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Maiden over

Maiden over

On a misty, chilly day in India-held Kashmir in the 1990s, left homebound due to the snow, a young girl stitched several layers of socks into a ball, which she used for playing cricket in a 10 by 10 feet room. Most children in the area, great innovators of their time, preferred the sock ball over the tennis ball, which later became popular as a cheap alternative to the leather ball.

Playing indoors was fine but then in the streets of downtown Srinagar, some girls joined the boys’ teams. Word of this spread like wild fire throughout the valley.

Women’s cricket was introduced in schools and colleges in Jammu and Kashmir back in the 1980s. Many thought of it as awkward or ridiculous but accepted it as it was after all being played within the four walls. But by the ’90s it had spread in the entire occupied Kashmir region, when inter-school and college teams were shaped up in different districts including Anantnag, Srinagar and Baramulla. Earlier, women’s cricket was supported and operated under the Women’s Cricket Association of J&K.

Abdul Hameed, a veteran football coach, organised the Women’s Cricket Championship in 2001. It was considered a mega event at the district level and J&K Bank had luckily sponsored it, too. Meanwhile, junior and senior inter-school, inter-college and inter-district tournaments were being organised regularly. The funds for women’s teams were released at the All India level by the Women’s Cricket Association. With the passing of time, women’s cricket was added as a feature to Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA) in 2005, when Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) extended its overwhelming support for it. The grounds were occupied by women bowlers and batters donning different coloured jerseys, despite the lack of support from the society at large.

“The girls were eager to participate in competitions. When I was the sports officer at Kothibagh during my tenure in 2001-2005, Kounsar Ali had represented India in Nepal,” recounts Mohammad Amin Shah, a member of the Jammu and Kashmir State Sports Council.

Still, women’s cricket at the domestic level there did not see any kind of positive rise as the game after all was and is dominated mostly by male folks. Cricket was considered a societal taboo for girls in the past but things are changing now and women players are making a name after availing chances in schools and colleges, after years of being overshadowed by the men.

One among them is a bubbly 30-year-old promising all-rounder Sakeena Akther, a resident of Munawarabad. The valley’s first female cricket coach and who worked as a cricket selector in Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association for at least two years for the transformation of the game among women. Sakeena achieved this feat when she joined Kashmir University in 2007, as a contractual.

Later, her job was confirmed as the permanent cricket coach after proving her mettle during the coaching stint when Mirza Noor-ud-Din Memorial Cup was in progress. The tournament is held every year at Kashmir University ground — the only turf wicket after Sher-i-Kashmir Stadium this region fortunately has. She had also facilitated the coaching camp of the U-22 boys’ team, who praised her efforts and commitment during the 15-day camp.

Now, Sakeena who liked bouncers had a smooth run; her run up was not much more than 12 paces but it was the sprint that generated her pace of over 115 km/h consistently while getting the ball at the right length to play some chin music with the batspersons.

Sakeena may not be a batting prodigy like Mithali Raj of India and she may not have a run-up like Sana Mir of Pakistan but her unique run-up and style of batting had it all. During her playing days she ruled the ground in her own way.

During her childhood days, Sakeena would play cricket with a small plastic bat and ball in that room in her house for hours nonstop until she’d fall asleep. Such was her passion. Time brought with it more confidence for her as she improved her game and re-drafted her bowling plan. With a marathon of a run-up she would be wheezing at times to bowl a single ball in street cricket, when it took her 12 minutes to complete an over, leaving behind even Rawalpindi Express Shoaib Akthar.

Sakeena, known as a ‘tomboy’ in her colony when she started playing at 12 years old with the local boys from dawn till dusk, is now going for all the three levels of coaching to become a national coach. Alone she fought for years with the will of steel when her parents considered cricket not a game for their daughter in a conservative society such as prevalent in held Kashmir. “While I played in the backyard of my house, my parents warned me again and again not to play cricket and concentrate on your studies more but I did not pay any heed,” she laughs. Adding, “Sometimes we should not accept what’s being told to us when we are quite sure we could do this and fortunately all praises to the Almighty, I did my best to achieve my goals.”

She played in bad light, under the halogen street lamps where throwing the ball to a team member required the precision of a sharp shooter and taking catches is no joke. The perseverance also taught her the nuances and niceties of the game while deceiving one’s opponents as she wanted to stand above all and lead from the front. Soon she was considered among the top performers, even better than street-smart cricketers.

