Women come in to bat for cricket-crazy Pakistan

Published: Friday, September 23, 2005, 23:53 [IST]
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Lahore:In the remote corners of Pakistan where Kanta Jalil and Armana Khan grew up, girls were rarely allowed to go out in public, let alone to wield a cricket bat and throw a ball.

Yet the pair defied local customs and religion and are part of Pakistan's new women's national cricket team, who take on India in the first series of its kind between the great sporting rivals starting next week.

"I never faced resistance at home because I used to play along with my father and brothers, but I never thought I'd come this far," said Kanta, 24, a right-arm medium fast bowler from Abbotabad, in North West Frontier Province.

Only recently did the the hardline Islamic government in the same province, which borders Afghanistan, lift a ban on male sports coaches training women.

Meanwhile, 23-year-old Armana is from Chaghi, a town in the conservative southwestern province of Baluchistan, which is more famous for being near the site of Pakistan's first atom bomb test.

"In an era when tolerance and equality are promoted in all sports, cricket give us girls a way to live freely," said Armana, a wicket-keeper batsman who admires former Pakistan great Wasim Bari and Australian Adam Gilchrist.

India's under-21 team, which on Monday becomes the first-ever Indian womens' team of any sport to cross the border, will play four matches -- on September 28 and 29, and October 1 and 2 -- in the eastern city of Lahore.

The tour is seen as a big step forward for women's rights in this largely conservative Islamic republic. It is also considered a boost for female cricket in general on the subcontinent, where the game is an almost universal passion.

Pakistan staged its first women's football match in September 2004, while a national cricket championship and an international squash tournament were also held for women earlier this year.

However, Pakistan's female cricketers still face the threat of protests or worse from religious zealots, and cricketing authorities have taken steps to prevent trouble.

They have also learnt from the example of a mixed marathon race which met with serious opposition in Lahore in April, leaving a number of people injured when hardliners clashed with police.

"We follow a strict dress code of shalwar (baggy trousers) and long shirts, and male spectators are not allowed to watch our matches, so I don't see there should be any problems," said Shamsa Hashmi, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) women's wing secretary and captain of the Pakistan team.

Opening batswoman Sana Javed, who hails from a small town on the plains of Punjab province, said the baggy clothes were no hindrance.

"We are used to them now and can run as fast anyone," said Sana, whose club cricketer father taught her to bat.

The first moves to introduce cricket to Pakistani women were made by sisters Shaiza and Sharmeen Khan in 1996, but they came at the cost of death threats and court cases.

The siblings were denied permission to play against India by then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif's government in 1997, which ruled that women were forbidden from playing any sports in public.

It was only when the PCB took charge of women's cricket last year that the female game here picked up.

"Women's cricket has come a long way. We owe this progress to the PCB and the Pakistan government," said coach Shahnaz Suhail, who added that her girls were overjoyed about playing India.

And the anticipation is shared by their opponents. "Our girls are really excited about the tour," said Indian team manager Anjali Pendharkar.

Pakistan and India have revived a host of fixtures at all levels in the past two years after sporting links were cut in 2002 because of tensions between their governments, leading to a growing sense of rapprochement.

"There is a lot of curiosity regarding Pakistan and the culture there," said Pendharkar. "They are keen to see how things are in their neighbouring country."

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