Saira Jabeen has covered a lot of ground, both literally and figuratively, in her struggle to be a cricketer
As a young boy, I remember seeing some Pakistani films in which a girl would dress up like boys and earn for the family. Then one day while working, her cap falls down, the hero, who works with her, sees the long hair and discovers her gender, the girl paints a sad story as to how she is compelled to dress up like a boy, earn money for her parents and requests him to keep this a secret.
Saira Jabeen from Kalash valley is one such girl. As a child she fell in love with cricket. This real life Tom Boy would dress up like boys to hide her gender and play for her village cricket team. Interestingly she had all the support of her siblings and parents.
It was a wonderful experience to meet this amazing girl, who just for love of cricket travelled from Kalash valley to Chitral, Peshawar and finally Lahore, defying all odds, pursuing a childhood dream to play for Pakistan.
Sara comes from Bamboor, a small village in Kalash valley. She is the youngest of the siblings and darling of the family.
Her father Engineer Khan, a teacher, enjoys the privilege of being the first person from the valley to get a master’s degree. The whole family has a liking for cricket, thanks to cable network.
Saira gave a big smile telling me that her mother has been a great support; she is very fond of watching cricket and never misses an India-Pakistan match.
The village has four teams, playing tape- ball cricket in the only ground. Saira joined a team when not even ten; her three brothers were already playing in this team. The villagers would turn up and cheer the teams. The elderly were not much familiar with rules of the game, but enjoyed the excitement and running around of players.
Saira recalls with a playful smile that usually after the match the opponents would notice that she was a girl; they would look at her in disbelief as to how she could hit sixes and bowl well too. She is full of praise for the village boys who never made her feel uncomfortable, rather encouraged her.
The village had then only one middle level school. Saira, looking for more cricket opportunities, moved to study in Chitral; this was a five years stay, during which she completed her matric and later intermediate.
In Chitral female cricket was nonexistent. Saira could not play cricket for five years. “I could have really improved my game in those five years,” she remarked.
Saira passed her intermediate in pre-medical with flying colors, the first girl in Kalash valley to earn this distinction. She had the choice of taking admission in a medical College and becoming the first doctor from the valley, but cricket was in her blood. She knew the extensive study in a medical college would bury her passion forever. Saira wanted to try her luck in Peshawar. It was hard to convince her father; however, her mother and brothers supported her and Saira took admission in Peshawar University.
Her immediate interest was to look for cricket clubs which could be reached in the limited evening time. She finally found a local club, in a secure location. The club manager was surprised at her request to practise along with boys, something never seen in the local clubs. At first he refused, but eventually took a bold decision and gave in to Saira’s repeated requests. Saira Knew playing with boys would be extremely challenging, but she was in no mood to give up.
Saira got off from the classes at 2 pm and literally ran back to the hostel. There was no time for lunch, so she changed and took a bus or rickshaw. It was a one-hour trip to the club and back. The hostel gate would close at 5 PM, so practising and travelling had to be managed in the limited time. For a girl, barely nineteen coming from a humble Kalash family valley, with no experience of city life, playing cricket with boys in Peshawar, at times running to catch the bus, the whole exercise was indeed very tiring and demanding, but Saira had pledged with herself “I will achieve my dreams”.
Saira had two immediate challenges, one to improve her cricketing skills and secondly develop some communication with the boys. This talented girl was quick to improve her batting and bowling and impressed the coach and fellow club players.
Saira gave a big laugh when narrating her experience of playing with boys. “I found them very shy in talking to me, they were even reluctant to have a team picture with me. ‘If our parents come to know we play with a girl, our cricket will finish, they would say’,” said Saira.
Through some friends Saira came to know of better cricket prospects in Lahore and decided to shift. Her brothers and mother again came to her support and Sara left Peshawar University, completing two semesters and arrived in Lahore.
In Lahore, Saira found a completely different culture. She joined Lahore International Club, made new friends, and was happy to see girls practising along with boys.
The coach Yaseen Baluch was very helpful. It looked finally she was at the right place. Sara used her strength in fast bowling. “I am so inspired by Shoaib Akhtar and Bret lee,” she remarked. She would watch video clips of their style, bowling run-up. She also greatly admires Australian player Ellyse Perry.
As luck would have it, Punjab University organised open trails for selecting talented female cricketers, sixty girls turned up and four were finally selected. Sara was among them. This facilitated her admission at Punjab University and a much needed room in the hostel. “I always had an interest in photography and chose bachelor’s program in film and broadcasting
National Cricket Academy announced open trias to select players in under-19 and national emerging players category. “I was fascinated to see some international stars and the pictures displayed in the academy. It all looked like a dream,” she remarked.
“Around one hundred players turned up for selection; initially I was a bit nervous to compete among such a large number, but this was the opportunity I had been longing,” she remarked. “I collected all my mental and physical strength, bowled fairly well and was equally confident in playing my strokes. In the first phase sixty girls were selected, then in the second phase it was reduced to thirty, now was the most crucial stage to select the final fifteen,” she said.
I could see the emotions on Saira’s face as she narrated the moments when she was informed of her selection. “The spontaneous reaction was to call my mother, breaking news in Bamboor,” she said.
Kalashas are a closely-knit community. Soon there was a queue of people from all age groups visiting her house, congratulating and hugging her mother.
“Among the boys visiting my house were members of my childhood cricket club, where I learnt cricket and posed myself as a boy,” she said.
Saira was called upon to play in domestic cricket. Representing “The Invincibles” she fared well in the competition. At the national level, Sara represented Dynamites. This team had national level players so Saira could not get a chance. However, she felt so happy to be part of the team.
In Pakistan, female cricket has been a potent platform for gender empowerment, giving them the much needed confidence to compete in all walks of life.
Here one must acknowledge the initiative taken by PCB to promote female cricket in Pakistan. Now we have more tournaments, venues and good coaching opportunities. The training and encouragement Saira got at National Cricket Academy has certainly improved her cricketing skills.
At Punjab University, Saira is now an important member of the women’s team. Her success story is a beacon of hope for all girls who shy away from sports due to different cultural restraints. Talking about the confidence cricket has given to Saira, she said, “I travel in a bus from Lahore to Chitral and onwards to my village, cricket has made me brave, I have no fears of travelling alone,” she said.
From Kalash to Lahore, this has been a long, tiring, demanding and taxing journey for Saira; fighting against all odds, yet moving ahead with an iron will, she has certainly proved the age-old saying, “where there is a will there’s a way”. Good luck to this courageous girl.
May her dreams come true.
The writer is a sports historian email@example.com