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Book Review

‘Unveiling Jazbaa’ captures the undying spirit of Pakistan women’s cricket

Published : Jan 11, 2023 16:59 IST

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‘Unveiling Jazbaa’ captures the undying spirit of Pakistan women’s cricket

This excellent chronicle by Aayush Puthran goes beyond sport to shine a light on society and politics.

A great book about sport, they say, is never just about sport.

When it comes to literature on cricket, three works immediately spring to mind. In the magnificent Pundits from Pakistan, Rahul Bhattacharya combined cricket reportage with memoir and travelogue in a scintillating account of India’s historic 2004 tour of Pakistan which won “not just games but even hearts” (to quote former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee). Simon Lister’s Fire in Babylon told the story of how a bunch of talented cricketers from the West Indies became the world’s most-feared cricketing side and forged a single identity out of a group of island nations.

Unveiling Jazbaa: A History of Pakistan Women’s Cricket
By Aayush Puthran
Westland Sport
Pages: 288
Price: Rs.599

And speaking of the Caribbean, it would be remiss if one were to not mention C.L.R. James’ seminal Beyond a Boundary. Part boyhood memoir and part critique of colonialism, it asked a famous question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”, which underlines why a sport cannot be understood in isolation without comprehending issues of social as well as cultural context.

That rhetorical question gets a gendered twist in cricket journalist Aayush Puthran’s Unveiling Jazbaa: A History of Pakistan Women’s Cricket, where, in the foreword by Pakistani-British writer Kamila Shamsie, it is posed: What do they know of cricket who only men’s cricket know?

Early days

The book opens in the Pakistan of the 1980s, the first half of the decade having been arguably the worst period to be a woman in that country. Even as the dictatorial regime of President Zia-ul-Haq seemed to hold complete sway in an increasingly “shariarised” society, defiance began to permeate the air—the most notable instance being singer Iqbal Bano’s rendition of the Faiz Ahmed Faiz poem “Hum Dekhenge” inside a packed Lahore auditorium in 1986, wearing a black sari which was deemed “un-Islamic” by the establishment.

Zia’s sudden death in a plane crash in 1988 and the subsequent rise to power of the charismatic Benazir Bhutto brought with it the possibility of change. That very year, two sisters, Shaiza and Sharmeen Khan, daughters of a self-made millionaire, returned from England to their hometown of Karachi with dreams of forming a cricket team. More than anything, Benazir’s election victory had infused them with the belief that if a woman was fit to run the country, then she could play cricket as well.

Shaiza Khan (left), captain of the Pakistan women’s cricket team, greeting Denmark skipper Janni Jonsson in Bangalore during the 1997 World Cup.
Shaiza Khan (left), captain of the Pakistan women’s cricket team, greeting Denmark skipper Janni Jonsson in Bangalore during the 1997 World Cup. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The sisters went on to establish a parallel body in the Pakistan Women’s Cricket Control Association (PWCCA) in 1996, which says much about the somnambulant existence of the Pakistan Women’s Cricket Association (PWCA) since 1977. Death threats, opposition from religious groups, bureaucratic and logistical obstacles, bearing the financial burden of the entire team: nothing fazed the duo as they managed to cobble together a Pakistan team just in time to arrive for the 1997 World Cup in India.

Milestones

Even though wins were hard to come by in those early years, the team continued to make a splash every now and then. One significant milestone came in 2004 when Kiran Baluch scored 242 in a Test match at Karachi against the West Indies—a record which stands even today (surpassing the 214 scored by India’s Mithali Raj in 2002). Performances like these inspired more and more young women to turn up for training camps across the country.

Meanwhile, the merger of the International Women’s Cricket Council with the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2005 meant a similar change was on the cards in Pakistan as well. The Pakistan Cricket Board’s (PCB) efforts to streamline women’s cricket saw Shaiza, who had at one point raised sponsorship for the team by meeting sales targets in her father’s company, eventually falling out of the establishment and never playing for Pakistan again.

The PCB was successful in pushing the game beyond the traditional powerhouses of Lahore, Karachi, and Rawalpindi, establishing a structure to nurture talent at the grassroots level. The domestic tournaments helped bring forth the core of the national team for years to come, one of whom was a young, dynamic all-rounder named Sana Mir.

Sana, who took over the reins of leadership when she was only 24, proved to be a natural leader. The daughter of an Army officer, her exposure to different cultures growing up meant she could relate to other players from diverse backgrounds. It was under her captaincy that Pakistan began to focus on the shorter T20 format, having realised it afforded them a chance of beating better sides.

