Jhulan Goswami has seen days when cricketers would travel in unreserved compartments in trains for domestic matches. Within a few years, they would start travelling business class for matches and stay in good hotels. As a stalwart of the Indian team, Jhulan played no small part in augmenting the popularity of the women’s game in India. The 39-year-old fast bowler reflects on her early playing days and discusses the women’s game in a long chat with W. V. Raman.

Women’s cricket was caviar to the general when Jhulan Goswami began her career with India in 2002. Twenty years later, she is still playing, now as one of India’s greats and as a mentor for the new generation of fast bowlers. The 39-year-old speaks about her career, the rise in importance and popularity of the women’s game, training methods, captaincy, and a lot more, in an uninhibited interview with W. V. Raman — the first episode of ‘Wednesdays with WV’. For the video, please visit Sportstar’s YouTube channel.

W. V. Raman: Jhulan, 20 years as a fast bowler now. When you sit back and reflect on it, do you think the years have flown by or are you pleasantly tired?

Jhulan Goswami: Sir, you know this better than I do because you were our coach. We have had a lot of discussions on this but, honestly speaking, when you start, you can’t think about the number of years you want to play. You just keep at the process, [focus on] what you have learned and what your coaches have taught you. I’m just going by that motion.

One thing I always have in my mind is that whenever I participate — whether it’s club matches, district matches, State-level matches, institution matches or India matches — I have to contribute. My contribution has to be there. I want to be a match winner. If I am not participating, it’s fine. But if I am, and I am not a match winner, then I’m not going to be satisfied. So, I think the keenness to contribute every time I get an opportunity probably pushed me ahead to play as long as I have played.

Frankly speaking, when you start, you can’t think about all those 20 years or 10 years. I just wanted to contribute more and do well every time because it’s an honour to represent your country and I think that was the biggest motivating factor for me.

Yes, you contributed immensely over a long period of time, but let’s talk about the start. Whatever made you take up fast bowling?

Honestly, it was pretty tricky early on. When I was staying in the village, I used to play a lot of tennis-ball cricket in the backyard with my cousins and friends. But in those days, you were never a bowler or a batter, you had to be an all-rounder; only then would you have value. Back then, my value was only as a batter. If I batted, then later on I was only fielding and I saw that they were not giving me that much importance (sic). So, I would fight with them for the ball and demand to bowl.

I don’t know how I learned that action. Probably television played a big role. I used to copy all those things, and how they play. In the afternoons, I used to go to the terrace and practice all by myself and copy the styles I saw — sometimes Kapil Dev, sometimes Javagal Srinath, sometimes Malcolm Marshall. I am talking about 1992-93. I was very young. In 1997, I started professionally playing with the leather ball. At that time, when I used to go from Chakdaha to Calcutta, my coach said, “Listen, you have a good height, and you have decent action. You have to bat, but make sure you bowl to five batters every day.”

So that bit, I think, changed my perception. And back then, when we used to squabble with the boys there, I used to think I also wanted to bowl fast like them. I developed that instinct and obviously coaches guided me. In those days, we didn’t know who was going to be a fast bowler and that we could do better. We would just go and play and think: no need to go to school, a better option is to go to the ground. This is how it started. But yes, honestly, fast bowling is fun, absolutely fun. Fast bowling is always something I enjoy.

This is interesting. I was talking to Kapil Dev a while ago and he said the same thing, how he just wanted to play cricket and then fast bowling came along as something he enjoyed doing. Now, talking of guidance, you wouldn’t have had too much guidance in the early stages. At what stage did you start getting some guidance with your bowling?

In 2000 when I joined Air India as a professional cricketer and when I would work with Air India coaches — proper bowling coaches — in our net sessions, they would give me ideas.

Secondly, I attended pace bowling camps in Chennai a few times. There they taught me a few things and skills which I could use to generate more pace, and they gave strength and conditioning advice so I could develop more on the field. Honestly, the coaches in Air India gave a lot of advice which was very important at that stage because I was very raw. One thing they used to say is: ’Don’t compromise on your pace, you have to keep hitting the deck.’

