CRICKET: THE FORGOTTEN HEROINE

June 04, 2017

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Sana Mir and Bismah Maroof are well-known names today: the inspirational captain and vice-captain of the Pakistan women’s cricket team. Such has been their rise that it is easy to forget that once upon a time, the extent of women’s cricket in Pakistan was a couple of girls featuring in the boys’ Gymkhana team.

But turn the clock back a few years, and you’d discover that the brightest light in Pakistan women’s cricket was another name: Kiran Baluch.

A precocious talent who hailed from a sporting family, Kiran valiantly wrote her country’s name in the international record books when she scored 242 in a Test match innings. That record still stands. And although she was a class apart from her peers, perhaps she was too far ahead of her times.

A trailblazer and world record-holder to boot, Kiran Baluch was destined to do big things for Pakistan. But suddenly, she vanished from the playing scene and her legacy became history too

“I have always been interested in the game,” says Kiran. “I also played other sports but cricket had a special place in my heart. My passion for the game was my inspiration.”

Kiran’s father had represented the Pakistan Television and Pakistan International Airlines teams in the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy. As a result, not only did Kiran pick the bat up at a very young age, she was trained in cricket at home. These were the times when a woman playing professional sport in Pakistan was almost unheard of.

Amid the desolation, two sisters named Shaiza and Sharmeen Khan launched the Pakistan Women’s Cricket Control Association (PWCCA) in 1996. And while they searched for players who could bat and bowl, they were met with very stiff resistance from both the government of the time as well as conservative elements in society. Both Shaiza and Sharmeen were dragged in court over fictitious charges; both sisters even braved death threats.

It was around that time that Kiran was discovered by Shaiza Khan at open trials held to select the national team back in October 1996. And with an international tour imminent, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

“My first international tour was to New Zealand and Australia in January, 1997,” recalls Kiran. “Australia and New Zealand were the top teams in women’s cricket back then. I saw their domestic set-up, the latest trends in training and met with some veterans of the game. It was great exposure for my cricketing knowledge.”

Kiran made her ODI debut on January 28, 1997 at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch. That match was memorable because Pakistan was fielding 11 debutants on the day. The Pakistan team batted first but were bundled out for 56; Kiran scored 19 of those runs while her mentor, Shaiza Khan, scored 11. Apart from the duo, no other batswoman made it into double figures. Pakistan lost the match by 10 wickets.

Her Test debut arrived the next year in Colombo, playing against Sri Lanka at the Colts Cricket Club Ground. The match was a one-off and Pakistan were once again fielding 11 debutants. Kiran scored 76 batting at number six in the first innings but got out for a measly eight in the second.

But it wasn’t till 2004 that Kiran became a legend in her own right.

West Indies Women had arrived for a one-off Test in Karachi, to be played between March 15-18. This time, Pakistan were fielding only five debutants but Kiran had been moved up the order to open the innings. Nobody could have foreseen what was coming next.

Pakistan batted first. Kiran walked out with young opener Sajida Shah, and together the duo pummeled the West Indies into the ground. Their partnership lasted 241 runs, with Sajida falling two runs short of what would have been her maiden century. But by then, the duo had broken the record for the highest opening stand in women’s Tests.

At the end of the first day’s play, the Pakistani women were 242 runs for the loss of only one wicket. The Pakistan team might have dominated the opening day, but it was a nerve-wracking affair for Kiran because she was 138 not out overnight. In the evening, the entire team checked the record books. They discovered that India’s Mithali Raj held the record for highest scorer, with 214 runs. Almost all her colleagues told Kiran that she could beat the record.

The next morning, she sustained the pressure and batted for another two sessions. With a flick to square leg for a single, Kiran set a new world record for the highest runs scored in a single innings. She stayed at the crease for 584 minutes, faced 488 balls and hit 38 fours in an innings that spanned five sessions.

“Holding a world record is a feeling one cannot describe. My breaking the earlier record of 214 runs and ending up at 242 was only possible due to the help support and encouragement of my captain and mentor Shaiza Khan,” she says.

A precocious talent who hailed from a sporting family, Kiran valiantly wrote her country’s name in the international record books when she scored 242 in a Test match innings. That record still stands. And although she was a class apart from her peers, perhaps she was too far ahead of her times.

“I feel humbled that the Almighty bestowed the highest achievement a batswoman could ever dream of on me. It’s a feeling of content that at last I am able to hold my country’s name on top of the Wisden world records lists.”

It was a proud moment not only for her but for Pakistan women’s cricket in general. Rather than it being a personal milestone, the record instilled great belief in many other budding women cricketers in Pakistan. And while the critics believed that the Pakistan women’s team was not capable of surviving a four-day Test match, Kiran says that disproving them remained the “most pleasing aspect” of the record. The Test match ended in a draw.

“Many eminent names, especially from the Pakistan cricketing fraternity, made all efforts to discourage us and create hurdles for us,” says Kiran. “This includes people such as Ramiz Raja, Majid Khan, Zakir Khan or even Imran Khan. In fact, Imran refused to give any encouragement or supporting statement for our team, which was travelling to India for the Women’s World Cup in 1997. Still, veterans such as Hanif Muhammad and Fazl Mahmood really supported us.”

Kiran represented her country in three Test matches and chalked up a staggering average of 60, which is an outstanding feat in women’s cricket. She also appeared in 40 ODIs for her country, made 570 runs and managed to take 22 wickets with her right arm off-spin. She was predominantly a Test player, suited more for the longer version of the game. She admits as much to this fact: “Yes, my ODI batting statistics are not as good as my Test match statistics. I think it’s probably the format of the game. I feel Test match is a batswoman’s paradise.”

But the record had propelled Kiran into international stardom. She received the honour of representing the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) team in 1999, when membership was opened to women for the first time in its history. Four years later, she was granted full membership to the coveted club along with Shaiza Khan and Sharmeen Khan. The trio became the only three women cricketers from Asia to receive the coveted membership.

“Being a full member of the MCC was and still is a big achievement for any cricketer,” says Kiran. “We are still full playing members of the MCC. It was only made possible due to the support of my captain Shaiza and our chairman at the time, Arif Ali Khan Abbasi,” she says.

Sharing her thoughts on coaching for women cricketers, especially the role of a male coach in the development of Pakistan women’s team, Kiran acknowledges the length some of them went to in an attempt to help the ladies realise their potential.

“We had some of the very best male coaches,” she argues. “They helped me a lot to achieve the world record. And they helped our team at a time when there was no big money in it for them. In fact, they would spend from their own pockets to assist the team. Here I must name my mentors, Mahmood Rasheed and Saud Khan.”

But internal politics between the PWCCA and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) led by Shahryar Khan impacted Kiran for the worse. Her captain and friend, Shaiza Khan, was embroiled in a power tussle that the PCB eventually won. Embittered by the experience, Kiran bade farewell to the national team. She continued playing county cricket after this episode.

On the subject of having entered the coaching profession, Kiran says: “The coaching aspect has never inspired me, even though I am an England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) Level 1 qualified coach.”

But perhaps it is precisely the arena where Kiran is needed the most nowadays. One cannot help but wonder why such a great talent and name like Kiran is not being recognised and utilised by the PCB in its efforts to strengthen women’s cricket. Because notwithstanding the recent successes of the women’s team, there is a thing or two that Kiran can still pass on to the generation that is following her trail.

The writer tweets
@CaughtAtPoint

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 4th, 2017