Nisha Sultan, the top shooter in any game
Nisha Sultan, the top shooter in any game

The image of the captain of the Pakistan netball team, Nisha Sultan, smiling ear-to-ear, on her arrival at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport after her team’s victory in a three-match Singapore series, is a far cry from the helpless, sad and afraid young girl she was just five years ago.

“It has indeed been a transformational journey for me,” Nisha tells Eos with a distant look in her eyes.

Nisha, who hails from Golodass in District Ghizer, Tehsil Punial, in Gilgit-Baltistan, only started playing netball four years ago. Everything changed for her during this brief period, when she had to reinvent herself.

Her arrival in the big city was for a change of atmosphere and scenery after she lost her father, her best friend. “I didn’t know how to get on with my life without him,” Nisha shares. “His sudden passing, due to heart failure, had left me in a deep depression. All I did was cry. I would spend most of my time at his grave. His loss had left a huge void in my life. My siblings — an older sister and one big brother and a younger brother — and my mother didn’t know what to do, or how to bring me back towards life. So sad was I, that it also had an affect on my intermediate grades,” she adds.

Nisha Sultan is the captain of the Pakistan netball team and a confident and happy young woman. Five years ago, she was anything but. This is her story …

“Earlier, I used to dream of becoming an airline pilot like my older sister Natasha, who happens to be the first female airline pilot from Gilgit-Baltistan — I even used to wear a gold airplane pendant around my neck,” recalls Nisha. But all of those dreams had been supplanted by her depression.

“My sister is 15 years older than me. After my father, she is my best friend, but she was married and quite far away from me, in Karachi. She was calling me to Karachi. She knew the change would do me good, but I didn’t want to leave my mother alone. Then my mother asked me how I intended to take care of her in my depressed state. She wanted me to smile again, to study hard and to make something of myself. She convinced me to go to Karachi,” says Nisha.

The initial plan was to do a BA Honours from the University of Karachi, but things didn’t go according to plan, as Nisha’s intermediate marks were not exactly up to par.

“I was sitting at my sister’s home doing nothing and gaining weight — it happens when you are depressed. My sister then said to me ‘Okay, education is good but it is not everything. There must be something else that you can do. You must have some skills.’ And then she got me enrolled for guitar classes. On the side I was also taking beautician’s courses, learning henna art, eye makeup, etc.,” she chuckles at the memory.

“My sister wanted me to learn to stand on my own two feet. She would say to me that she can support me to an extent, but not constantly. I had to learn to help myself. I was attending back-to-back classes then and she wanted me to take the bus to get to my classes. At first I was afraid, but she joined me on my first bus ride. When I still didn’t feel very confident, she put me on the bus again and followed the bus in her car. She was determined to make me self-dependent. And it happened.

“There was a basketball hoop in my sister’s apartment block. She noticed me looking at it one day and, the very next day, she came home with a new basketball for me. ‘Let’s go and try shooting the ball,’ she said and we did. Being tall, five feet and eight inches, I got the ball in the hoop on most of my attempts and she encouraged me to also find a suitable sport for myself, as I weighed 70kg at the time.

Nisha garlanded and showered with rose petals upon her arrival in Karachi with the trophy
Nisha garlanded and showered with rose petals upon her arrival in Karachi with the trophy

“Anyways, I turned to YouTube to learn more shooting techniques. But my sister thought that I should look for a club or academy where I can actually play the game with others. A friend then told me about the Elite Academy run by the Pakistan Netball Federation at the National Coaching Centre in Karachi.

“One thing that happened from my joining the Academy was that I got a lot of brisk exercise,” Nisha explains. This helped her lose weight. “I also learned how netball was different from basketball. At first I used to watch so many young girls, much younger than myself, playing so well. I would be worried that I would not be able to play as well as them and how embarrassing would that be,” she smiles.

Nevertheless, by dint of her dedication, Nisha was selected in the Elite Academy team which featured in the Quaid-i-Azam Games. “But I remained a reserve player. I only played for one minute before the final whistle, but we won. I also got a medal and a certificate, like all my team members, and my sister was so proud of me. It made me want to work extra hard to be a bigger part of the team next time,” she says.

By this time, Nisha was also looking for a job. Her friend who had introduced her to netball told her that if she worked hard she could also find a job as a coach or a sports teacher at any school. “I worked so hard then. I wouldn’t miss practice even for a day, and that hard work paid off with my selection in the Sindh team to feature in the 2019 National Games, in which we took the bronze medal.”

Following the National Games, there was the Nepal Cup for under-16 girls. “At 20, I was much older, but I wanted to attend the camp to help improve my game. Training with younger girls, I thought, would also make me fitter. It was a 30-day camp and I didn’t miss a single day. I would even be there before the camp commandant, which was noticed.

“There was a place for a junior coach in the team then, which was offered to me. I went to Nepal. And there, when the main coach of the team was called for additional umpiring duty, I became the team’s coach by default. My confidence soared when this also got noticed in Gilgit-Baltistan. They held a huge reception in my honour the next time I was there,” Nisha beams with a glint in her eyes.

There was no turning back for her then. She got a job as a sports instructor at a college. She also got picked for the Wapda netball team when they came scouting for a shooter at the Elite Academy. “By this time, I was absolutely crazy for netball. It had given me everything I had not even imagined for myself. I also got admission in Karachi University, on my netball performance. In 2020, my first year with Wapda, we won a gold medal. The following year was equally good and I was named the best shooter for Wapda. This year is looking great as well. I have again been named as best shooter for Wapda.

“I am paying my own education fee now and I am also supporting my younger brother, who is also studying and staying with me as I moved out of my sister’s place to rent an apartment near Karachi University. My entire family and village elders are so proud of me, as they have all watched me throughout my struggles,” she says.

“Last month, I represented Pakistan in Singapore, where we played a three-match series with the hosts. The team was quite overwhelmed at first, looking at our opponents’ game and footwork. As the captain, it was my duty to calm my team down. I told them to relax and watch the opponents carefully. They were making us run by giving big passes, so we broke their game by giving small passes and we took that series 2-1,” she smiles.

The writer is a member of staff

She tweets @HasanShazia

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 24th, 2022

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