Episode 113: A story made for the movies – Pakistan women’s cricket

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Based in Mumbai, Aayush Puthran is an experienced cricket reporter and analyst, with a strong focus on women’s cricket. He has written an inspirational book, Unveiling Jazbaa, which weaves together the astonishing personal stories of the creators and players of women’s cricket in Pakistan.

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Aayush begins by explaining the Urdu word Jazbaa. It has no precise English equivalent, but conveys a cocktail of emotions and passions which generate stunning unexpected achievement. It has been regularly applied to the Pakistan men’s team: he thought that the women’s team also deserved it, to convey their determination to step out. 1-2 minutes

He outlines the early history of Pakistan women’s cricket in the 1970s, largely confined to well-connected women in élite institutions. As in India in the same era, it was much easier for women to take part in individual sports such as running or badminton or in hockey. 3-4 minutes

Aayush tells the dramatic story of the Khan sisters of Karachi, Shaiza and Sharmeen (who sadly passed away in 2021). They pioneered Pakistan’s international women’s team against entrenched opposition and often great personal risk. Daughters of a wealthy father and a cricket-crazed mother (who had postponed her wedding to watch Pakistan play the West Indies), they had discovered themselves as cricketers during their English education during the 1980s. They identified with Pakistan’s increasingly successful men’s team of that period, but had no women’s team which they and others could aspire to. They therefore decided to create one from nothing. 5-7 minutes

He explains the political background which made their ambitions and activities so dangerous. Pakistan’s then military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq had formed an alliance with deeply conservative fringe religious movements. They had promulgated the so-called Hudood Ordinances, imposing severe controls on the lives of women and girls, especially all activities outdoors, with severe punishments for alleged female transgressors of any kind.  They could play cricket and other sports only in enclosed private spaces, such as the compound at their father’s carpet factory. When Zia was killed in an air crash in 1988 and replaced by Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first female Prime Minister, the sisters thought it would be safe to organize a proper cricket match involving former men’s stars including the great Zaheer Abbas. They were mistaken. The religious ultras were still strong and the sisters faced death threats. They were forced instead to play an all-women’s match in the compound with a massive police presence, and their father demanded that they fly back to England immediately it finished. 7-10 minutes

The sisters’ ambitions were rekindled eight years later. Benazir Bhutto was in her second spell of power and Shaiza had become involved in England’s preparations for the forthcoming Womens’ World Cup. She took the steps necessary to register a Pakistan women’s cricket team with the International Women’s Cricket Council, then running women’s cricket globally and complete the qualifying process for the Women’s World Cup in 1997. 11-12 minutes She then astonished Pakistan by advertising for players all over the country. It was still unsafe for women to play cricket openly and the sisters had to shelter their recruits within the compound. Aayush profiles three of them, the record-breaking Kiran Baloch, Pakistan’s future captain, Sana Mir (a previous guest on the podcast) and Sajjida Shah – discovered in her home village at the age of 12. 13-18 minutes

Things were made worse when there was a change in management of the Pakistan Cricket Board. Two competing factions in Lahore objected to their claim to represent the country. They were banned from flying out of the country to their qualifying matches in New Zealand (a sanction normally applied to serious criminals). The players defied the ban and boarded their aeroplane individually in casual clothes. They changed into their official Pakistan clothing (of their own design) when they were out of Pakistani airspace. 12 minutes

After years of struggle, the Khan sisters’ team had their greatest moment in 2004, setting enduring records in a Test match against West Indies they might have won. But then their representative role was extinguished by the PCB in a reconstitution of women’s cricket. A key factor in this was the takeover in 2005 of the IWCC by the ICC, which some voices in women’s cricket still regret. Aayush assess the general impact of the change on women’s cricket, balancing the reduced representation and autonomy for women cricketers against the new resources which became available to them. 42-45 minutes

Aayush comments on the volatile relationships between Pakistan’s women cricketers and the country’s cricket authorities. They are much more vulnerable than the men to administrative turmoil. With far fewer resources of their own or media and commercial support, and with enduring social and cultural pressures against playing cricket at all, they depend far more on official support and access to officially-controlled pitches and facilities. 19 minutes

He describes their relationships with Pakistan’s male international cricketers, past and present. Besides Zaheer, they had support from A H Kardar, Pakistan’s first international captain and the great Hanif Mohammad. Others have been dismissive. The relationships between the present women’s and men’s teams have improved but are still somewhat formal. 24-25 minutes The recent triumph of Muneeba Ali (the first Pakistani woman to score a T20 century) had attracted little attention from the men’s team or indeed Pakistan’s media and cricketing public. He gives her background and emphasizes the selectors’ loyalty to her talent. He contrasts the experience of Pakistan’s women’s cricket with the recent take-off in support and finance for it in India. The  commercial value of the Indian women’s Premier League has already overtaken that of male T20s leagues elsewhere before it has even started playing. 26-31 minutes

Aayush suggests that in both countries it is still much easier for women in cities to play cricket than for those in rural areas. He relates the story of Saba Nazir, from a small rural town in Pakistan. For eight years she faced danger and deprivation in her secret journey to become an international cricketer. In both countries young men also face frequent pressures from their families not to attempt cricket careers, especially in rural areas. Neither country has regarded professional sport as a high-status and high-earning career, although in India this attitude is yielding in the face of the rewards of the IPL. However, Aayush suggests that young Pakistanis, especially women, still face pressures from family honour which are not experienced by young Indians. 32-38 minutes

On the basis of his general reporting of women’s cricket, Aayush reviews and reflects upon Afghan women’s cricket, which has come to a dead stop under the Taliban government. He assesses the ICC’s response to this and its difficulties in determining whether and how to sanction the country’s popular men’s cricket. 39-41 minutes

Finally, Aayush acknowledges the sensitivity of a male Indian Hindu like himself writing a book about Pakistan’s women’s cricket. Because of official restrictions it has not been released in Pakistan. His approach in the book was to restrain his voice as a narrator and even more as a commentator and to tell as much of the story as possible in direct speech from its participants. He hopes that it will inspire similar efforts and elicit more first-hand testimonies. 46-48 minutes

Unveiling Jazbaa is published by Polaris Publishing.

Sana Mir’s past appearance on the podcast can be accessed here. https://chiswickcalendar.co.uk/episode-28-talking-with-pakistan-womens-former-cricket-captain-sana-mir/

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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