It’s been over two decades since women’s cricket was formally introduced in Pakistan and its women have come a long way. But even today, there exists a lack of visibility of the women in green.
As an 11-year-old in 2013, Fatima Sana's life in Karachi stood at odds with many girls of her age as she spent her afternoons ceaselessly playing cricket on the streets. She was the only girl playing with the boys – they were taller, sometimes faster, and bigger than her.
Little did Sana know that the streets of her neighbourhood would transform her future, as she set her pace playing cricket, the most celebrated sport of the subcontinent.
“I started on the streets. I would play with my brothers and his friends. Everyone knew me around my neighbourhood since I was the only girl playing with many boys,” she told TRT World.
Sana, now 20, is hailed as a rising star and is currently part of the Pakistan Women’s Cricket team.
In July 2021, she was nominated under the Women’s Player of the Month category by the International Cricket Council (ICC).
But Sana navigated several roadblocks to her success.
In a conservative neighbourhood, where gender segregation is seen as a sign of piety, Sana first encountered awkward stares, with many of her relatives and neighbours questioning how a girl can play the sport with boys.
“Women have always faced discrimination in cricket, mainly from angry men who feel that cricket is ‘their domain’ and feel defensive when women prove themselves to be very capable cricketers,” says Dr. Rafaelle Nicholson, a sports and gender researcher and lecturer at Bournemouth University.
Conflicts related to Sana’s gender affected her game, too: Boys did not let her bat, some withdrew from the game if she was involved.
“There were so many occasions when boys would just not agree to play in the team because I was playing as well. But then my brothers would step up and defend me”.
“Since I was hardly allowed to bat because of being a girl, I had to run faster and perform twice while bowling because I was so tiny compared to them."
Despite the masculine appeal of the sport, Sana said she’s lucky to have a family that supported her from the very start of her journey.
Development throughout years
Although women’s cricket has been played since the mid-eighteenth century– with the first match taking place between the villages of Bramley and Hambledon, Surrey, South East England– it wasn’t until 1958 that the International Women’s Cricket Council was formed.
1973 is an inaugural year for the first Women’s Cricket World Cup taking place in England, paving the way for women’s cricket to emerge globally.
In Pakistan, women’s cricket dates back to the 1970s, but its international emergence was pioneered in the mid-90s by Sharmeen Khan and Shaiza Khan, also known as the “Khan sisters”. By securing the International Women’s Cricket Council membership for Pakistan in September of 1996, the sisters made women cricketers eligible to enter the 1997 World Cup, held in India.
Two decades on, women’s cricket in Pakistan continues to face difficulties fuelled by systemic gender discrimination and institutional apathy. Much of the energy and resources of the national cricket board is devoted to developing Pakistan's male cricket team, while their female counterparts are left in the lurch.
“Many people, even today, have not accepted that women can professionally play a sport in Pakistan,” explained Faizan Lakhani, a sports correspondent for Geo News.
Marina Iqbal, a former cricketer and currently the first Pakistani female commentator for the ICC herself “had no idea that Pakistan had a women’s team” in her teenage years.
Even Sana remained oblivious to this detail.
“Getting introduced to women's cricket was an accident. One day, I saw two girls in my neighbourhood passing by, holding a bat. After inquiry, my brothers found out that there’s a women’s cricket team in Karachi and took me to its coach.”
Later, Sana was scouted to play an inter-zone competition within Karachi. After years of grit and hard work, she was selected as a national player in 2018.
Women’s cricket in Pakistan is still under development and growing. For the longest time, “women's cricket was running, because it had to be run”, said Urooj Mumtaz, chairperson of the Women’s National Selection Committee for the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB).
“Generally, [women] teams like England and Australia are miles ahead of the rest of the world in terms of how well developed their domestic structures are,” says Nicholson
“This is partly because English and Australian women have been playing the sport for longer than any other countries. If you look at Pakistan for example, they have only had a national women's side since 1997, so the progress that has been made since then is extraordinary,” she adds.
In 2020, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) allocated 5.5 percent of its budget to women's cricket and 19.3 percent to men's international cricket.
Even when it comes to wages, women cricketers earn far less than male cricketers. “The numbers aren’t clear, but if a male cricketer earns a million rupees per month, a female cricketer would earn 200,000 rupees,” said Lakhani.
Although disparity exists, the PCB is making efforts in providing a proper structure to promote women's cricket.
This year, it introduced a parental support policy, allowing women cricketers to get 12 months of paid leave, and men to get up to 30 days of leave. Also, the chairman of PCB, Ramiz Raja, proposed a possibility of organizing a women’s Pakistan Super League (PSL) in the future.
“Primary change that has happened is that women's cricket now can be called almost a professional sport because the women can make a living off the sport. Finances have come in, there were no contracts before, the girls fly business class, and the quality of accommodation has increased. We are going through the development of the sport, which also came on hold due to Covid-19,” Mumtaz told TRT World.
Lack of visibility
With efforts towards development to boost women's cricket, there still exists a lack of visibility to promote women in green.
“Women's cricket gets fewer sponsors than their counterparts. Regarding equipment, many players buy equipment with their own money,” Mumtaz told TRT World.
“[There is a lack of] public hype and interaction, even though women cricketers have so many interesting stories to share, there is a lack of attention towards them,” said Iqbal.
In November this year, Pakistanis rallied around their men’s national cricket team amid their great success in the T20 World Cup tournament. But many in the general public remained unaware that during the same period, the West Indies women’s team travelled to the country to play a series of one-day internationals with Pakistan.
“We need to value our product and lift its brand value. People, even today, may not be aware of women’s cricket. And even though improvement has been done, I don’t know if many people were aware that West Indies women’s cricket was here to play with Pakistan women’s team,” said Mumtaz.
For Sana, the media needs to be more involved when it comes to increasing the visibility of women's cricket. She says that the whereabouts of women's cricket should be highlighted, live matches need to be broadcast.
“All these factors spark interest in women to play and then to participate. This is what pushes women to pursue the sport professionally in the long run,” she said.