Sana Mir delivers a talk in the team huddle ahead of the start of play

Let's give ourselves some space: Sana Mir gives her team-mates a pep talk ahead of a 2017 World Cup game

© ICC/Getty Images

Feature

Strong arms: the story of Pakistan women's cricket

Receiving death threats, dodging border control, breaking world records, and changing minds - in the last two decades, Pakistan's female cricketers have come a long way

Kamila Shamsie  |  

It was perfect cricket-watching weather in Dubai on February 9, 2019, when I arrived at the ICC Academy with my friend Farid to watch the Pakistan women's team take on West Indies. Sunny, with a light breeze, the occasional cloud drifting past. I had flown in from London the day before and although I'd noted from a distance the absence of information online about tickets, venues and starting times, I wasn't prepared to be told that no spectators were permitted to enter.

"But there's a match on," I said. The man at reception looked sternly at me: "Parents send their children here to practise. We can't just let anyone in." It was only when I mentioned the word "journalist" and pulled out my phone to call someone from the PCB that the man relented and handed over two lanyards.

Farid and I made our way out to the ground and someone set down two plastic chairs just past the boundary line, between the commentators' tent and tables laden with A/V equipment to stream the game online. Farid looked around and pointed out the Under-8 football match on an adjoining pitch had far more spectators than this international between two competitive sides, which included Sana Mir, the world's top-ranked ODI bowler.

"You and I are the only spectators," I said. Everyone else standing around was either attached to the team or part of the media set-up. "No," he said, "you're here to cover the game. I'm the only spectator."

I found myself thinking back to a match played just over 30 years earlier that marked the true start of the story of women's cricket in Pakistan. That match had been played in front of 8000 people, according to the captain of one of the sides. All of those watchers were police, present at the stadium for the players' protection in the wake of death threats. No spectators were allowed.

Progress can appear to us in odd shapes and forms. At the start of that match in Dubai, it appeared to me in the form of no death threats, no police, and one spectator.

Mir told me that the problem is that even the organisations that talk about promoting women's cricket treat it as part of corporate social responsibility rather than look at it in terms of commercial potential

Teenaged pioneers
If you want to know what hope feels like, imagine being a teenaged girl in Karachi in the winter of 1988. After 11 years of repressive military rule, the death of the dictator Zia-ul-Haq led to elections that were won by a 35-year-old woman, Benazir Bhutto, who had spent much of the previous decade in prison or house arrest or exile. As winter brought with it cool breezes from the Arabian Sea, Karachi's streets were filled with a life and energy that had been missing for years from this, Pakistan's most populous, cosmopolitan and vibrant city. If there was a soundtrack to those days the foremost song on it was "Dila Teer Bija" - Benazir's campaign song, which had its origins in Lyari, one of the city's poorest areas from which "Lyari disco" originated, fusing disco beats with traditional Afro-Baloch sounds. Change and hope were almost tactile creatures in those days, knocking against our hearts with a Lyari disco beat, altering the shapes of our dreams.

Among the teenaged girls who found their dreams newly shaped that winter were the Khan sisters - 16-year-old Sharmeen and 19-year-old Shaiza. The daughters of an affluent carpet merchant, the Khan sisters were, simply put, not like other girls. Broad-shouldered and big-boned, they moved through the world with confidence and intent, dwarfing many men around them in size and attitude. Shaiza, a born leader, almost never drew breath when speaking - as if there was too much the world wanted her to do for there to be time for any kind of pause. And what the world most wanted her to do, she knew, was start a women's cricket team in Pakistan.

The country was already cricket-mad, and "the country" really does mean both men and women. During the dire years of General Zia, in particular, Imran Khan's sides brought light and victory and hope to the country - and the sport's popularity was widespread across genders. But while women watched cricket and even wrote about cricket in the otherwise male-dominated sports pages, they were not expected to play cricket. In good part this was because cricket was played on the streets - and the streets were public spaces from which women were excluded.

Not the Khan sisters. Although their family home was vast enough for a swimming pool and a tennis court, they grew up playing on the street outside, with their brother. Through most of the Zia years, however, they did their playing in England where they were at boarding school. And then Zia died, the world changed, and the sisters returned so that Shaiza could start a Pakistan women's cricket team.

