The changing face of Pakistan cricket – on the field and TV – The Telegraph

From the top to the bottom, cricket for women in Pakistan is changing at a rapid pace
“Here people can go downright dirty in terms of commenting on what you are wearing and that kind of thing, but it has come to a point where I don’t read those comments now or if I do I laugh it off.”
Zainab Abbas has trodden the tricky path to the top of Pakistan broadcasting, becoming one of the most familiar faces in a country of 225 million, where cricket is king. She broke through a traditionally male-dominated environment eight years ago and is now a skilled, engaging broadcaster who represents the changing face of Pakistan cricket.
On England men’s tour this winter there was a real attempt to show a different side to Pakistan, including the women’s game, which has risen above conservative attitudes towards girls playing sport to offer a genuine career path for talented youngsters.
There were notably more women and young families at the Test matches on the tour, the professional women’s T20 league launches next year to run parallel to the Pakistan Super League, and the six regional associations all now have under-19 teams to nurture the next generation. Even in traditionally conservative areas of the country, there is a change; in Balochistan, more than 250 girls turned up for a regional trial recently.
One glance at the television screen, too, shows how attitudes are modernising. Abbas presents the live cricket coverage on Ten Sports and expert analysis is provided by Urooj Mumtaz, former all-rounder for the Pakistan women’s team.
Abbas worked in the clothing department at Harrods in London after studying at university in Birmingham and spent a year in marketing in Peterborough before being urged by her mother to answer an advertisement for screen tests in Lahore for the 2015 World Cup coverage.
It changed her life and led to her presenting coverage for the inaugural Pakistan Super League a year later. Now she is a permanent fixture, working on the Hundred in the UK too, and she has pushed through the glass ceiling for others to follow.
“It was an alien concept back then, having a female presenter,” she says. “Initially it was hard. There were days when I was upset. I would read a comment from someone about what I said or if I made a mistake and it would affect me, but in that situation my family played a huge role. I chose an unconventional career and they were always very encouraging and in our part of the world that makes a huge difference.
“The key thing in broadcasting is you have to develop a very thick skin. You will not survive if you
are going to get bogged down by what so and so is saying. But the more I did the job, the more I realised this is what I’m meant to do.”
But what about playing? Is there a change on the field? Walk around the old polo grounds near the team hotel in Karachi and it is all men and boys playing cricket from dawn to dusk with improvised bats and balls. Girls’ cricket is confined mainly to schools and colleges.
The Pakistan Cricket Board will launch its women’s T20 league in March, which is hoped will be a game changer. Lower down for grass roots there is Khelo Kricket, which runs tape-ball and hard-ball leagues during Ramadan in Karachi and is growing in popularity. Matches start after the fast is broken and were men-only until 2016. It started with four women’s teams but will grow to 12 next year, with plans to play in Lahore and Abbottabad, too.
“We were not sure what the response would be. We put out a flyer and advertised on social media and got 250 registrations in 24 hours,” says Hadeel Obaid, founder of Khelo Kricket.
“The idea was to create a safe space for women to play cricket in a country where a lot of people did not know women’s cricket existed. There was a backlash in the first few years. There was a lot of abuse on social media, we had to block people and tone it down. But we persevered. It took a couple of years for people to understand this is a tournament and it is not going anywhere.”
They have had success, too. Fatima Sana was discovered playing Khelo Kricket and now plays for Pakistan. She was named the International Cricket Council’s Women’s Emerging Cricketer of the Year in 2022. The women’s PSL will also show that cricket can be a career, which will help families sceptical of what sport can offer their girls.
“We are making sure this is a lifelong career for our current players, with training to be coaches, umpires and scorers,” says Tania Mallick, the PCB’s head of women’s cricket. “A lot of these girls come from humble backgrounds, but they can become the main breadwinners for their family. It is also a route to university and college [on cricket scholarships] and that is helping because there is a big disparity in providing opportunities in life for girls.”
Obaid sees attitudes shifting with every tournament. “We see more dads and brothers, people who might be barriers, more and more excited. ‘Our girl is going to play for Pakistan’ they say proudly. I don’t know whether that pride existed before. Now you see it as a real celebration and opportunity.”
England are back in Pakistan in 2024. The change should be even more noticeable then.
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