Pakistan women’s cricket received a much-needed boost in 2010 when the team under Sana Mir won the gold medal at the Guangzhou Asian Games, beating Bangladesh in the final (they repeated the feat against the same opposition at the 2014 Incheon Games). Given it came on the back of the 2009 terror attack on the visiting Sri Lankan men’s cricket team bus in Lahore and the 2010 spot-fixing scandal, the then President Asif Ali Zardari called the victory “a gift to the nation riding on a series of crises”. Sana’s stint at the helm lasted for a decade but history repeated itself in her case as well.

With Pakistan’s polity used to undergoing a churn at regular intervals, the internal turmoil was often mirrored in the administration of the nation’s favourite sport. Having taken over as skipper when the Zardari-led Pakistan Peoples Party had captured power in 2008, Sana survived the change of guard in the political milieu in 2013—Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) won the general election—mostly due to a strong support system in coach Mohtashim Rashid and administrator Bushra Aitzaz.

But in the run-up to cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf capturing power in 2018, both Mohtashim and Bushra were eased out, leaving Sana with few friends in the establishment. A lacklustre showing in the 2017 one-day international (ODI) World Cup meant her days as skipper were numbered, and it remains a matter of contention even today whether she was relieved of her duties or sacked. Although she proved a point to her detractors thereafter by becoming the number one ODI bowler in the 2018 ICC rankings, she was eventually dropped from the national team, following which she retired. The book ends with a brief section on the team results in the post-Sana Mir era.

Details and anecdotes

First up, Aayush Puthran must be commended for the great amount of detail he packs into the narrative. At its heart, the book remains the tale of the ups and downs that Pakistan women’s cricket has undergone in the past two and a half decades. Even though the bits about individual performances and match results—and there are quite a lot of them—might begin to fade (if not overwhelm the reader) after the initial few chapters, Puthran ensures that the human stories are never relegated to the background.

Sana Mir addressing mediapersons in Chennai during the ICC T20 World Cup in 2016.
Sana Mir addressing mediapersons in Chennai during the ICC T20 World Cup in 2016. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

As expected, Shaiza Khan and Sana Mir emerge as the protagonists of this story and the author highlights their contributions through interesting anecdotes. In the chapter aptly titled “In Times of Jugaad” we see Shaiza Khan, who was already handling the dual responsibility of captain as well as administrator at the PWCCA, also working in her father’s company because she had realised the only way of getting sponsorship for the national team was by meeting her sales targets.

Writing about why Sana’s leadership was critical for younger players in the national set-up to secure their futures beyond cricket, the author mentions how she doubled up as a personal tutor to many (including her successor Bismah Maroof) by helping them prepare for their university exams. In an era where there was no concept of sports teams having a therapist, she was often their confidante, which made her something of a guardian figure both on and off the pitch.

But Puthran implicitly appears to acknowledge that for all their achievements, both Shaiza and Sana were products of privilege and that ensures his book never revolves primarily around them by focussing on other stories, such as the account of Saba Nazir (in the Introduction), who commits a “crime greater than murder” by cutting her hair and cycling more than 25 km to train; of Nida Dar, who initially assumed a different name to avoid the attention of her brother and went on to play a stellar role in Pakistan winning the 2010 Asian Games gold; or that of Nahida Khan, who became Pakistan’s first international cricketer to emerge from war-ravaged Balochistan.

Capturing the jazbaa

These are the kind of personal stories that capture the jazbaa (spirit) it takes to overcome everything that life throws in their path—mocking comments from male cricketers, the pressures of marriage and motherhood, lack of familial support systems—in order to play the sport they love. Things that men’s cricket can never fully know, let alone understand.

One of the more beautiful chapters of the book (“Izzat, on trial”) deftly brings out what, to misquote C.L.R. James, only those in women’s cricket know: playing for the national team in cricket-crazy Pakistan is considered the ultimate form of izzat (honour) but when a woman aspires to do so, she is said to have subjected her family to beizzati (dishonour). But as it turned out, the two Asian Games gold medals changed the lives of many woman cricketers for the better, turning the sport into a ticket for upward mobility.

Towards the end, Puthran writes: “For decades, politics has acted on society, and society on cricket. Now, there is hope that cricket will start acting on society. At least there are signs of a start.” Unveiling Jazbaa is a fitting tribute to the indefatigable spirit and determination which make that hope seem attainable. A hope that is no longer a pipe dream, when you think about it, because two sisters decided it would not be one.

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