That winter in Karachi, the sisters found other women who were ready to play, and announced a match against a team of former men's internationals, including Zaheer Abbas. Death threats followed. The religious right had been battered in the polls that brought Benazir to victory, but that had only increased their determination to show they could still muster street power. Karachi's police commissioner warned Shaiza of riots and instructed her to call off the game. Shaiza tried to argue that if Benazir could run the country and sit around a table talking to men, why couldn't a women's team play against men? But that argument was never going to appease groups who had campaigned against Benazir becoming prime minister on the basis of her gender.

Shaiza Khan (back row, third from left) and her sister Sharmeen played cricket in the UK before they returned home to set up a Pakistan women's team

Shaiza Khan (back row, third from left) and her sister Sharmeen played cricket in the UK before they returned home to set up a Pakistan women's team © Courtesy of Kiran Baluch

With newspapers running stories claiming that the religious groups were going to storm Shaiza and Sharmeen's house, their father told them they should play against a women's side instead. They agreed, but the level of hostility against them was so high that the police felt it necessary to provide them with security at their home the night before the game, and accompanied them to the stadium, where, according to Shaiza, there were 8000 police personnel on hand and no spectators were allowed in. As soon as the match ended, Shaiza and Sharmeen boarded a plane and returned to London. Their father told them to stay there "and when this country is ready for you, then you come back".

Magic carpets and exit-control lists
Several years passed, during which the country showed no sign of being ready for the Khan sisters. Benazir's first government fell after 20 months; by that point the promise of radical change had already ebbed away. Through all this the Khan sisters carried on playing cricket in England. Shaiza became the first non-British captain of the women's team at Leeds University, and she and Sharmeen played for Middlesex.

In 1993, England hosted the fifth women's World Cup. The previous year the Pakistan team under Imran Khan had lifted the men's World Cup, but there was still no Pakistan women's team. Shaiza and Sharmeen were at Lord's to watch England beat New Zealand in the 1993 final . They decided that by the time the next women's World Cup came around - in 1997 - they would be part of it.

"We loved the game so much, we wanted to be part of its history," Shaiza told the BBC in 2014. "We didn't just want to disappear, and we thought we were good enough to play for any country, so we needed a platform." If the sisters had been eligible to play for England, the history of women's cricket in Pakistan would have looked very different. But as things stood, if they wanted to be part of cricket history, it would have to be via the country that sent death threats their way the last time they tried to play there. It was also a country that had never yet been represented by a women's team in the international sporting arena.

At the time, women's cricket was an amateur sport, run by the International Women's Cricketing Council (IWCC). Shaiza was informed that in order to qualify for the next World Cup, she'd have to form a team, be recognised by the PCB, and play at least three international matches before the World Cup. In 1996, she returned to Karachi and registered the Pakistan Women's Cricket Control Association (PWCCA) as a company. It was recognised by the PCB. Then came the matter of finding a team.

"They were able to get their credentials accepted outside Pakistan. It was in Pakistan that the battle was. No one would give them a ground, no one would give them a stadium, no one would give them any kind of support except their father" Editor Afia Salam on the obstacles faced by the Khan sisters

Elsewhere in Karachi, a cricket-mad 18-year-old named Kiran Baluch had been waiting three years for a women's cricket team to form. Her chance came when Shaiza placed newspaper ads announcing trials for a Pakistan women's side. She was picked for the team right away and was quickly made the vice-captain. Three months later the Khan sisters, Baluch and the rest of the hastily assembled team were on their way to New Zealand and Australia to play three ODIs. It was a woman, Anita Ghulam Ali, then minister of sport, who provided them with the government clearance to go on the tour.

They lost every match they played, by large margins. This wouldn't have come as any surprise to the players, many of whom had barely played any cricket prior to being selected for the team.

"We needed athletic girls," Baluch told me when explaining the selection process. So little attention was given to women's sport in Pakistan that even that was setting the bar fairly high. Many of the girls they picked had played hockey; one was a javelin thrower. The gulf between them and the opposition was vast, in every way - physique, equipment, coaching. Winning had never been their purpose. Qualifying for the World Cup by playing three international matches was what Shaiza was aiming for - and what she achieved.

This time there was no trouble from the religious parties - placated by the fact the women weren't playing with men. Instead, Shaiza ran into opposition from a new quarter: other women.

Women's cricket in Pakistan didn't begin with the Khan sisters. A Pakistan Women's Cricket Association (PWCA) had been running since 1978 out of Lahore. They had never affiliated with the IWCC or been officially recognised by the PCB or played against other countries, but when Shaiza established her team they came forward to say they had been around longer and should be the ones to represent Pakistan at the international level.