One more person I have to name is the late Mr. Tarak Sinha sir. I used to go to Delhi every summer for camp and stay in his house. The camps would be at the Sonnet club. I got to bowl to many superstar cricketers in the nets. It is here that I learned actual fast bowling. I learned how to play if you want to sustain yourself in international cricket, what kind of fitness is required, and which areas you have to hit. It’s not always about coming in and swinging the ball; you have to hit the deck and work on the moment after you bowl, then you’ll get a bit extra to make the batters uncomfortable.

In those two years, I would go to Delhi regularly in the summer. After 2002, I would go to Delhi every summer camp. I spent 21 days practising with those quality boys. There were players who had played for India. I got ideas from them on handling international matches and pressure and what the right areas were to bowl — all this I learned. It’s like, taking small learnings from everywhere and channelling it all when delivering on the field.

Excellent. One other thing that is overlooked often when it comes to fast bowling and fast bowlers is a good pair of shoes. Otherwise, you’ll get up injured. Were you able to get a good pair of shoes at the start of your career?

Honestly speaking, in all this, it’s a secret, I think. Obviously in those days we didn’t have good shoes in India and we would wait for some people to go abroad and bring them if they wished and then give them — whatever the cost. I used to have one pair of shoes for domestic matches and one pair for international matches in the initial stages.

And then, in this aspect, Tarak sir helped me a lot. He would do jugaadu (resourceful) stuff. He would take shoes from Ashish bhaiya — Ashish Nehra — and give them to me. I was a size nine, he was a size 11. So he would give me the shoes of boys who were size nine. It was a lot of fun and looking back, now I realise the importance of how we used to play.

Earlier, in 1999-2000, good quality shoes were not available in our country. We would wait for players going for county to bring us shoes. Now everything is different. A lot of options are there; professional contracts exist as well. But I have to thank Tarak Sinha for the role he played in my career. The contribution he has made to my career, however small, has been very important for me.

Yes, training methods are important because as much as we can train and get fitter, if you don’t train properly, you can also get injured. Now, what kind of scientific methods were known to you at the start of your career? Not many knew, to be fair.

No, nothing sir. Training meant you have to go to the ground and keep doing laps. If you could do an adequate number of laps, you were fit. If you couldn’t, then you were unfit. So, that was our training drill every morning. We had to run like marathon athletes and then come and bowl and then in the evening again we were made to run. No scientific reason or process running. We had to just keep running. The more you run, the more you’re fit — that was the common method for fast bowlers. I was a pretty athletic girl so I would play other sports in Chakdaha. I would play football in the afternoon with the boys and train in the morning. Somehow, I managed. Football helped me a lot, I feel. You do a lot of up-and-down running; agility movement is there. Not professionally, of course, but whatever I could do in the village I did.

O.K., international cricket should have seemed very easy to you because if I remember right, in the very second game, you were the player of the match. It should have seemed very easy, isn’t it?

Not at all, sir. It was a good match for me, fortunately. Second match, I was fortunate to be able to hit the ball in the right areas and get the leg movements right. I was very happy and excited. Initially, I was very nervous. Before the first two matches, I couldn’t sleep, obviously because of excitement and pressure. Matches are televised. People are coming to watch you play. Back home, people are watching you. Those who never watched before — friends, your colleagues, your family — started watching and those days, [Doordarshan] used to televise the matches.

I was pretty nervous and for the first time I saw at night how I was bowling after the match. I would wait to see how my action and my run-up was. Back then, video analysis was not the norm and it was too expensive to try and do it ourselves, so back then, after the match, at night, there would be a repeat telecast of the game. We would see each other’s actions, how someone is holding the bat and other things.

You had the distinction of being the Indian cricketer who was first given the award of ICC cricket over here and that came just five years into your career in international cricket, isn’t it?

