By Nasser Khan
Pakistan Women recorded a historic first win against England on Friday to draw the T20 series in Loughborough. Captain Sana Mir scored an unbeaten 31 in a crucial 55-run stand with Nain Abidi and also picked up the wicket of England opener Danielle Wyatt to help her side register a tense one-run victory. The match was part of Pakistan’s ongoing two-week tour of England and Ireland.
Mir was appointed captain of the Pakistan cricket team in 2009. The leg-spinning all-rounder has played 58 One-Day Internationals (ODIs), taking 57 wickets at an average of 27.92. She has also played 32 T20Is, bagging 36 wickets at an average of 15.05 and is nearing 1,000 international runs with the bat.
Victory in the T20 match against England is another achievement for the Pakistan team which has made significant progress under the leadership of Mir. Having won a gold medal at the 2010 Asian Games, the nation’s first in eight years, and subsequently a first international T20 tournament — the quadrangular series played in Sri Lanka in 2011, Pakistan also reached sixth position in the Women’s team rankings — their highest so far.
Also an experienced domestic performer, her side Zarai Taraqiati Bank Limited (ZTBL) have not lost a game at domestic level in four years. Last year, Sana became the first female cricketer to be awarded the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s Medal of Excellence, for her services to cricket.
PakPassion.net spoke to the Pakistan captain about her side’s tour of England, leadership, and the women’s game in Pakistan.
PakPassion.net (PP): The Pakistan team have shown improvement as the tour of England has progressed. The bowling has been impressive, and the batters appear to be acclimatising.
Sana Mir (SM): A few years ago, we never even managed to get into winning positions against the top teams. With a lot of hard work, we have now improved to the point where we can get ourselves into these winning positions. We identified this as a key point in our development and set ourselves the challenge of managing the pressure situations — that was the next step we needed to take, and continue to take as we push to become a top team.
The success we’ve had has come as a result of a lot of hard work, and going forward we will continue to focus on capitalising on advantageous situations.
PP: You have spent a few days at the ECB’s [English & Wales Cricket Board] National Cricket Performance Centre here in Loughborough during the tour. Have you had the opportunity to take advantage of the facilities?
SM: The facilities in England are very advanced. As a team we always learn a lot when we come to England, from competing in matches and also by using the training facilities. And when we go back to Pakistan, we will inform the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) of the facilities that are made available to the England team. We have seen significant improvements in recent times, coordinated with the PCB and things have improved a lot. But tours like this emphasise that there is still a lot more that can be done.
Although the facilities here are outstanding and can help a side prepare and analyse their game, we are mindful that it’s very important to continue to work hard as players.
PP: How did your interest in cricket develop?
SM: As a child, I used to play cricket with my cousins on the street and at home. There were no women’s cricket clubs when I was growing up, and no girls’ teams at school. As a result, I learned to play street cricket. My association with the national set-up came when I heard there were trials being held for the Pakistan team. I went along and as a result of my performance, I was selected and have been playing ever since.
PP: It must have been a significant step, going from street cricket to a more formal cricketing environment?
SM: Yes it was. The PCB has always assigned coaches to the women’s team and I have received a lot of support from the coaching staff. We are in a fortunate position as female cricketers — if there is any financial support available for women’s sport in Pakistan, it will be given to women’s cricket. At the beginning of my involvement, despite the domestic support, Pakistan were involved in very few international matches. The number of international matches have slowly begun to increase over the last two or three years, as it was evident by this tour of England and the matches against Ireland which will commence next week. As a result of competing at the highest level, there has been a great deal of improvement with the girls.
Overall, the facilities provided to us in Pakistan are good, but of course there is always room for improvement both in the facilities and also our team performances.
PP: There has been a lot of discussion around the Pakistan women’s cricket team since the team was set-up. What challenges have you faced in your career?
SM: I’ve faced a lot of challenges. When I was young, the biggest challenge was finding people to play cricket with! There were no grass-roots girl’s cricket teams. Usually I ended up playing cricket with the boys because very few women were involved in sport, and finding a women’s teams was a big problem. The PCB used to be the only sponsor — with ZTBL starting to sponsor the women’s team two years ago, offering us contracts. Prior to that, whatever women’s cricket was played was supported by the PCB.
There are still issues around sponsorship and equipment, but things are a lot better than they used to be. The PCB has given us contracts, providing us with the opportunity to focus purely on improving ourselves as cricketers. To put it in context, there are only six or seven nations who have given their women’s team contracts. We were awarded them after we won a gold medal at the 2010 Asian Games.