Although the PCB had no official role to play in the women's game once the IWCC had accepted Shaiza's organisation as a member, it controlled access to the country's cricketing facilities - grounds, coaches, umpires, not to mention media contacts and other forms of influence - and its support was crucial.

Kiran Baluch still holds the world-record Test score of 242

Kiran Baluch still holds the world-record Test score of 242 © Courtesy of Kiran Baluch

In an interview with the journalist Peter Oborne, Majid Khan, then the PCB chief, claimed that as CEO of the PCB, he hadn't wanted to get involved in the women's game, having enough trouble at the time dealing with the men's team, in particular the growing allegations of match-fixing.

Around that time, Fareshteh Gati - one of Pakistan's two pioneering women cricket journalists - decided that the reality of match-fixing was now so indisputable that she had to fearlessly uncover it. Gati learnt first-hand how her gender could be used against her as she relentlessly pursued the story.

"They [the players she was accusing] said, 'Oh, it's because I won't sleep with her that she's doing this,'" Gati said. She had little support from the cricket establishment either. One of the only exceptions was Majid, who, in Gati's words, was "like a rock" and said that she had his backing to follow the story.

To the Khan sisters and Kiran, though, Majid was looking like a very different kind of rock - the kind that impedes progress. In response to the objections thrown up by the PWCA, he withdrew access for the PWCCA, Shaiza's organisation, to PCB facilities - including the country's best grounds.

Help arrived on a magic carpet; or, more prosaically, the revenue from a very successful carpet business. Shaiza and Sharmeen's father, Muhammad Syed Khan, made sure that the women's team would lack for nothing that his money could buy.

He broke down the walls of his family home to turn it into a dormitory for the cricketers, covered the tennis court with AstroTurf, and imported bowling machines from South Africa. He paid for everything, Baluch said - "tickets, accommodation, nets, equipment, food, drink". He also turned his factory ground into a cricket pitch, which was laid by the groundsman who had laid the pitch for Karachi's National Stadium.

The Khans were introduced to this groundsman by Hanif Mohammad, who was hugely supportive of Shaiza's team. According to Baluch, several pioneers of the men's game from the generation of the 1950s were frequent visitors to practice sessions and lent their support - including Hanif, his brother Sadiq, and Fazal Mahmood.

The Khan sisters were not like other girls. Broad-shouldered and big-boned, they moved through the world with confidence and intent, dwarfing many men around them in size and attitude

While the Khan sisters and Baluch were all from well-off families, that wasn't true of most of the players. The varied backgrounds of the cricketers was one of the things that impressed Afia Salam, who had previously been the editor of the country's best-known cricket magazine, the Cricketer. She and Gati - two of the finest cricket journalists in Pakistan - allowed girls of my generation to grow up thinking that cricket was something women could write about even if they couldn't play it.

"There were girls coming [to the cricket trials] from small little towns," Salam told me when we met in Karachi at T2F, a café and event space founded by the late Sabeen Mahmud, one of the rare Karachi girls who grew up playing cricket on the street with boys. "Their mothers, their fathers, would bring them and say, 'These girls are crazy about cricket.'"

The fact that the players lived and practised in the Khan family home made it easier for other families to entrust their young daughters to Sharmeen and Shaiza. And when the families weren't quite so supportive, players pushed back, most famously in the case of Sajjida Shah, who was only 12 when she was picked for the team.

When her parents said she couldn't go on an international tour, she went on a hunger strike until they relented. Another of the players couldn't afford a bus ticket from her home town to Lahore for a team meeting - she walked halfway to Gujranwala and then took a bus to Lahore. "We had a lot of girls like that," Baluch said. "Everyone had a different story to tell."

Salam was no less impressed by the monumental organisational skills of the Khan sisters. They didn't just manage to obtain international accreditation but also developed facilities, went all round the country recruiting players, secured extensive media coverage, brought in an Australian coach, Jodie Davis, who was sponsored by the Australian Sports Commission. And they approached Salam to ask her to edit a magazine for women's cricket. It only lasted a few issues, but the fact that the former editor of the Cricketer was now editing a magazine about the women's game was a huge step towards legitimacy.

They achieved all they did in the face of continuing opposition. Through her work on the magazine, Salam saw "what was happening in women's cricket, how difficult it was for them to navigate the space of officialdom, the acceptance. They were able to get their credentials accepted outside Pakistan; it was in Pakistan that the battle was. No one would give them a ground, no one would give them a stadium, no one would give them any kind of support, except their father and themselves."