As an athlete, as a professional cricketer, I always wanted to contribute more for my side and whenever I got that opportunity, I tried to contribute the best I could and fulfil whatever role had been given to me. I was pretty consistent in those five-seven years early on in my career. There were no injuries, and I was a bit raw. I would just come and bowl fast and enjoy my job.

As a team also we did well. We played a lot of matches. Earlier, that wouldn’t happen on a regular basis when I made my debut. So, we then started playing more matches, getting more exposure in international cricket, and I think that gave a lot of exposure for youngsters like me who had just joined and helped improve our skills, and helped us grow mentally and physically.

You are as usual, typically modest. I said just five years, but it was an achievement because all the other nations were ahead of India in women’s cricket at that point. I wonder how many people even knew the Indian team consisted of a women’s circuit as well because at that time it was all about men’s cricket. That’s the reason I felt that in five years’ time getting that award was quite an achievement.

Yes, one thing is that my career graph picked up. People started knowing who is Jhulan Goswami. People started following me, taking autographs — those days selfies were not a thing yet like they are today. Those days, people started taking photographs or began to recognise you. More so because I think that year not even one male cricketer was shortlisted. I was the lone Indian cricketer in the award list.

It does give me a lot of pressure and joy, and people also got a push to follow women’s cricket. The BCCI merger happened. They, too, believed that these girls have extra talent and deserve some more attention. Before that, people didn’t know much, but after 2007, things changed. I became a household name in West Bengal. Everybody knew me and that’s helped me take women’s cricket and the Indian team a step ahead.

Now you’re a household name across the world, Jhulan. Don’t underplay yourself. Let’s talk about the challenges in women’s cricket. Before the BCCI came into the picture.

There were plenty of challenges, particularly while playing for the Indian team. We would travel economy class, in unreserved compartments, and travel by train for international matches. Bad hotels, bad grounds, umpires were not up to the mark. Matches were not televised on a regular basis. There was no media coverage. So, people didn’t know where we were going or whom we were playing with. So, if we told someone some story from our tours, they’d say, “Oh, you played there, we didn’t know at all.”

Even in domestic cricket, there were challenges. The team would travel in unreserved compartments, and stay in a dormitory. There were no toilet facilities, no good food options (you couldn’t afford those things also). If you had to play cricket in those days, you had to give your everything, not look at the other stuff and just go play. It is from that passion and love that this generation came up. Just that, because there were no facilities, no series, no calendar. It was a huge challenge as a professional athlete to survive because you didn’t get match fee, no daily allowances, and no luxury.

You stayed in a [substandard] hotel or in a dormitory. Your seats in the train were near the toilet and there was no luxury to have a coolie also. So we had to handle all our luggage and kit bags. We didn’t have excess baggage allowance either when travelling in economy. We had to pay or we had to remove our personal clothing to try and cut down on excess baggage charges. It was quite challenging, and overseas matches were also a bit challenging.

But yes, after 2006-07, when BCCI took over, things started happening in a different way and we began to see how nicely things can actually be done. I’ll get to that.

I’ll get to that, Jhulan, but stay the hit-the-deck bowler now, don’t become a batter like me and leave outside the off stump. Did the benefits start coming immediately after the BCCI took over women’s cricket or did it take some time?

Absolutely. Obviously, it still took some time because one system joining another system will take time but, in our case, it took some more time. That much I can say, but yes, things were smoother than they were before.

But now, it’s fully smooth. Everything is in place. There is someone to take care of everything. Professionalism is there, a contract system is in place, daily allowances are there, professional coaches, trainers, physios are there. We’re staying in good hotels, travelling in business class.

Sir, I think the 2017 World Cup played a big role in this and changed the perception of women’s cricket in our country. The Board also started believing in our talent and saw that if we’re given extraordinary facilities, they can also bring in good performances. So that changed after 2017. Before that it was O.K., just not 100 per cent.

What is critical here is that yes, you started doing well, BCCI took women’s cricket under its fold. Everything started getting better. But, what about the societal pressures you went through? Generally in India, girls are expected to marry and settle after a certain age. How was that experience for you?

