Jhulan Goswami still cannot believe that in a couple of weeks, she will be recipient of an honorary doctorate from University of Kalyani in West Bengal.
For years, Mithali Raj used to joke that Goswami would be her phone-a-friend lifeline whenever she sat on the hot seat in front of Amitabh Bachchan in Kaun Banega Crorepati. As it turned out, Raj, Goswami and a few other members of the India Women’s team appeared on the popular television show that will be telecast on September 1.
— Mithali Raj (@M_Raj03) August 16, 2017
Wednesday (August 23) marks a month since India lost to England by nine runs in the 2017 Women’s World Cup final in front of a capacity crowd at Lord’s. It was heartbreaking for the manner in which the batting collapsed after being 191 for 3 in a chase of 229. The dressing room was filled with tears as the players got a sense of how close they had come to creating history before fluffing the final lines. Unsure of what lay ahead, the team became incommunicado for the remaining days in London before leaving for home in two batches. Little did they know that a fervent reception awaited them at the Mumbai airport in the wee hours of July 26, and that it would amplify into a month-long celebration.
Rajeshwari Gayakwad reveals that the team was “surprised to see so many people waiting to welcome us.” Such was the clamour that “we didn’t have space to move out.” These were unprecedented scenes for women’s team sports in India, but no one expected it to go on and on and on.
A glance at the Twitter handle of the players indicates how life-changing these four weeks have been. High-tea with Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister where he cheered up each of the cricketers personally, remains the highlight of this phase, but equally groundbreaking have been appearances on multiple television shows. The show on Star Sports on Independence Day featuring Raj, Goswami, Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Poonam Raut and Ekta Bisht was equal parts fun and emotional. Then, there have been countless felicitation ceremonies, sponsor commitments, and a spree for multiple selfies. It has been an endless loop of an acknowledgment of the team’s newfound stardom.
It is the month where agents have lapped up players and made them brands. It is the month where for the first time, media interactions with women cricketers have been rationed. In a nutshell, it has been, quite deservingly, a much-awaited windfall of dreams coming true.
“It has become really hectic. (Earlier) we used to only schedule our practice and gym sessions. Now we have to schedule every place we are going to and see if we can fit (practice) in,” Veda Krishnamurthy, who has turned down at least one appearance request, tells Wisden India on the sidelines of a felicitation ceremony in Bangalore. “It is something new, but yes, we are getting used to it. Since the time we have come back, we have just not had time for ourselves because we have been running around for a lot of things. The day you think you want to sleep for a longer time, it doesn’t happen as something comes up.”
Raj’s schedule captures the countrywide frenzy the best. Yet to unpack her kit bag that lies in her room in Hyderabad, she has been city-hopping at a rate par for an ‘A’ category celebrity.
She attended a felicitation ceremony by her employers, Indian Railways, before meeting Telangana’s chief minister. She has been at numerous promotional events in most of the big cities, and been a part of the National Handlooms Day celebration in Hyderabad. She has met Arunima Sinha, the first Indian amputee to climb Mount Everest, and bumped into Kiran Bedi at Delhi airport. She has shared the stage with Remo D’Souza in a dance show and addressed delegates of the Indian-ASEAN Youth Summit in Bhopal. She has been the chief guest at the launch of a cricket academy in Bangalore and helped promote a soon-to-be launched movie in the city on the same day. Then, there have been other engagements not captured on her Twitter handle.
“From a sportsperson, I have turned into an artist, an actor who comes late in the night, has dinner at 12.30-1 am, sleeps at 2’o’clock and then wakes up at 8-9am and then the day starts from 10’o’clock,” Raj says, sitting in a store in Bangalore even while waiting for another photo session. “It’s very unlike a sportsperson, who sleeps early and wakes up early. I am living life like an artist.”
— Harmanpreet Kaur (@ImHarmanpreet) August 4, 2017
Articulate as ever, Raj says she “had not dreamt” of all this. Goswami says she is pleased because people now recognise the entire team rather than a few individuals.
“Earlier, whenever I used to go to the market or other places, people used to talk about my performances – ‘I saw your bowling performance, you bowled well, your action is good.’ Now they are talking about the entire women’s team,” Goswami says. “They know all the players by name and are able to remember specific performances. For me, that is the best thing that has happened.
“People are usually upset when you lose a final, but the way they have accepted the defeat and have said that they have enjoyed our performance, mazaa aa gaya (I have enjoyed this),” she adds. “They are saying we are the real champions even though we lost.”
Good or bad, the transformation has affected the daily life of the cricketers too. Veda was stopped for photographs when she arrived at her best friend’s wedding despite being dressed in Indian attire. “I went to a medical shop and someone said, ‘I have seen you somewhere’,” she recalls. “I said, ‘no you haven’t seen me’, bought medicines and ran away from there. It’s embarrassing when people come up to you and say that. It’s all beginning for us now, and I am sure everybody is getting used to it.”
The mass adulation has been a soothing balm, giving players their own ways to absorb the loss better and look ahead. But the wound has not healed completely. Raj remembers the entire team was nervous at the pre-game warm-up session, and she “put up a confidence face that everything is fine.”
“I think it was good (we lost the toss) because as a team we walked in together and I could manage the whole team and help settle the nerves,” she reconciles. “Overall, I didn’t expect that we would be able to restrict England to such a low total (228 for 7) as they had scored 370 twice.
“The kind of appreciation we got from all quarters in the run-up to the (final), the tweets from the prime minister – nothing could be bigger than that,” she continues. “When we got it to that stage, it was very important to get our hands on the cup, but having said that, I knew the girls put in everything. Sometimes it doesn’t happen for whatever reason. It was just maybe the lower order wasn’t able to handle the pressure.”
Pressure hit its peak when Veda played a cross-batted shot, after making 35, and fell in the 45th over. Soon, the innings had folded for 219. The shot continues to haunt her.
“It does haunt a lot of times when I am sitting idle. Suddenly the ball I got out to plays in my mind. I went back to the pitch (after the game) and thought had I played a different shot, things could have been different,” Veda remembers. “For me, that shot will always be in my mind. I have been hearing from a lot of people – ‘your wicket; if you had not got out, we would have won the game’. But you cannot sit back and think what could have been done because if you sit back and start picking mistakes, you will find a lot of them.”
Veda is pragmatic. She says they have “now given BCCI something to market us.” It’s anybody’s guess how different things could have panned out had India lifted the title. But the close loss has been an eye-opener for everyone. The nationwide appreciation is a passing phase and Goswami, a veteran of 15 years, knows that there is work still to be done.
“I am still travelling. I will enjoy it till the end of this month. A one-month break is enough,” Goswami says. “After that, you have to start again. Look for new goals, and new targets. I will stop everything and get back to practice.”
There cannot be a bigger motivation to get back to the grind than actually aiming to win a world title.
(With inputs from Karunya Keshav)