Former captain Urooj Mumtaz (centre, holding stump) will play an important role in the future of the women's game as chief selector and member of the PCB's cricket commitee

Former captain Urooj Mumtaz (centre, holding stump) will play an important role in the future of the women's game as chief selector and member of the PCB's cricket commitee © Getty Images

As for the claims that they had no right to represent Pakistan at the national level, Salam is dismissive. No one else was organising, recruiting, training and developing the game like the Khan sisters. They achieved more in their first year of returning from England than anyone else had in the 20 years prior.

But that didn't stop the escalation of their battle against the PWCA, which was very well connected in political and social circles. Just prior to the 1997 World Cup in India, the PWCA had Shaiza's team added to the Exit Control List, a form of border control typically used by the government to prohibit people accused of serious crimes from leaving Pakistan.

This wasn't the first time the team had found its touring plans imperilled by the PWCA. Leading up to their tour of New Zealand and Australia in January 1997, the Khan sisters had been sufficiently concerned by the PWCA's attempts to block them to anticipate that there might be trouble when the team tried to board their flight. So they flew out of Karachi in smaller groups rather than all together, hiding their kit bags in cartons, and dressed in "civilian" clothes. It was only when they were all together at Melbourne airport for the final leg of the journey to Christchurch that they changed into their team uniforms.

But months later when their names appeared on the ECL, they knew that whether they travelled as a group or singly, they would be stopped at the airport on their way to the World Cup. Fortunately for them, 1997 was a world less digitised than the one in which we now live. The women's names had been added to the ECL in Lahore, but Shaiza and her advisors decided it was worth gambling on the chance that no one had alerted border control in Karachi. How fast their hearts must have been beating at the airport, with its multiple layers of access control - the check-in desks, immigration control, and two other security checks - before they were finally through to board the flight to India.

They lost every match they played in that World Cup. Again, that wasn't the point. At the opening ceremony it was announced that Pakistan had already won by being there.

For the next seven years, Shaiza continued to organise and play cricket while continuing her struggle against the PWCA and the PCB. There was litigation, political lobbying, public mudslinging and all kinds of rumours put out about the private lives of the cricketers. In between, her team finally recorded its first series win, against Netherlands, in 2001, winning the ODIs 4-3.

"If you're a single woman and doing something unconventional, you don't know that you're doing the right thing" Sana Mir

That Test match
The troubles associated with playing cricket in Pakistan as a woman ranged from legal troubles to size issues - cricket equipment was made for men or boys, not for women, so the team would bulk buy equipment from Australia where gloves and bats and shoes made for the different physique of women. In 2003, Baluch and Shaiza were in a cricket warehouse in Australia. Baluch remembers making a shortlist of bats and then asking Shaiza to pick one for her. "She took this bat and gave it to me and said, 'May you have a world record [with it]'. Me? World record? I made a joke of it."

The following year West Indies came to play a series in Pakistan - seven ODIs and, significantly, one four-day Test. Shaiza's team had previously played two Tests - both outside Pakistan - and lost both by very large margins.

Shaiza's instructions to Baluch, her vice-captain and star batsman, ahead of the Test were straightforward. "You want to bat four days. You love batting. Go ahead and do it." The two were determined to demonstrate their physical endurance, and prove wrong those who questioned the ability of women to play through four days.

On March 15, 2004, Baluch took the field with the bat Shaiza had chosen for her and opened the batting with Sajjida Shah. They batted and batted and batted. In the penultimate over of the day, Shah was out two runs shy of her century. She and Baluch had put on 241, a world record that still stands today. Baluch ended the day not out on 138.

The world record for highest individual score, held by Mithali Raj, was 214. "I was thinking about it and not thinking about it," Baluch said. The next morning, wickets began to fall at the other end. Pakistan went from 241 for 1 to 273 for 5. Then Shaiza came out to bat and put on a 95-run partnership with Baluch. "When I was in my 190s, Shaiza was there and when I got 200 she was there," Baluch said to me. "And when I broke the record she was there. When I scored 215 she was there, she took the [record-breaking] run with me."

Baluch was finally out on 242, a world record that hasn't come close to being broken since. Shaiza declared the innings at 426 for 7.