I think this is pretty common in our society, in our country. And it’s not about women’s cricket. I think everywhere women’s athletes go through the same stuff, particularly those coming from remote areas. Because data is not available. Now everything is easy with social media. Now, parents and society are aware of what girls need, and what facilities are there to take up sports.

In those days, it was really difficult to explain to them why we wanted to play sports. It took me two years to convince my family that I wanted to play professional cricket because [what I was expected to do was to] concentrate on my education and after a certain time, getting married. That is how society was. I used to travel a lot in local trains and people used to tease me saying, “You’re playing cricket? What is women’s cricket, we’ve never heard of it. We don’t know anything about that. In this age, you should go and study. Why are you wasting your time?”

People in a village used to ask why I was playing with boys and would also say stuff like: “We can’t send our boys to play in a competition if she is playing because how can girls play with boys?” All those things would happen.

As someone who wants to play sports and become an athlete, all this stuff doesn’t matter. It was all about chasing your dreams and telling your family and getting on with it. In the initial days it was difficult but when they understood it I think it was pretty smooth.

This problem is there, because our society and culture are different. That’s the beauty of our country, but slowly, that’s changing. The expectations are changing. People are waking up to how successful girls can be in sports. It will take more time more changes to take effect. The more medals women win, the more people will notice and the more we will be able to motivate people to take to sport. One thing I can say is that after the 2017 World Cup, when I went back to my academy, I saw around 16-17 girls, all in the 10-12 age group, coming and enrolling there. That was change. In our time, it was difficult to convince our parents and society, but that’s changing. But fair enough. One thing we can say is that at least we’ve motivated young girls to play sport.

I would like to know more about the sportsperson during their monthly cycles when they are involved in a competition. What goes on then physically, physiologically, psychologically, emotionally?

I think that that is most challenging part as a female athlete and think all the athletes have faced this problem. If it is during competition time, it was a huge challenge to compensate for that and concentrate on your job. You have to be mentally strong. During that time, you’re not able to concentrate more, not able to deliver more, but other people don’t know.

People start criticising you but no one knows the backstory. This is challenging for every female athlete in this world, and that’s why we say that female athletes are very special and going through a lot of pain in their bodies and doing this kind of physical activity is challenging.

During match days, it’s a huge task. I think it takes a lot of courage to come out of that situation and play and be there for six hours on the cricket field particularly. I’m talking about cricket. I think you have to give a lot of credit to all those girls going through it because you want to be in the room, in the bed, and get proper rest. But because of what we have chosen, we can’t be in the room. We can’t be in bed. You have to go and play an important match. You have to play; you can’t give an excuse for that.

So, I think, this is a big challenge for girls, but I’m sure now everyone is taking care of all this. Physios and doctors play a big role in this. This is normal. We can’t complain about that. We accept and we prepare that way. In the practice session also we try to give more effort so that during competitions, it doesn’t bother us unduly. We can’t give excuses for that.

It’s not about excuses, it is more about trying to help the sportspersons, especially during that phase. I had in fact recommended during my tenure that research be undertaken as to what are the things that these girls go through and what is it that the system can do to help them mitigate the challenges that they face during that period. It’s a worthwhile project, don’t you think?

Absolutely sir, this is required. I’m glad that you have asked this question and with this research point too. I’m happy that people have started thinking that way. When I was young, I could not share all this stuff with my coaches, and had to quietly fight everything. This is something people should accept and should research properly, and people should see how we can improve. A lot of science is there, so if you can come out and make sure that some adjustments can be made, it will be great. Match timings, training timings — these are things that can be looked at because everyone wants to be fresh during competition time.

Yes. Jhulan, it’s very important that you have a captain who has confidence in you. If you were to be given a choice of foreign captain to play under, who would that be?

Belinda Clark. Because, in my early days, I found her to be very aggressive and commanding. I enjoyed seeing that — somebody who is commanding and an aggressive captain, you know, a task master. I always enjoyed seeing how she controlled the game and how she handled changing bowlers and field placement. I could see that a lot of homework went into that. So yeah, Belinda Clark. Or even Charlotte Edwards. I also enjoyed seeing her captaincy because she would utilise an aggressive bowler like Katherine Brunt very effectively.

