Sana Mir led the Pakistan women's team to gold medal victory in the Incheon Asian Games 2014 © Getty Images
Sana Mir led the Pakistan women’s team to gold medal victory in the Incheon Asian Games 2014 © Getty Images

By Amir Husain

Sana Mir’s rise to the top in Pakistan’s women cricket circuit was meteoric, though not entirely unexpected. Appointed captain of the national women’s team just four years after her first international game, she repaid the management’s confidence in her ability with a Gold Medal in the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou the following year, one of two the team has won under her, the other coming earlier this year in Incheon. In 2011, she led ZTBL to victory in the national championship in Pakistan, her fourth successive win in the tournament as captain, to become the most successful captain in the Pakistan women’s domestic circuit.

Her skills on the field extend far beyond leadership though. A bowling average of 23.8 in 70 ODIs and 20.7 in 52 T20Is is testament to both an incredible amount of skill and the hunger to consistently perform at the highest level for her team, earning her the honor of being the only Pakistani to be in the top 10 and one of only two in the top 20 of the ICC Women’s ODI rankings for bowlers. None of this went unnoticed as Mir became the first Pakistani female cricketer to win the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, a national honor, in 2012 followed by a PCB Woman cricketer of the Year Award in 2013.

After leading the team in a triumphant campaign in the Asian Games in South Korea that concluded a few weeks back, 28 year old Mir sat down with PakPassion.net for an exclusive interview and spoke about the successful 2014 Asian Games Gold Medal campaign, provided her insight into the development of the women’s game and the support that the women’s team has received over the years from the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and the perceptions that the team has changed around the world.

Excerpts from an interview:

PakPassion.net (PP): Talk us through the 2014 Asian Games Gold Medal campaign. How difficult was it? Did you have any self doubts along the way?

Sana Mir (SM): We knew it wouldn’t be easy for us but we were ready for a tough fight. As it turned out, more than the opposition, it was the weather which was the toughest challenge for us! Two of our three games were rain affected and caused both matches to be shortened. The game against Thailand was reduced to just 14 overs whilst the final against Bangladesh was shortened to 7 overs. In that game, we finished our batting with the rain falling during that time. The outfield was wet when it was time for Bangladesh to bat, the D/L method was applied and they only had to chase 40 runs in 7 overs which made life very difficult for us.

We had very good preparation for the Asian Games. We went to Australia before the Asian Games and played the world champions there. We had a camp in the Pakistan Military Academy before going to Australia. We had prepared well and that was, I think, the reason we were able to pull off the win, despite the uncertainty caused by the weather.

PP: How did you find the reaction to your victory? How did your friends and family react to this achievement?

SM: It really has been a wonderful experience because winning the Gold Medal was really important to us. As you know, we were the holders of the Asian title due to our victory in 2010 and we really wanted to defend the title. In that sense, this victory has been very satisfying for all of us.

One must also remember that this title is something that really gave women cricketers recognition back in 2010 when we won the Gold Medal. Ordinary people started knowing about women’s cricket and everyone started “owning” the women’s team as a nation should. So this is something that we knew was going to be very important for the development and promotion of women’s cricket in Pakistan. Everyone knows that sports play a really important role in nation building and we really want sports, especially cricket, to go to the grassroots level and we want every kid to want to play sports, so in this way the victory sent the right message to the people and we are really proud of that achievement.

Of course, the reaction of all the family members and friends was also priceless. They were very happy and excited for us winning the Gold Medal and they celebrated as if they had won the medal themselves!

Personally speaking, ever since we’ve won the medal, I think I feel much better because a couple of months before that, it was always on my mind and causing me a lot of tension. Every night leading up to this event, I would go to sleep worried about the responsibility that was on my shoulders but now I feel relaxed.

Although it’s a great feeling to have won this honour, but we also know that we simply cannot just sit and relax, we must start preparing for the next tournament or series but one has to admit that the feeling is quite good that we are able to hold this title for another four years.

PP: As the captain of a Gold Medal winning team, how would you describe the pressure on yourself? Has the weight of expectations increased after this performance?