Sajjida Shah was 12 when she was picked to play for Pakistan and went on a hunger strike when her parents tried to stop her from going on an international tour

Sajjida Shah was 12 when she was picked to play for Pakistan and went on a hunger strike when her parents tried to stop her from going on an international tour © Getty Images

By the end of day two, West Indies were 72 for 5. The next morning, Shaiza took a hat-trick - only the second woman to ever achieve that feat in Tests - and West Indies were all out for 147; Shaiza had taken 7 for 59 with her legspin. West Indies were made to follow on, but in their second innings, they batted into day four. Shaiza bowled 55 overs in that innings. The next highest number of overs bowled by a team-mate was 23. "I bowled the whole day. My fingers were bleeding, but I had to do it because my other bowlers were getting tired," she told the BBC. She took six wickets to end with match figures of 13 for 226, another world record yet to be broken.

The match ended in a draw but it thumpingly answered the question "Could they play?" that might occur to anyone who sees Shaiza and Baluch's success in terms of what they achieved for the game rather than what they achieved in the game.

That series against West Indies was the last that Shaiza and Baluch played for Pakistan. In 2005, the IWCC was merged with the ICC and control of the women's game was handed over to the boards running the men's game. Wrangling and legal disputes carried on for a while between the PCB and Shaiza's PWCCA, but it must have been clear early on that the two groups simply couldn't work together. The aftertaste of it all is still bitter for Baluch, who says she can't even go to the National Stadium, where she set her world record, because it carries with it memories of how unpleasant things became with the PCB.

When I first thought of writing this article, I knew the women at the top of my list to interview were Baluch and the Khan sisters. I was wondering how I would get in touch with them, when, in December 2018, Sharmeen died of pneumonia, aged only 46. Shaiza felt unable to speak to me of the past.

The bridge
"Whatever women's cricket is today is because they [the Khan sisters] laid the groundwork for it," Urooj Mumtaz told me at her dental clinic in Karachi. Urooj is a bridge between cricket's past and its present, and a key figure in its future.

She grew up playing cricket with her father and uncle and the neighbourhood boys. In this, her story isn't very different from that of most of the professional women cricketers I spoke to - but unlike the others, Urooj didn't only play cricket on the streets. Her father was a member of a private club, the Karachi Gymkhana, and by the age of six Urooj was on the U-9 team there - the only girl.

During the dire years of General Zia, Imran Khan's sides brought light and victory and hope to the country - and the sport's popularity was widespread across genders. But while women watched cricket and even wrote about it, they were not expected to play it

"They did not like me," she says of her team-mates. Even at that young age, they didn't want to accept that a girl could play and particularly that one of them would have to sit out in order for the girl to play. "I thought, for these guys to accept [my place on the team] I have to be better than at least half of them."

From the U-9 team she progressed up through the age groups to the U-17 team, of which she was appointed captain. She was still the only girl in the side. Some of the younger players were resistant to a girl telling them what to do, but the older boys had been playing with her for some years and readily accepted her in the role. When she went on to play for Pakistan, those male team-mates took great pride in having played with her. That story echoes one that many women in Pakistan could tell you: if you have a thick enough skin and are good enough at what you do, you'll find what seemed to be intractable misogynist attitudes transform into something quite different. Sometimes.

Through all the years of playing at the Gymkhana, Urooj was only vaguely aware that there was a Pakistan women's cricket team. But one day Shaiza and Sharmeen turned up at the Gymkhana ground, looking for somewhere to stage a match. They were told to speak to the club secretary - Urooj's father. He said the club's regulations meant he couldn't offer them the ground, but he could suggest a player they might want to consider for their team. There were trials underway in Karachi not long after. Urooj went along and was picked for the 2003-04 West Indies series.

When things blew up between Shaiza and the PCB, Urooj's attitude was straightforward. Barely 19, all she wanted to do was play cricket for Pakistan. When it became clear the PCB was the official body in charge of the team, she went with them.

The following year, Pakistan hosted the Asia Cup in Karachi. The dates of the tournament coincided with Urooj's exams; she had started dental school the same year that she was picked for the Pakistan side. Her parents had always supported her as a cricketer but not at the expense of her education. Her university professor stepped in at that point. "He was amazing," Urooj recalls. "He told my parents, 'If you don't let her play cricket, I won't let her sit for the exam.' He told her the chance to take the exam would come again in a few months, but the Asia Cup was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Pakistan lost all their matches in that tournament, but after 2006, when Urooj was made captain, they started to win - not often, but enough to qualify for the 2009 World Cup, in which the top eight sides played. Urooj and the team flew into Australia for the World Cup on March 3 that year. When they arrived, everyone's phones started buzzing. While they had been thousands of miles away, in the air, the bus taking the Sri Lankan men's team to Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium had been attacked by terrorists.

