Due to two stress fractures in her back, Maham Tariq had to leave the Pakistan women’s cricket team. Her short career, which started in Australia in 2014, had come to a standstill with medical reports suggesting that the little cricket she had so far played at the top level would be her only stint in Pakistan colours.

She was told by the doctors to either leave cricket or forget fast bowling. Both options meant the same thing to her. “It was a very frustrating time. I had just returned from my first-ever tour with the national team and then I was totally out of action for one-and-a-half years,” recalls Maham while talking to Eos. Only moments earlier, she had been talking about Pakistan’s recent successful tour of Sri Lanka with a big smile on her face. The Pakistan women’s team had whitewashed Sri Lanka in a three-match ODI series and won the T20I series 2-1 on Sri Lankan soil. But talking about the time she was recuperating took the shine out of her eyes.

“I was only 17 [at the time of the injury]. I was in the camp for the tour of Sharjah and I felt pain in my back. An MRI scan revealed that my L4 and L5 were fractured,” she says. “I was on bed rest for six months during which I couldn’t do anything. I was not allowed to walk or jog. It was very frustrating and of course such a situation also throws you into depression,” she says, adding that cricket had always been her passion and it was tough to stay away from it. “I was the fastest bowler [in the Pakistani side] at the time. Later, I had to regain that title, and I did. But, it took quite an effort as my pace took a dip and I was advised to change my action, which I did not do, and the coaches turned against me because of that.

From family issues to debilitating injuries, Maham Tariq has had to go through a great deal to get into the national women’s team. Eos talks to the young fast bowler about her past ordeals and future plans

“I was especially called to the National Cricket Academy (NCA) for rehab, but I came back to Karachi. I could not understand what was happening at the time. I was my own coach after that. I assessed myself. There’s a ground near my house. When I used to feel blue or frustrated, I would go there at night to sit or run in the dark. There would be no one around then other than, maybe, stray dogs.”

Maham, however, braved her injury and returned to cricket. Some outstanding performances in the domestic circuit, followed by a scintillating run with the ball during a national camp saw her back in the national team when Pakistan Women toured England in 2016.

“I was the highest wicket-taker in the next domestic season. Then I took 16 wickets in eight matches during a Pakistan camp. From there I was named for the England tour. It was difficult for me to return to the national side as my place had already been taken by someone else.

“The mantra to success in sports is to keep things simple and train hard. I followed it,” she says. “After my injury it was very difficult to convince selectors about my fitness. If I even placed my hand on my back despite bowling well, they used to think that I had hurt myself again.”

Maham, a right-arm fast-bowler had begun her professional career by the age of 13. Like many professional cricketers in Pakistan, her game had begun with street cricket and taped balls. She played football and tennis as well as other sports, but it was the game of cricket that brought her recognition in her neighbourhood and school.

“We used to have only one games period in school. I used to play with the boys, which was fun. My school administration had been watching me play. They knew I was into cricket. So, they also supported me. They would grant me leaves for my tournaments even if there were mid-terms or other exams.”

Maham Tariq’s bowling action become her own enemy
Maham Tariq’s bowling action become her own enemy

But, things were not the same at home.

“My daadi had an issue with my playing cricket in shorts with boys on the street. I must have been in the fifth or sixth standard, when she told me to quit cricket. There did come a time when I had to sit at home for two to three days. But then I went to her and told her that I couldn’t live like this. I used to climb over our car or up on our gate to watch the boys play. They used to tease me. ‘Your cricket is over’ they would say but I told them ‘I’ll be back in a week’s time’. And, I was back playing with them within three or four days.

“I achieved this by telling my grandmother that I could play in trousers after which she allowed me to continue playing in the street. So, a compromise was reached,” she says.

“But, after that I did not need to play on the street. I started playing professionally. I was going to grounds and with that my routine had also gotten tough. So, there was no time for me to play on the street. I used to be extremely tired when I returned home, so, I also had no energy to play gali [street] cricket.”

Maham began her career in competitive cricket from the Zaheer Abbas Cricket Academy at the National Stadium Karachi. It was her uncle, Saeed Azad, who took her there. Azad, who played for the National Bank of Pakistan, had represented Pakistan in four One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and he was well aware of the grooming that this young cricketing talent needed.