A science student by then, she also took her cricket very seriously. From streets, she moved to open grounds or maidan. Later, after moving to Kothibagh Girls Higher Secondary, Srinagar, she joined the girls’ cricket team there a promising prospect in 11th and 12th standards. During the school trials, Sakeena was selected on bowling a single ball in 1997-98. During the inter-school tournament she was nominated as the Woman of the Tournament for being the highest wicket-taker and run-getter and was picked among 10 women from occupied Kashmir while 10 were included from the Jammu region, respectively.

“When I first went to the Kothibagh Higher Secondary School in 1997-98 after passing 10th in the morning assembly they were talking about cricket and I felt I was in my second home,” narrates Sakeena excitedly.

The passion for the game was like an obsession or madness for her. Even when the school lacked basic requirements, Sakeena did not let her spirits down and trained hard to give hundred per cent. The jerseys and kits would be hardly available when she played there. Still the coaching staff which included teachers of the school helped the girls compete in competitions at the higher secondary level.

“I had been playing with my neighbours in streets and there in the corner happened to be a burnt up wooden electric pole, which we treated as a wicket. The burn mark on that pole we considered as the bails of the wicket. I had so much fun playing with boys, who were equally supportive,” recalls Sakeena.

But then Sakeena would also fight with the boys when playing street cricket. It was after all street cricket in all its glory – snatching bats, cheating when batting, sharing ice cream.

By the time she moved to the Women’s College, Sakeena had learnt to cope with the hindrances and barriers while gaining leadership qualities. As the vice-captain of the J&K team in the CK Nayudu under-19 tournament in 1999, she scored her highest at 75 not-out against Haryana, hosted by the Jammu and Kashmir state. She could hit the ball hard and was adjudged as the Woman of the Series while being the leading run-scorer and wicket-taker in inter-college tournaments.

Sakeena who dedicated all her time to cricket also wanted to study science but cricket took most of her time and she graduated in Arts in 2003-04 from Women’s College Srinagar.

“I was aimless in my early years but I pacified my parents by telling them that the certificates I was receiving through cricket could easily get me admission into a medical college. I also got new bats for my good performances and they [parents] were happy for me as they thought that at least I was doing something worthwhile in my life,” she says.

When she played inter-college and university cricket, Sakeena was keen to play cricket for longer and earn the Indian cap, but fate has something else planned for her.

“The expectations from me were quite high. We were practicing in the morning and evening during inter-university; the All India hosted matches. Unfortunately Kashmir University lost the semi-final to Rohtak University during my reign,” she shares.

After a stint with the J&K Sports Council in 2005-06, Sakeena coached her juniors at Government College Kothibagh and Women’s College.

“My first camp was at TRC Polo Ground. I had also received around 400 boys from different schools of the valley. Making sub categories among them was quite difficult and I wasn’t satisfied with my effort that time. The standard in the group was 15-21 and they were too many,” she remembers.

Sakeena has coached both boys and girls at Kashmir University since she was picked up as the coach. With the beginning of her career in coaching after failing to make it to the national team herself, the Kashmir University team has won three out of four matches.

“I was so surprised to find sports viewed differently in different parts of India. Trained by Naveen Singh, who was basically from Youth Services and Sports I was taught the basics of the game. He was quite friendly,” says Sakeena while adding that she has a degree from the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala.

“It is not easy to get admission into NIS. One should have three to four national certificates to reach there. The NIS changes one’s behavior and it moulds coaches with lesson after lesson. I used to enjoy the days when we used to travel through train and sleep in the dormitory. The unity I felt with other coaches in training there was a great feeling,” she says.

Sakeena gives credit to her coach Abdul Qayoom Channa, who had advised her to appear for NIS.

Cricket has changed a lot these days while entertainment provided by this game takes center stage what with the inception of Twenty-20 leagues in cricket-playing countries. There is a huge influx of money in the game and cricketers keep busy all season.

But in India-held Kashmir: “We have only turf wickets here and they are not up to the mark, which include our university ground and the historic Sher-i-Kashmir Stadium. The district level grounds are rolled for matting wickets for the season which itself tells the story of associations in this region. The rest of the states are well-developed with great infrastructure for the players. Here the situation seams bleak for the avid followers of cricket as well as the players,” Sakeena expresses.

Pouncing on just about every opportunity life threw at her during her struggling days she completed her B.P.Ed and level ‘A’ coaching course from BCCI in 2009.

“BCCI had come up with open trials. Still there is a slow process taking place in this region. Our association is less active,” she says.

The JKCA has affiliated 12 women teams across the valley of different districts and after 2005 many players have represented the state at the national level. The women’s cricket teams also played in Delhi which included an U-19 junior level, and U-23 senior level.

The writer is a freelance journalist and cricket blogger from India-held Kashmir.

Twitter: @TahirIbnManzoor

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 8th, 2015

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