Pakistan celebrate a win over Hong Kong in Lahore, 2006

Pakistan celebrate a win over Hong Kong in Lahore, 2006 © AFP/Getty Images

That moment brought with it the departure of international cricket - men's and women's - from Pakistan. Thereafter, the Pakistan team's home would be the UAE, and all the benefits that might have accrued from having an improving women's team play in front of home fans were lost. All the same, ICC requirements made it incumbent on the PCB to develop and promote women's cricket - and though at times the board's efforts have looked like lip service, the women's game has undoubtedly grown in the last decade. Most significantly, as Urooj points out, the women who make it to the national team can now earn a good living from cricket. The financial aspect, she says, has done a lot to make families more open to the idea of their daughters playing.

But expanding out from the Khan sisters' family home into more public spaces has brought with it some ugly consequences. In 2013, five women from the Multan Cricket Club appeared on TV to accuse the club chairman of sexual harassment. Four days later, the PCB convened an inquiry and summoned all five - three turned up and, under oath, didn't repeat the charges. Two of the girls stayed away, including 17-year-old Halima Rafiq. The inquiry committee recommended that the girls "should be severely reprimanded for their acts and misplaced and motivated interaction with media" and banned then from playing cricket for six months. Their report also noted "the general attitude and demeanour of the Players during the TV program and the interviews raises questions about their own mental caliber". As for the club management, they received a letter of censure and the District Cricket Association was ordered to monitor the club's activities. The report noted that the players reiterated "that they have no complaint against anybody and they have not seen anything".

Why five players should all go public with accusations of sexual harassment in a country with strong taboos against women speaking out on such matters, and then recant four days later, was not something the inquiry seemed particularly interested in discovering. Why two players didn't show up when summoned seemed similarly not a matter of concern. The following year, the club chairman filed a defamation suit of Rs 20 million (about US$127,500) against the five. A few days later, Rafiq drank a bottle of drain cleaner and died.

Urooj was among the people to whom it was clear the case had been shockingly mismanaged by the PCB. "The way we handled the situation was very, very wrong," she said. "The girl's gone. What did we do for her defence? What did we do to save so many others? Because now what happens is if - god forbid - something [similar] happens? No one's going to come and tell you because nobody stood up for the girl."

She speaks approvingly of New Zealand Cricket, which recently introduced a section about sexual harassment into its rule books, and clearly feels the PCB needs to follow suit. Urooj retired in 2010, but her most significant role in the game might only just be starting. At the end of 2018, the PCB announced the formation of a cricket committee to make recommendations to improve the state of cricket. Three of those on the committee were high-profile former male cricketers; the fourth was Urooj. Just a few months later, she was named to head the PCB women's selection committee - the first time an all-women committee has been in charge of selecting the women's side.

"You want to bat four days. You love batting. Go ahead and do it" Shaiza Khan to Kiran Baluch before her world-record Test score

Urooj's inclusion in the cricket administration is a welcome sign the PCB may finally be taking women's cricket more seriously. She is full of insight and opinion about the game, and unafraid to express views that not everyone will like. When asked what needs to be done for the women's side to be in a position to demand parity with the men, her answer was simple: "Win something big."

The first superstar
While the world of cricket was changing in Pakistan, so was the country itself, particularly with regard to gender politics. There have been great gains for women in the last decade in particular, most notably in terms of legislation and education, but with that has come reactionary, sometimes violent, blowback.

Today, the notion of women playing cricket is part of a larger struggle within Pakistan about public spaces and whether women have a right to them. At such a moment, there is great scope for a woman cricketer to play a role not just as a sportsperson but as a public figure willing to take part in larger conversations. Step forward, Sana Mir, Pakistan's first superstar female cricketer.

In 2004, Mir was a 17-year-old doodling field settings rather than studying for her chemistry exam. One day her mother showed her a magazine article about the Pakistan women's cricket team and a player named Kiran Baluch who had broken a world record. At the end of the article was an address and a call for any aspiring women cricketers to get in touch.

Two months later Mir was at Shaiza's house along with 70 or 80 other girls trying out for a place in the side. When she started to bowl, Shaiza came down to take a closer look and Baluch padded up to face her. Mir was picked for the side and almost immediately learnt of the trouble around the IWCC's merger with the ICC. Like Urooj, Mir was a 19-year-old who just wanted to play cricket. Unlike almost any other 19-year-old, she thought she should write to the president of the country, who was also the patron of the PCB, to suggest a way forward through the impasse. The president - General Musharraf - never replied, but two months later Mir was called for trials being held by the PCB, and became part of the new official Pakistan team.