SM: The pressure simply comes from the pressure of expectation that people place on us. Ever since women’s cricket has become prominent in Pakistan, people just want us to win which is understandable as everyone wants their country to win and excel in sport. The fact is that we definitely have many difficulties at the national level where we don’t have as many facilities as other teams around the world and on top of that, we don’t have international cricket in Pakistan which is a big obstacle to developing players.

There is an extra burden on me as captain as apart from playing and performing for myself, I also need to look at discovering new players as well. This is a problem as we don’t have a lot of women playing and at the same time, we have to develop the game of the current group of players. As you will recall that before the 2014 ICC Women’s World Twenty20, we went to Doha for a tournament where we won the T20s and were runner up in the ODIs but then the World Cup campaign didn’t go as well. So, the pressure on me when we’re not winning is simply too much. I also have to keep the girls motivated because not many people understand the difficulties we’ve faced during our development as cricketers.

As I said before, people just want us to win and we’ve done it against the odds in 2010 and we knew that we could do it 2014 as well. But please remember that unlike the men’s game, teams like Bangladesh cannot be taken lightly. They have had a lot more international exposure compared to Pakistan women and they also have international cricket at home which makes a huge difference. They’ve both had World Cups in their countries which gives a lot exposure to women’s cricket in those countries. That was something we had to contend with and I’m very glad we were able to do come back home with a Gold Medal.

PP: The Asian Games Gold medal is obviously a great morale booster for the nation but what does it mean for the team in terms of future games and tournaments? 

SM: Yes, of course as we all know – winning is a very good habit. It’s important that you keep winning and it really builds up the confidence of the individuals and the team. However, sometimes, just performing well is good enough to be a morale booster in itself. If you look at our tour to Australia, even though we didn’t win any games, we still played really good cricket. So yes, we were lacking a big win before the Asian Games but we did really well and won the Gold Medal which was quite encouraging and helpful for the confidence of the girls. When you win, you enjoy working hard even more in the next game. I expect the girls to work harder than ever before now because we’ve been rewarded for the hard work we’ve put in over the last 3 to 4 years so it’s important that we build on it and keep up with that.

PP: If we compare the men’s game with the women’s game, there’s not as much pressure if you win or lose but there will come a point soon, where people will expect the women’s team to win every game as well. Do you think you’re prepared for that pressure?

SM: I think we’ve been facing that pressure for the last 3 to 4 years from the general public and the media who sometimes don’t understand the dynamics, they just want us to win. After the 2010 gold medal, people just want us to win. They want us to go on and win the World Cups and go and beat the likes of Australia and England. In a way, I feel really good that they have high expectations of us as that will make us work harder to achieve these goals.

However, let us also not forget that teams like Australia, England, New Zealand and India are well established teams with good infrastructure to back them up. We started quite late in our development of women’s cricket. Although, we’ve been able to lessen the gap between the top teams and us, but the pressure has definitely been on us and it showed in our victory photographs at the end of the medal ceremonies in Incheon.

For those who compare us to the men’s team, let me say as I have said before, the Bangladesh women’s team for example is not as weak as the men’s team. In the women’s game, there is not that much of a gap between the capabilities of Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh teams. Bangladesh have recently defeated Sri Lanka in their last 3-4 encounters so there are a lot of differences between the women’s teams and the men’s teams. There’s a lot of chances of upsets in women’s cricket because all the teams are quite similar. This is something we need to understand. This is something you need to know when you’re following women’s cricket as it’s not that well covered on television or electronic media, to understand why it’s not that simple or straightforward to beat a team like Bangladesh.

PP: In terms of exposure, you said the matches are not televised which is a concern and effects the popularity of the game. What’s the sponsorship situation like? Are the sponsors lining up after this Asian Games victory or do you feel that there’s a long way to go?

SM: I’d say there’s a long way to go. The thing that bothers me is that since we don’t get any television coverage, our players are not well known to the general public or to potential sponsors. Most of the people know me because after the wins or losses, I’m the one doing the interviews on television! However, we have six people in the top 20 ICC rankings in our team so I would expect the sponsors to come forward and support the players without whom, the team wouldn’t be where it is today. Personally, I’ve been offered some good sponsorship deals and I’m doing OK with the sponsors but the rest of the team, especially the top 6 who have been in the ICC rankings for a few years, need to be recognized now.

