It was a slantways entry into joining the ‘sports-watching’ culture of Britain, for Shaz, a mother of two pre-teens, who came to Birmingham as a child, but never socialised over sport.
“My husband brings the kids to Edgbaston when the men’s teams play. But I wanted to come along too and watch since Pakistan women were playing,” she said of her first trip to a stadium not 10 minutes from her home, but one she never considered she’d walk into, having only a mild passing interest in the sport.
A women’s sport wave has been sweeping over England all of this last week, with the football team becoming European Women’s champions beating Germany in the final. “It’s not like anyone stopped me. But I never felt like watching men’s cricket. But Indian women vs Pakistan women I didn’t want to miss at all,” says the mother, out-numbered at least five to one by Indian families who thronged Edgbaston, including a bunch who came down from London to introduce their young daughters to the sport.
That India-Pakistan is pencilled into any big cricket event as a certainty of a pool game is a given. However, the Commonwealth Games were banking on a Sunday blockbuster, hoping the women’s game could draw out the large diaspora of Birmingham into the stadium. Not many could predict how shockingly one-sided it eventually was – the Indian crowds out-screaming Pakistan ones, in the same way their team dished out a 8-wicket dismissal of Pakistan’s hopes.
Clinical with the ball & splendid with the bat, 𝐈𝐧𝐝𝐢𝐚 𝐛𝐞𝐚𝐭 𝐏𝐚𝐤𝐢𝐬𝐭𝐚𝐧 by 8 wickets in their 2nd Commonwealth Games match. 👏 👏
Vice-captain @mandhana_smriti smashes 63*. 🙌 🙌
— BCCI Women (@BCCIWomen) July 31, 2022
India stuck to their bowling plans, and then Smriti Mandhana and Shafali Varma kept it clinical, for a fairly easy win, with an eye on advancement. Pakistan, without the concussed Nida Dar, lacked any firepower and got nicely rolled over. But for the Games, it was the anticipation of getting bums on seats that this game held any significance.
Women’s cricket can tease out the ‘family crowds’ – women and children not always smitten by cricket, but amazed at young women having a go at team sport and turning up to watch them – and there was no better city than Birmingham with its ethnic composition to target that South Asian base.
Means much more to Pak
Barney, a British Pakistani from Worcestershire, runs an “Asian-only” club called ‘Kempsey’, where his daughter plays cricket on a girls’ team they are beginning to put together. He trekked up to Birmingham to take cues on how to grow his women’s team, alongwith other members of his club – Hindus and Sikhs as well. “In our community, there are several restrictions on women playing sport because of the dress code. But cricket is fully clothed, so it was easier to encourage my daughter to play it. It’s excellent to watch the Pakistan team play and show our girls that this is possible. Sure, little girls have watched men’s teams for years and been fans. But it’s different when they have to start playing. Watching Harmanpreet (Kaur) and (Smrit) Mandhana of India, watching Nida Dar, those are role models,” Barney says.
“We do things together here – Indians and Pakistanis. We socialise, we have colleagues from the other country, we eat together. And of course, we watch cricket together. We can fill up any stadium, so why not for the girls?” he says.
Pakistan won the Asian Games gold in 2010, and then captain and top bowler Sana Mir had said that the gold in the 50-over format made Pakistan realise that women could win big in sport. The follow-up didn’t materialise, but for a nation starved of sportswomen competing at the topmost level, T20 cricket is the most obvious bet for things to get properly serious.
📹 From 50/1 to 99 all out, Pakistan’s batting lineup collapsed like a house of cards against #TeamIndia in #CWG2022 🃏💪#INDvPAK #BirminghamMeinJitegaHindustanHamara #B2022 #SonySportsNetwork #SirfSonyPeDikhega pic.twitter.com/kis89f94AF
— Sony Sports Network (@SonySportsNetwk) July 31, 2022
Nobel laureate Malala Yousufzai visited the Pak dressing room after their loss to Barbados, and a goodly crowd lingered on to watch both role models – in sport and education – from up close. “Women’s cricket deserves a chance to become a popular sport on its own. I came to the Games only because it was women and India-Pakistan,” says Shaz.
A fight we’ve won: Harman
It might still need hyphenating with Pakistan in Birmingham and the general cheer of the Games, but the number of Indian fans who trooped in on Sunday, hoping to catch another Harman blinder, was tremendous. The Indian captain’s 2017 innings against Australia in the World Cup semifinal is stuff of legend, but after the win on Sunday, Harman admitted to another fight women have won.
“When I started playing cricket, we had no crowds. I knew it is a fight we will have to fight to get people to come in and watch us. It can’t be just because they want to support “women”. We needed to perform and entertain, and play good matches and win to attract crowds. Now I can say, we are doing that,” she would say.
Young girls would walk up to her and tell her they wanted to become like her. “It feels nice when they say that we are the reason they want to play cricket,” she says.
While the crowd remained partisan, good cricket from either side was appreciated. “India or Pakistan, I want my daughter to learn from both. We can’t just have them women cheering from the stands while the men’s teams play. They need to be out there in the centre, hitting big sixes and being cheered.”