She was in the team as a fast bowler who modelled her action on Waqar Younis. It was as a fast bowler that she achieved her dream, of taking the wicket of India's star batsman Mithali Raj in the first tournament she played - the Asia Cup in Karachi in 2005 - with an inswinging yorker that hit leg stump. A few months later she suffered what should have been a career-ending stress fracture. The doctor told her she had to completely remodel her bowling action, but her attempts to do so led only to disappointment.

Shaiza Khan (front row, fourth from right) was Pakistan's captain in their inaugural World Cup, in 1997 in India

Shaiza Khan (front row, fourth from right) was Pakistan's captain in their inaugural World Cup, in 1997 in India © Courtesy of Kiran Baluch

She had another set of skills to draw on, thanks to her childhood of playing in the streets of the city of Taxila, one of the world's great ancient centres of learning, with Greek and Persian and Buddhist history deep in its bones.

"When I used to play in the streets in Taxila, I would do fast bowling from morning to maghrib [the sunset prayer time]," she said. "Then we'd all go and pray and come back. There was one streetlight. The light was very dim, so we couldn't play fast bowling." They played with a big plastic ball that the batsmen could see in the fading light, and bowled spin rather than pace. The big plastic ball is the reason for her unconventional grip: she uses three fingers rather than two to hold the ball.

When the stress fracture made fast bowling impossible, the PCB still picked her to play as a batter. But Mir is a bowler, first and foremost. She switched to spin and started to take wickets. "I cried a lot when I had to give up my run-up. I used to feel very proud of following Waqar Younis' run-up, my hair flowing. I cried and complained a little bit, but then I said, 'Well, it's something I'm having success in, so I might as well continue.'"

In 2009, at 23, she took over from Urooj as captain. From that year on, Mir was consistently among the top 20 ODI bowlers. But although she consistently performed well, she increasingly found herself the target of criticism when the team failed to win. She found it isn't always easy to shut out the voices of criticism that aren't just about how a player is playing but about how a woman is living her life.

"If you're a single woman and doing something unconventional, you don't know that you're doing the right thing." She gave serious thought to quitting several times, and in 2017 when she handed over the captaincy to Bismah Maroof, she decided that she would retire in a few months - after the 2018 World T20.

But instead, she started to bowl better and take more wickets than ever before. The change, she says, was mental. "I've worked really hard on my inner self. I'm more unconditional towards the game, towards myself." Near the end of 2018, after a tour to Australia, Mir was in Malaysia, shopping, when the phone rang. It was her team-mate Javeria Khan. "She said, 'What have you done?' I said, 'What happened?'" What had happened was that the ICC had updated its list of the top-ranked ODI bowlers, and at age 32, Sana was No. 1.

"Looking at Pakistan's infrastructure it doesn't seem like the architects, designers or policy-makers know we have a 50% female population" Sana Mir

She was already high-profile, thanks in no small part to being the first woman to be included in a long-running and iconic cricket-themed ad campaign by Pepsi, known for highlighting the country's most popular players. The No. 1 ranking only increased her fame. Her 200,000 plus Twitter followers far outstrip those of any of her team-mates, but it is a mark of her character that the pinned tweet at the top of her feed never has anything to do with her own achievements.

At present, it's a tribute to her mentor, Shahbano Aliani, who died earlier in the year. For months before that it was a link to a Facebook post that started "To all young girls out there who aspire to take up sports. Make no mistake: you need strong arms, not smooth arms, on a sports field." That was the beginning of an eloquent letter protesting an ad campaign for hair-removal cream that showed a girl on a basketball court worrying about how she looked rather than how she played. In the post, Mir mentioned her own refusal over the years to endorse beauty products.

In her public pronouncements, Mir manages a rare mixture of outspokenness and diplomacy, most evident when I ask her about Imran Khan. Fifteen years ago, Shaiza told an interviewer how dismissive Imran Khan had been when she went to talk to him once about forming a women's cricket team: "He sat with his feet up on the desk and asked me why I'm bothering forming a women's team, as they will never be as good as the men's. I walked out." But times have changed, and women's cricket is an established sport - and more to the point, a Pakistani is the world's best bowler in the women's game. Perhaps the prime minster has changed his attitude.