PP: It appears that the PCB is a target of criticism almost 24/7. How well do you think they have done as far as women’s cricket is concerned?

SM: The PCB has played a tremendous role in the evolution and development of women’s cricket in Pakistan. They continue to provide us with a lot of facilities and support that we needed. We have a number of women’s tournaments being organized for the last 3-4 years now and the standard of these competitions is improving every year. Some of the competitions such as the T20 tournament is always televised – and even the under 19 finals are televised.

Although this may not be PCB’s domain, I would still emphasize that the profile of all players in the team needs to be raised. We need players who the general public can look upto and recognize. We have won, not once but twice, the Asian Gold Medal for Pakistan and we need to recognize and project these players so the world can see a softer image of Pakistan.

PP: Since your debut for Pakistan, do you feel that women’s cricket has come a long way?

SM: Yes, definitely, it has come a long way. When I started in 2005, people would ask me why I’m doing this, it’s not a women’s game but now when I talk to people they say ‘we are so proud of the team. We want our daughters to be a part of this team. They ask how can they become a part of this team so the mentality and perception has changed.

Initially, 500-600 girls would attend trials for Pakistan but it’s more than that for one city now. In particular, Karachi and Lahore, the bigger cities, draw 600-700 girls who want to play for their region. People want their children to participate in sports, especially girls so I think this has had a big impact. Three years ago, I was the only one in the ICC top 20, now we have six girls there. Everything is improving and it’s a really good time for Pakistan women’s cricket.

PP : There is a conservative image of women in some parts of Pakistan. Do you think that’s going to break down now because of what you’ve done, especially after winning the Asian Games Gold Medal for the second time? 

SM: Yes, I think we’ve been doing that for some time now. Wherever we go, whichever countries we tour we get positive feedback. This is especially true with the Pakistani communities around the world. They are quite happy because they feel that pressure about Pakistan’s conservative image when they are living outside Pakistan. In a way we show to the world what Pakistan is all about. I think this women’s team has has been able to change perceptions of Pakistan and shown that Pakistan is a moderate country.

All Pakistanis want is to move forward – they want education, they want women to succeed in all fields which is a beautiful message that we take with us wherever we end up going so we are really happy and honored that we have been able to do that.

PP: Similar to Pakistan men’s team, is the women’s team also receiving guidance and support from former greats as well as current high profile players?

SM: This has been the case for a while. Javed Miandad has come a lot of times to help out. Basit Ali was our consultant in one of the tournaments. Then we had other Test cricketers coming over – Haroon Rashid has come over a few times, Ijaz Ahmad and Aamir Sohail have also helped – so when they’re available and when we’re in the NCA, they definitely do come and help us out.

I’d also like to make a special mention of my coach, Mohtashim Rasheed who may not be an ex Test cricketer but the way he supports the team and the way he has worked with the team has been really special for us and it has been really fruitful for the women’s team. Definitely these things really help us and the coaching has been quite good. We have plenty of Test cricketers, who come by and share their experience with us. These are players like Younis Khan, Shahid Afridi, Saeed Ajmal and Misbah ul Haq. We generally have good interactions with them.

PP: What do you see as the future of the women’s game in Pakistan? How do you look to your own future and what would you like to do next?

SM: As a team, I’d say the future is really bright. We have youngsters coming in, like Maham Tariq from Karachi, a fast bowler who can be a leading fast bowler for Pakistan. We have Sidra Nawaz, a wicketkeeper, who is a really good find for us. So, the young talent is coming through and provided they can say fit, I would say that we have a very bright prospects.

As far as my own future is concerned, I never plan more than 5-6 months ahead. My plan for now would be to get the most out of the two tournaments we’re playing in Doha in January and March. Then we have the 2016-17 World Cup coming up so these (Doha) tournaments will set a good tone for the World Cup so it’s very important we do well in them. We need to also give chances to youngsters and senior players in a balanced way so we can build a good team for the 2016-17 World Cup. For myself, I’d just take it day by day and see what’s in store for me.

(Amir Husain is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net. The above article is reproduced with permission from pakpassion.net)