Maham was introduced by the Pakistani media as the fastest bowler on the circuit and the pressure that came with the tag got the better of her. “There was an interview in which I had not said any such thing, but it was said that I was the fastest bowler in the current Pakistani set-up. There were many senior fast bowlers in the side at that time and I was just a kid. I was really nothing at that time. I was just in the process of becoming something.

My daadi had an issue with my playing cricket in shorts with boys on the street. I must have been in the fifth or sixth standard, when she told me to quit cricket. There did come a time when I had to sit at home for two to three days.

“I was called up for a national camp after the interview and I was wayward. My balls were landing all over the place. They were hitting the poles in the nets. They were landing way out of the pitch. It was extremely embarrassing.”

But, after the camp ended, she decided to own the title and really become the fastest bowler. “I trained very hard after that. I used to bowl 120 balls in a day. Even boys don’t train that hard. Now, it feels great when everybody, including the Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman Najam Sethi introduces me as the fastest bowler … I was the first woman to start bowling bouncers in Pakistan. The girls were getting hit on their helmets and necks, which added to the terror. Everyone started recognising me as the fastest bowler.”

The fastest bowler in the women’s team
The fastest bowler in the women’s team

But the overtraining resulted in Maham getting injured. Still, the back fractures weren’t the only hurdles she had to overcome. Societal norms kicked in. Her relatives stopped speaking to her and were on the verge of boycotting her family if she continued playing cricket. “You know the relatives who come from nowhere. They have no concern, but they have to interfere in your business. That happened with me.”

But then her father stepped up and fought for her. Initially, her immediate family also wanted her to pursue education instead of cricket. “My father is very chill. And, I am very close to him. All of the relatives used to question him about my future. My family would tell me to think about becoming a doctor.”

“She had it in her to make it to the top,” says Tariq Rafiq, Maham’s father. “So, I did not care what anyone said. Our relatives told me cricket was just a waste of time and that she should become a doctor or engineer instead. But I knew she had talent. I used to take her to the grounds for practice. She had such great stamina that one day her coach told me that she won’t get tired if I tie her to the back of a car and make her run all over the city.”

Soon, Maham started grabbing the attention of the media. “When I started getting media coverage all the problems that my family had with me simply vanished. Before that they wouldn’t even speak to me, now they used to introduce me to everyone,” she says.

Maham, who will turn 21 on July 5, had set several goals for herself and one of them was to make it to the national side before turning 17. And, she achieved this just in time. “I was the highest wicket-taker at a national camp held at an Army facility in Abbottabad in 2014 and I was named for [the squad to play in] Australia. I was not expecting my name to come up in the squad. I only wanted to play cricket. I remember, it was afternoon in Abbottabad and all the girls started to come to me to wish me during my one-on-one session with our coach. I thought they were just doing it for fun. Then, our captain Sana [Mir] baaji came and congratulated me and told me that I had made it to the national side. I still couldn’t believe it.

“When I got my kit at the NCA, I locked my room and jumped up and down for five minutes in excitement. Until I played for Pakistan, I never wore any Pakistani cap or kit. My father had brought many of them for me, but I was adamant that I will wear a Pakistani cap and kit only after I achieve it. It was a surreal feeling when I got my blazer. I just cannot articulate that feeling. I just couldn’t believe that it had happened.

“I had set a target for myself that I have to be in the Pakistani side before the age of 17. And, on the first day of my camp with the Pakistani team I turned 17.”

Now, Maham has set a daunting goal for herself. For that she trains for almost eight to 10 hours a day. “There are a lot of plans but my ultimate goal is to be the fastest bowler in the world. I am working hard. But it also depends on how much international exposure I get. My aim is to perform at levels that are higher than the set benchmarks in our side.”

Just the thought that one day such a prestigious title might be attached to her name brings back that wide smile on her face.

The writer, a freelance journalist, has written for Dawn, Cricbuzz, Wisden Pakistan and India, First Post, and Cricingif. He tweets @ahsannagi

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 22nd, 2018

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