"We have never met him," Mir says, speaking of the team rather than herself. If she's personally disappointed that she has never received a word of congratulation from Imran, she doesn't show it. Instead, as is her way, she makes the issue a broader one and talks about women's health, which she feels is given too little attention in Pakistan. Sports is a way for women to have a healthy relationship with their body. "With Imran Khan at the top, I'd love to see that kind of support from him for women in sport."

Sometimes, Mir can deliver her verdict on things with a winning wryness. On the matter of public spaces in Pakistan she says, "Looking at its infrastructure it doesn't seem like the architects, designers or policy-makers know we have a 50% female population. Gyms, parks, school grounds, mosques, common rooms are always smaller for women than men."

This matter of public spaces was one taken up when she became the face of the first ad campaign in Pakistan to back women's cricket - by Uber. In the ad, a number of young Pakistani women sit around talking about their love for cricket. A disembodied voice asks them if they play. No, they say. The streets are spaces for boys and there are no grounds where the women can play. "And if you could play cricket on any ground?" the voice says. Then a woman strides into the room and all the others stand up, awestruck. There's no need for the woman to be introduced. Everyone knows it's Sana Mir. "It's time to play freely," she says, and takes the women in an Uber to a cricket ground, where it seems to be a matter of no relevance whatsoever that a man is present to help train the girls. Change is knocking on the door, and it has a highly articulate, impressively intelligent spokesperson - who also happens to be the world's best bowler.

Women in Pakistan are no longer limited to remaining spectators in cricket, but the fight for access to public spaces continues

Women in Pakistan are no longer limited to remaining spectators in cricket, but the fight for access to public spaces continues © Associated Press

Not the only spectator
Back to that match in Dubai, with my friend Farid the only spectator. It felt dispiriting to see the team play to a near-empty ground. There were two men and one woman behind me - part of the media team responsible for live-streaming the match. They were talking about the men's cricket team. On the field, Sidra Ameen scored 50. No one seemed to notice. I remembered Mir telling me that the problem with attitudes towards women's cricket is that even the organisations that talk about promoting it treat it as part of corporate social responsibility rather than in terms of commercial potential. I contrasted the lacklustre atmosphere at the ground with the frenzy of the last women's game I had attended - the 2017 World Cup final between England and India at Lord's, where the 24,000 seats were sold out and girls and women of all ages filled the stands along with a fair number of men.

But then something shifted. Ameen kept batting, playing with ever more confidence. She reached her 90s. No one was talking about the men's game now. Every cameraman and technician was watching intently. When she got out on 96, someone behind me cried out "Sidra!" in anguish. Thereafter we were all watching, really watching, the match. Every time the ball was well struck, someone called out "Shot!" When Nida Dar reached her fifty, everyone applauded heartily. This is all it takes, I thought. Pakistanis love their cricket and these women are playing good cricket. You just need people to watch them. Why is no one watching them?

Having lost abysmally in the previous match, Pakistan won that game. Three days later I was in London, watching the series decider on the PCB's YouTube channel. It was a tense match, and by the final few overs I was more caught up than I had been in a cricket match in a long time.

West Indies are higher-ranked but Pakistan bowled them out for only 159. In the second innings, after an excellent start, Pakistan started to lose wickets with increasing frequency - 128 for 3 became 139 for 6, and the momentum had started to shift. Mir was batting with Kainat Imtiaz. After them came the tail. Any sports fan can tell you about that feeling - a certainty that arises when you know exactly what the outcome of the match hinges on, and right then the outcome relied on no more wickets falling. The commentators agreed: "These two on the screen have to make certain they take Pakistan home," said Marina Iqbal, Pakistan's first woman commentator. A few overs later, Mir hit a boundary and Pakistan won with four overs to spare.

When I wrote to Mir to congratulate her, she responded, "These girls are fighters. We have been fighting when no one was watching. I am so glad people got to see it." What was she talking about? No one had seen it, and why wasn't she nearly as aggravated as I was about it? It was only when I sat down to write this article and remembered her comment that I thought to check the viewing figures for the live broadcast on the PCB's YouTube channel. Nearly 100,000 people watched that match in Dubai for which I had been present; for the final game, the number had jumped to 240,000.

The years of being told that the team had won simply by being there were long past. At the end of the West Indies series, progress in women's cricket looked just like progress in men's cricket: victory against a stronger side.

Kamila Shamsie is a novelist who grew up in Karachi and now lives around the corner from Lord's. She's a member of the Authors XI, for whom she has a high score of 0 not out

 

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