PP: You’ve been captain of the Pakistan team for almost four years now, which is a long time in the context of Pakistani cricket. What is your approach to leadership?
SM: It was a wonderful feeling to be appointed captain.
The 2009 ICC [Women's] World Cup in Australia had just ended, I was Pakistan’s highest wicket-taker in that tournament and we had qualified for the Super Six stage. I’d played a good all-round role, with both bat and ball and overall the team had performed well.
Prior to my appointment as national captain, I was captain of my domestic side for two or three years and under my leadership the team had remained unbeaten for that period.
I was very happy to receive recognition for my performances. I enjoy leading Pakistan, to help the Pakistan Women’s team improve at such an important time and I will always aim to do all I can for my country.
PP: What have been your most satisfying achievements in your career to date?
SM: Victory in the Asian Games and receiving the gold medal was a wonderful moment. It was Pakistan’s first in eight years in those games and for the Women’s team to win it was a great achievement.
We broke Pakistan’s hoodoo against India in World Cups too — the Pakistan cricket team had never beaten India in a World Cup and it was the women who did it. It was the 2012 World T20 in Sri Lanka and under my captaincy.
We have also reached No 6 in the rankings, and defeated some top sides, including South Africa, who we hadn’t beaten for 15 years. We are reaching new heights — those teams we would previously consider unbeatable and we would always lose to, we’ve started defeating them.
We’ve taken some giant strides in the last few years. We now have four players in the ICC’s Top 20 rankings. As a captain, I feel very proud that my players are receiving such recognition and are ranked highly on the world stage.
PP: The profile of women’s cricket has been increasing in Pakistan and this year men were allowed inside the stadium to watch the women’s teams compete in the domestic T20 competition. How did it feel to compete in those matches?
SM: A high point for women’s cricket this year has been the live coverage of Pakistani women’s matches on national TV in Pakistan. It was a great sign and it increased awareness of the sport -after watching those matches, a lot of women who previously wouldn’t have considered playing cricket or even known that there was a women’s team, gained awareness of our efforts. People were also able to judge the standards at which we played cricket. The TV coverage was a very big step.
The stadiums in which we contested the matches were open to the public, which is a very good sign. The crowds improved as a result too!
PP: You have experienced success as captain in domestic cricket with your side ZTBL, including victory in the aforementioned T20 competition. How competitive is the domestic circuit in Pakistan?
SM: There is a lot of pressure because the whole of the Pakistan team is under my leadership, and the new players who are coming through in domestic cricket are very enthusiastic – they really want to get noticed by defeating the team which includes mostly Pakistan players.
We [ZTBL] were defending champions and we have also won the national 50-over championship for the last three years. When fresh blood comes into the team and they compete with the players who have had to make way, it gets very competitive and there is a significant amount of pressure. It’s very enjoyable to compete in those tournaments.
PP: Pakistan were confined to the Barabati Stadium due to security concerns in World Cup in India earlier this year, and described the experience as one of the toughest tours you had ever played in. How did the team feel during the tournament, and in the aftermath of the early exit from the competition?
SM: Our aim was to focus on the cricket, but unfortunately we were unable to perform well. It was tough, but the people at the Orissa Cricket Association (OCA) Academy and the OCA staff in Cuttack did everything they could to look after us.
If you compare our performances in that World Cup to those we have put in against the world number two side, England, on this tour, they are far better. Bismah [Maroof] scored a 50, we’ve posted scores in excess of 100 and have restricted the English batsmen too due to the quality of the bowling attack.
We have improved a lot since that tournament — in prior meetings with England we struggled a lot, but on this tour we are posting scores almost double of what we managed previously. We’re certainly playing a lot better.
PP: Looking to the future, how are Pakistan’s domestic stocks looking? Are there many players coming through?
SM: There are a lot of fresh new players taking up the sport and they certainly have the ability, but fitness is still a challenge. When we play against other sides in the international arena, one thing that’s noticeable is that the youngsters who come in are very fit.
We don’t focus on fitness at grass-roots level, as women do not tend to join gyms in Pakistan. Instead, we select players purely based on talent but when they play international cricket, they cannot raise their fitness quickly enough. Whichever youngsters are looking to break through, I would urge them to focus on fitness as it will help them to serve the national side far better.
PP: Thanks for your time.
(Nasser Khan is a writer for Pakpassion.net, from the above article is published with permission)