Goswami waits to have her right elbow taped. This is to cushion her bowling arm against over-exertion and preserve it for India's tour of England, where the final match of the three-ODI leg on September 24 is set to be her last in India colours.
The rest of the 29-member Bengal squad, meanwhile, have begun limbering up inside. Goswami walks in and, away from her team-mates, starts loosening up. Head, arms, feet, back, all of the 5'11'' machinery is worked with the precision that has marked her training all these years.
Behind her is a large poster marking her 200th ODI wicket, from the 2018 tour of South Africa. It is the only one in the premises of a woman among an otherwise all-male pantheon of Indian cricket legends.
At one end of the indoor facility, the younger lot begin speed-running drills under the watch of Bengal coaches Probal Dutta, Rituparna Roy, and Shiv Sagar Singh. Jogging at the far end in the meantime, Goswami, who has been a mentor to the state's women's teams across all age groups since July, keeps an eye on her team-mates.
Her warm-up over, she relays notes to the coaching staff. When she links up with the rest of the squad for sprints, the switch from mentor to team-mate is instant, her commitment to presenting her competitive best evident. She hares in during the short-distance dashes, round after round, the envy of her colleagues with legs twice as quick and strong.
"That's Jhulan for you and that's her discipline," Roy, a former Bengal team-mate, would later reflect, echoing what India captain Harmanpreet Kaur said ahead of the UK tour. "That is why she's still out there, playing at the highest level, while we hung up our boots a decade ago.
"And it's not just what you saw at that one training. Between tours or NCA visits, if she happens to be in Kolkata, you'll either find her at the gym or doing laps at the Jadavpur ground. When no training sessions are scheduled, Jhulan makes her own schedule."


On come the retractable nets and the sprawling empty space of the Eden Gardens indoor training arena transforms into a series of cages. Batters and bowlers are split into groups for the rest of the three-hour session. The latter line up at the farthest net at one end for a spot-bowling routine. Three plastic stumps are positioned at one end, a single stump and four markers between the good length and the blockhole regions at the other.
Goswami windmills her arms and queues up behind about eight other bowlers, two of whom - left-arm spinner Gouhar Sultana and right-arm fast bowler Sukanya Parida - are India internationals. Each time Goswami comes on to bowl, it turns into something of a spectacle, with all eyes, even those of some batters in the adjacent nets, turning to her.
The majority bowl with short run-ups; Goswami's, though, is consistently longer. Short gallops extend into full strides. Tongue lodged in cheek in trademark fashion, her focus is fierce. She thunders into her jump, loads up pretty much how she would in a match, and explodes into her delivery stride, back fully bent, head leading low, nice and steady, arms swinging back in her follow-through.
Most balls cannon into the stump; others thud into the wicketkeeper's gloves or pads. The onlookers holler their appreciation. Given how high her accuracy is, you assume she won't put her body through this kind of back-breaking exercise for long. She needs to save those knees for later, after all.
But with Goswami there are no cheat codes or saving for later. She treats every training or gym session like the thousands before it, or the many that will follow leading up to Lord's: as building blocks to optimal on-field performance. So there she is, bowling more rounds than you think is sane. More than even some of the spinners combined. More than the memory card in your camera will let you capture.
A cup of tea and a five-minute breather are all she rewards herself with, following the frenetic bowling stint, after which she's back in the nets. First, to try her hand at the side-arm throwdown equipment and then to monitor the rest of the playing group. She singles out a group of four and summons them to a corner. An animated chat ensues, the youngsters soaking in Goswami's words in with rapt attention.
"Jhulan di explained with great care why we must not look to go after every ball, and [the need to] practise strike rotation," says Dhara Gujjar, the 21-year-old left-hand batting allrounder who was one of the players Goswami spoke to separately. "The bowlers, she said, are out there to outsmart us, so we need to be wise choosing the balls to attack, and play intelligent cricket."
You sense that long before she became their team-mate and "Jhulu di", Goswami was the Pied Piper who drew them, and a number of other young girls in Bengal and beyond, into the sport
Many like Gujjar, who has played the Challenger Trophy at the national level and is counted among the most promising up-and-coming young players from Bengal, stand to benefit long-term from Goswami's keenness to pass her wisdom on to those coming up the ranks. The mentor-cum-player role she holds across all age brackets in women's cricket in Bengal for the current season is a step in what will possibly be a transition into a coaching role after retirement for her.
The biggest benefactors of such a career change for Goswami will likely be those at either end of the Indian cricket spectrum: the Under-16s and the national team. The BCCI has announced the introduction of a first-ever U-16 women's one-day tournament for the upcoming season that kicks off next month. With a women's IPL and an Under-19 Women's T20 World Cup scheduled to start next year, there will be greater focus than ever on developing the domestic pathway. A robust feeder line will boost the quantity and quality of players who emerge into contention for national selection.
Excitement rings in Goswami's voice when I ask about what she has lined up for the rest of her day. "I'll stay back," she says. "The Under-16 girls have a session right after ours. Uff, what potential! Who says there's no talent in women's cricket here, there's no talent in India? These kids can be world-beaters."
Over the next hour and a half, she watches, interacts with, and helps fix the postures of a number of U-16 players, brought together from the city and its suburbs. By the time she leaves the arena, polishes off a boiled egg, sandwich and banana, and changes out of her training gear, it's close to 5pm.
The din outside has subsided, the vista clear of crowd and clouds alike. Some distance from Eden Gardens, the Mohun Bagan and Kalighat teams are locked in a football practice game. As Goswami drives away in her SUV, the guard at Gate 14 shoots a smile at me. "So, what did you watch at training for so long?" I tell him I saw a bit of the past, present and future of Indian women's cricket.

Annesha Ghosh is a freelance sports journalist. @ghosh_annesha