You also had a crack at captaincy. What were you like as a captain?

I enjoyed thinking out of the box and taking some extra challenges and delivering. I used to prefer setting an example for others in the group. I believed in taking a bullet when the chips were down. You take the responsibility and when things are going the right way, let the youngsters take the team ship away. As a leader, I always believed that one had to come out of their comfort zone and take the team ahead. As a leader, you have a huge role and I enjoyed each and every moment. One has to work with youngsters, give them good ideas on how to handle international cricket and guide them through what kind of requirements there are.

The sport is result-oriented and demanding. So handling mental toughness was key. You can’t sit back and say this and say ‘do this, do that.’ You have to teach them. It might work or might not, but you could always try, so I always gave it my all. So I always try to give time to youngsters and cherish the responsibility in that.

Is it more emotionally sapping if you happen to be a captain?

I was pretty emotionally drained. Things happened. I am an emotional person and that affects me sometimes, and sometimes I’ve been a bit harsh on the girls on the field. I think that’s one area that we can improve on as a leader — controlling our emotions, not showing them all the time. You have to know when to react, but you have to react. You can’t be quiet all the time. You have to react appropriately on the field if it is required. But at the same time, we have to know how to control your emotions, particularly as a leader.

Talking about emotions, that sudden collapse at Lord’s in 2017, that must have really hurt a lot, isn’t it?

Yes, sir, it did. When I started my cricket career, ‘92 World Cup, ‘97 Women’s World Cup final, I saw that as a ball girl. Australia and New Zealand played that World Cup final. I was a ball girl watching Belinda Clark taking the victory lap with that trophy at Eden Gardens. I wanted to feel that thing and because of that, I started playing cricket. That was one of the major events for us.

We were close in 2005 but couldn’t win the trophy. We played very good cricket in 2017. We controlled the entire game but lost control in those last 10 overs and the match slipped away. That hurts. Actually, if we lost a one-sided game — such as in 2005 when we lost a one-sided final —it was fine, a bad day. But in 2017, 90 overs you control and only 10 overs they control and they take that trophy, so that got to me.

World Cups comes every four years and after 2017, we didn’t know if we were going to participate in the next World Cup. But yeah, it was so close. Stage was set for India. People had come to watch; it was a full house and people were there to support and believe in women’s cricket and the team. That was a huge platform and I think we missed the bus badly that day.

Yeah, despite that disappointment, a lot of good came out of that day, isn’t it?

Absolutely. Indian cricket progressed a lot since that day. The way the preparations happened for the 2017 World Cup, the way we played, people started believing in us. People start following us. A lot of things happened professionally as well. Social media also played a big role. Getting assigned contracts, professional assignments outside the country, advertising agencies coming and talking to you — those things never happened in women’s cricket earlier.

I think that was a huge boost for women’s cricket and people started following women’s cricket very closely. They wanted the girls to win every time. I believe, in Indian cricket, what is required is a dhamaka (explosion). Until India won the ‘83 World Cup, hockey was the popular sport. With ‘83, men’s cricket got its dhamaka. After 2007, when India won the 2007 World Cup, the interest for T20s increased. Indian women’s cricket needs that kind of dhamaka. We did not play well in 2013. So we needed to play good cricket in 2017, play in the best possible way so we would be able to motivate girls in the next generation and make them pick up the sport.

Of course, you succeeded in that. Now, apart from the commercial interest that was obvious after that final and also the eyeballs, in the international [matches] you played after the World Cup final, the biggest thing to me is the kind of progress made in terms of cricket. From one or two players playing in the Women’s Big Bash League or the other leagues across the world to come to a stage where almost 10 girls from India are playing those leagues...that is great progress.

Absolutely. And that gives us a lot of ideas. How they prepare, what kind of culture they have, what kind of preparation they do before playing in big matches — it gave us a lot of ideas and feedback, something that was missing in our dressing room.

