Sana Mir, the former captain of the Pakistan women’s cricket team, is quite likely the most admired and successful female athlete in the history of Pakistan.
She has had a very interesting past year, marked by a difficult showing at the Women’s World Cup (WWC) 2017 but also some memorable personal performances.
After our team lost all its matches at the WWC 2017, the conflict between Sana — who was the captain at that time — and the coach was made public by the ‘leaking’ of the coach’s confidential report to the media and Mir’s public response via social media.
However, she returned to the team and has been in good form. In the ICC Championship series against New Zealand in November 2017, her four-wicket haul helped her team make history and secure Pakistan’s maiden ODI win against the Kiwis.
In the recently concluded ICC Championship series against Sri Lanka in March 2018, Sana helped secure two of the three ODI wins for Pakistan in their clean sweep of the ODI series and is now ranked number four in the ICC women’s ODI bowlers in the world.
This is the highest ODI ranking any Pakistani woman cricketer has ever achieved. She is also ranked number six ODI all-rounder in the world.
We talked about the past year — the transitions, challenges and triumphs and her definition of leadership.
The interview below has been edited for brevity and clarity.
This is the first half of the final installment of a four-part series of interviews with two seniors and two newcomers to the women’s squad, which played at the Women's Twenty20 Asia Cup in Malaysia from June 3-10, 2018. Read part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here.
The past couple of years have been both challenging and important for you in terms of transitions, difficulties, achievements. Let’s start with that….
The year started with a big challenge with the Women’s World Cup Qualifiers (WCQ) in Sri Lanka in February 2017. To qualify for the tournament was important for two reasons.
First, to qualify for the WWC 2017, but more importantly for all the ICC Championship bilateral series that we are now playing — like the ones against New Zealand and Sri Lanka.
The future of women’s cricket in Pakistan depended on the WCQ as we don’t get much bilateral cricket other than the ICC Championship.
Qualification for this tournament not only guarantees you a place at the world cup, it also guarantees the top eight teams seven ICC Championship series with each other for two years.
This gives us more opportunities to experiment with youngsters and help them develop because now we have at least three matches per series.
In these series, we can give new players leeway. But in tournaments like the qualifiers, you have to get results. You can’t develop players like that.
So qualifying in that tournament has been really good for women’s cricket in Pakistan.
The preparation for the WCQ and WWC 2017 were affected by the constant change of coaches and players and last moment injuries.
It was harder to stay with the team at that time than to leave. But I felt that leaving was not the right thing to do at that point. So I chose to do it after the world cup.
You chose to step away after the world cup?
Yes, after the world cup because once the team had qualified, there was a future for women’s cricket.
The departure of a senior player before a world cup or a qualifier would have impacted the team for the whole tournament and in the coming years.
It could have had a negative impact on the younger players as well. They would have felt abandoned and I didn’t want to do that.
I knew it was going to be a tough world cup with a new coach. It would have been difficult to be on the same page or make effective strategies to win, because everything would be so new.
But I still took on the challenge because walking away at that point would have been more disastrous for the team.
I quite willingly walked into what I anticipated would be a difficult situation.
I understand why you walked into fire, so to speak, but I want to know how you did it….
I think the only thing that helped me was taking it one day at a time, doing my best in the moment and trying to be present for the people who were around me.
Not thinking: What will happen to me after the world cup? What will people say about me? How will we do in the world cup? Will we win or lose?
For example, I came in to bat against New Zealand after we were three down with the Kiwi bowler on a hat-trick. I just did what I could and scored a 50 in that match.
So, it helped me personally and it helped us to do whatever we could as a team.
We fought in every match. Yes, we didn’t win, but even with the new team and other changes that posed difficulties, every day when we went to the ground — each and every one of us — we fought our hearts out.
That’s something I am very proud of. We came close to beating other teams in at least three or four games and it couldn’t have happened if the girls were not ready to fight.
This is something that makes it worth the struggle and difficulties we went through.
When I came back, I wanted to step away, but Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman Najam Sethi, [former chief selector and current director cricket operations] Haroon Rasheed and [chief executive] Subhan Ahmed called me and we had a meeting.
We got a foreign coach, we got new selectors, we got new management. So I think things are getting better and we are moving in a good direction. There’s always more to do but crucial changes have been made.
Right after that, in the first ODI against New Zealand that we played in November 2017, we did the same thing we had done in the world cup: we choked.
But this time the coach stood up. We were looking for leadership and I would like to give credit to Head Coach Mark Coles because he was calm and told the girls not to sulk.
That’s what we had done in the world cup after coming very close to beating South Africa in our first match but losing in the second-last over. It was something we weren’t able to recover from in subsequent matches.
Op-ed: Thank God for Sana Mirs
But in the series against New Zealand, Mark helped us keep our nerves and maintained his confidence in every person — the captain and all the players.
He strengthened the team. We weren’t able to do well in the next match — we lost by eight wickets again — but he kept giving us confidence and we were able to win the third and final match.
A lot goes on off the field. That’s something that changed in the series after the world cup. All these changes were quite good for us. And Bismah Maroof was also doing well as a new captain and the team was gelling together.
Then after the ODI series, we didn’t have a very good T20 series against New Zealand. We worked hard and prepared for the Sri Lanka series and Alhamdolillah we were able to do pretty well as a team.
Individually, I was able to reach my highest ICC ODI player ranking. So I think all of it is coming into place, all the hard work and changes.
Would it be accurate to say that the stand you took after the world cup and the meetings you had led to some of the changes we can see now?
Yes, I put forward my suggestions and recommendations. The PCB top management asked if I could move forward with the same setup. I said, “If I stay in women’s cricket, I want to contribute.”
But if certain mindsets, strategies or policies, or things that might be a hindrance in taking women’s cricket forward continue, I would not endorse them.
So in that way I would say that I did make some strong recommendations, but I am thankful to the PCB that they brought in a new vision, made commitments and followed through.
And it is helping everyone — the new captain, the new coach and the team.
We have new policies. We have the captain and coach on the selection panel now so the team cannot be selected until the captain and coach are involved. This is a huge thing.
So cricket, unlike other sports, is basically led by the captain, not by the coaches or selectors. It’s something we need to understand while making policies.
If the captain is strong, if the coach is strong, then the team will be strong.
What were the key lessons you learnt during this time?
I think one thing that I have learnt is to not try and control things. We tend to make a lot of calculations, that if I do this then the other person will do that, or the media will do that, or the management will do that.
And sometimes we don’t take the decisions we should.
What I have learnt is to do the right thing, no matter what the result might be. And that takes a lot of courage, but in the end it’s really good for everyone.
I didn’t walk away before the qualifiers or the world cup, thinking that it’s better for the team for me to stay with them.
But once I walked away, to be very honest, I never thought that I would play again.
When I wrote my report and that open letter, I thought that was it.
But because I was courageous and took a stand for the betterment of women’s cricket, God had His own way to give me what I also wanted.
I also wanted to continue playing, but I couldn’t at that point. But then the setup changed, and I was playing again.
I think if you are brave, if you try to do good for other people, you do get a return.
Sometimes the favour is returned instantly; sometimes it takes time.
So, we don’t have to worry too much about results and trying to safeguard our own selves.
If you speak up for other people, that’s all that’s needed.
Many times, you can’t see it instantly, but when you see it in the bigger picture, it usually turns out that if you have done something right, it will be beneficial for you in the end.
It can take one year, two years, five years, ten years. That’s something you can’t predict but it’s for your own good.
Illustration by Zoha Bundally