What do they know of cricket who only men’s cricket know?

Sport in the subcontinent is often a story of early player determination, individual obsession that gets things done, family support or aggressive discouragement, politics and intrigues, and enough hurdles that make sportspersons looking back wonder how they managed everything. A career is an interlude between frustration and success.

And that is in men’s sport. Womens sport has all those problems and then some.

In the foreword to Aayush Puthran’s history of Pakistan women’s cricket, Unveiling Jazbaa, the novelist Kamila Shamsie riffs on a famous question, asking, What do they know of cricket who only men’s cricket know? Stories of struggles and beating the system told here make such books valuable, even reducing the pressures on the next generation.

Women’s cricket suffers from a another subcontinental malady: lack of proper record-keeping. Puthran relied on newspapers and websites, and while working through the pandemic, on zoom calls for his interviews with her and a consistent oral history.

It is a tremendous effort, and has resulted in a book that looks at Pakistan’s society and politics and how they have affected cricket (and vice versa). Sport cannot be seen in isolation, and the book is the richer and more nuanced for this understanding.

Poverty, hunger and social exclusion were the companions of the early players, some of whom had to resort to cutting their hair to pass off as boys just to play and travel. And to keep their secret from their fathers.

Owing much to two sisters

Pakistan cricket owes much to the sisters Shaiza and Sharmeen Khan, expatriates living in London, who returned to Karachi in 1988 following Zia-ul-Haq’s death. Under Benazir Bhutto, there was hope. The sisters had cricket in their DNA — their mother had postponed her wedding to watch the West Indies play in 1959! The Karachi Ladies Cricket Club was formed in 1988, and came up against death threats from the far right when they decided to play against a veteran men’s team that included Zaheer Abbas.

Shazia negotiated with this group, and agreed that the team would play only against other women. Both teams stayed at Shazia’s house, no spectators were allowed in the stadium (there were 8000 policemen, though). It was slow going.

The Pakistan Women’s Cricket Control Association was formed in 1996, but to play in the World Cup Pakistan needed to play three internationals. Selection trials were organised, a team was picked, and under the shadow of a travel ban, they left for New Zealand and Australia. Their kit was packed in cartons, and players kept a low profile in case everything came unstuck at the airport.

Soon enough – another subcontinental commonplace – two and three organizations claimed to be the official governing body. And so the show went on.

Pakistan won the Asian Games title in 2010 and again in 2014, and the social impact was positive, says Puthran, but even as recently as 2021, their star Nida Dar “was mocked on national television for having strong hands by the international Abdul Razzaq who said, ‘If you shake hands with her it feels as if you are shaking hands with a man’”. There was too much a sexual harassment case in 2014 which led to a suicide. During the 2018 World T20, Pakistani players skipped meals to save money.

Progressive measures

Yet, as Pakistan cricket and society struggled to come out of the dark, there were progressive measures that set them apart even from India, who had a better organized system. In 2021, the Pakistan Cricket Board put in place a parental pregnancy policy, offering women cricketers paid leave and also the option to transfer to a non-playing role until commencement of their maternity leave and leading up to the birth of the child.

“While our stories are about strong women, they’re also about strong men,” superstar Sana Mir tells the author, “My father had to have a big heart to send me into a system where he knew I wouldn’t be given proper food, where he knew I wouldn’t be given a proper bed to sleep.”

The book considers the good and the bad, the indifferent and the highs, and decides that jazbaa (passion) triumphs in the end, and that’s what matters. Not all books on cricket are necessary. This one is.

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