I’m glad our girls have taken interest and are participating in those foreign leagues. That was absolutely required. The other thing is: when they perform on these platforms, everyone knows Indians to be in their comfort zone, particularly regarding food, etc. But there, you’re staying alone. You don’t know any team-mates; food, culture, everything is different. Adapting to those things and performing well each and every day is a huge thing for our girls, and they adapt brilliantly. They come back and share all those experiences.

That’s motivated a lot of youngsters to feel they could also do the same. I hope that kind of Premier League happens in our country and hope it changes Indian cricket because we have a huge reservoir of talent.

You are talking about dhamaka. Women’s cricket is likely to get its dhamaka soon which might happen in all likelihood next year. If that dhamaka, I’m referring to the women’s IPL, happens, will that be the awakening of the sleeping giant that is Indian women’s cricket?

Absolutely, sir. No doubt. Look at the number of girls participating, how many States we have, how many girls are participating in the Board matches. It’s such a big country. People follow cricket from their childhood. You don’t need to teach them the rules, regulations and how to play — everybody knows these things. You just need to guide them properly. The mixture of those foreign players and Indian players, and that culture will give our young girls who are participating only in the domestic circuit a big boost.

You’ll see a lot of youngsters coming and knocking on the doors of Indian cricket and saying: ‘We’re ready’. This is how men’s cricket changed with the IPL. So many youngsters came forward. You don’t need to do anything extra because the franchises take care of the players professionally as well as training process, everything. I’m very much hopeful that in the next two-three years, India will be dominate world cricket, like how the men’s team is dominating at this moment in the world.

Jhulan, with my next question, I’m not implying anything. Where is Jhulan Goswami heading from here?

At this moment, I’m playing. I am still a professional athlete, so till the time I play I have to say I’m still playing. And after that, I have to think about [what I will do], and I haven’t given it much thought. Yes, I got a lot of injuries. A lot of things happened during the World Cup with injuries and I then recovered from that. But I’m looking forward to this upcoming series [against England] and to go there, participate and perform well for my team. I definitely have to think about it and I’ll definitely let you know.

Of course, I’m sure you’ll do well and your presence is still needed. You still need to spearhead the attack for a while. One word of advice for the younger generation of cricketers?

If you’re talking about the fast bowlers, you need some extra jhil going for you. Do the kind of stuff that I’m doing there and take responsibility for it. It’s a ruthless thing. You will have to go there and day and day out you have to perform well and you have to take those wins. Five wickets don’t happen every day. But each day will have its different battles. Prepare yourself in such a way that you can adapt to every situation.

Don’t take your preparation lightly. Dedication, determination and discipline are required always in cricket, and any other sport. For leading a side, too, you need dedication, determination and discipline. Otherwise, it’s quite difficult. And honesty, because if you are not honest about your process, your training, you’re not going to survive. You have to get out of your comfort zone to succeed.

Now you are the right person because you’ve seen everything that there is to be seen. What would you advise to the youngsters in terms of balancing all this? It’s easy to get distracted by, for instance, social media.

You need a good mentor from whom you can take some good advice to learn how to control those things. But make sure that you balance everything — know when to switch on, when to switch off. That is a key in this professional world today, because distractions will be there. But how to handle those things is a million-dollar question. It’s easy to get trapped in distractions because for the time being, it’ll come with its glamour. At the same time, it will take away from your game. So you need somebody who can guide you and give you good advice. Take that good advice and make sure that you can balance things.

When I was young, I had very good seniors who always helped me with this and made sure my feet were always on the ground. If a Women’s IPL happens, this becomes doubly important. You need someone to say to you: ‘Your job is to play cricket and you need to keep doing that. People will remember you for how you play and not the other stuff. So make sure that your process, your routine does not get hampered because of anything.’ That’s key.

That advice is as good as the yorkers you bowl. Thanks a lot Jhulan for your time and I thoroughly enjoyed this chat and wish you all the very best in your future endeavours, thank you so much.

Always a pleasure talking to you, sir.