I have had the privilege that a number of current elite cricketers have not had. I have played cricket in Pakistan.
In 2005, I toured Pakistan as part of the India Under-21 Women’s team, fielded by the Women’s Cricket Association of India, the shepherd of the game before the BCCI took over. It was a historic tour, reportedly the first by a female sports team from India. As if to make up for lost time, our hosts treated us like queens; it meant the world for players who often travelled unreserved. We were in Lahore, the same city that saw the deathly attack on the Sri Lankan team four years later. That attack meant that Pakistan have been waiting for a big team to tour there since 2009.
In 2005, even though Pakistani women’s cricket was experiencing a rebirth, India’s age group team beat their inexperienced national side 4-0. Twelve years later, the scoreline between the two nations in ODI cricket is much the same.
The two countries have only played each other all of nine times in 12 years, mostly in ICC tournaments or Asia Cups. Shots fired, physically and politically, have prevented any bilateral series from taking place. Most recently, India ceded their points from the three ODIs in the ICC Women’s Championship. But Pakistan captain Sana Mir would have been happier to play a series instead, despite the risk of losing.
“We got the points, but we would have preferred to have had matches because playing cricket is something we prepare for,” she said ahead of the World Cup. “India-Pakistan games bring the best out of both teams.”
While Pakistan have managed T20 wins against their neighbours before — most recently in the WT20 2016 — they have never beaten India in the longer format, where flashes of brilliance will only burn a match, not light a bonfire. “That is a different format,” said Raj of that rain-affected loss. “In the ODI format, India have always done well.
“We don’t really see them as Pakistan, because once you start understanding them as a team you need to beat…you are adding more pressure on yourself. We will have our strategies in place for tomorrow’s game (sic).”
Pakistan almost caused a huge upset in their first game: they scored 206 runs against South Africa, the first time they had crossed 200 in a World Cup match. Then they had their opponents on the edge, needing 16 off 12 and seven wickets down, but failed to close out the match. In their next game they were pilloried by England, who scored 377 — the second-highest score in the World Cup. Pakistan’s woes were compounded when Bismah Mahroof, their best batswoman, was ruled out of the tournament with a finger injury.
The pressure on them is further amplified by the men’s team’s success in the Champions Trophy, and the fact that all their matches are live on television. “Playing against India is always (a) pressure (situation)… In Pakistan, they say that you have to win against India, it is very important,” Asmavia Iqbal conceded after the loss against England.
India, on the other hand, have the momentum of a snowball going downhill. Opener Smriti Mandhana could easily have had two centuries in two games, and Mithali Raj fell just four runs short of her eighth consecutive half-century in the win against Windies. The bowling department is moving in the right direction, as is the ground fielding. But catching is an area that needs to be addressed: India have put down six catches in two games.
“We definitely had some fielding sessions in the last two days,” said Raj. “The girls have worked on it; I’m sure the catching department tomorrow will be much, much better.”
With little international cricket played in Pakistan, the women’s game has suffered too, more so than the male game, according to Mir. “The men’s structure is well developed,” she said. “The Under-19 and ‘A’ (male) teams tour every now and then, and the reserve players get ready. But for us it is more damaging from the point of view of young cricketers. The youngsters don’t get enough opportunities.”
Thinking back to the time I spent in Pakistan, I feel for the players and people of that country. The subcontinent’s air seems to breed good hosts, but now those hosts are starved of guests. It was not just the warmth they treat any guest with; when people on the street learned we were cricketers, we could see a special place for us light up in their eyes.
For a country with the passion and regard for cricket that they have, a win against India in a World Cup could be an epochal moment in their history. But on form, Pakistan will have to play out of their skins do so. If not, they could be waiting still for their first win, just as they have been waiting since 2009.
Snehal Pradhan is a former India cricketer and now a freelance journalist. She hosts the series ‘Cricket How To’ on YouTube, and tweets @SnehalPradhan