Nuzhat Parween played most of her cricket for Madhya Pradesh, which (like the name suggests) falls in the central zone. Also in the central zone are the Indian Railways, the food-chain bosses of Indian women’s cricket. So when it comes to picking the central zone team, there are only a handful of slots left for players from other teams.
In the 2014-15 season, Parween booked one of those slots, more as a second wicketkeeper than a batter. Only after central zone secured their place at the top of the table did Parween get a game, the last of the tournament. Coming in to bat at number three, in what would be her first and last opportunity, against a good bowling side, Parween scored a hundred on inter-zonal debut, mixing dour defence with flashes of aggression.
How many of you have heard of Singrauli? It is a small town as far from the centre of Madhya Pradesh as you can imagine. Parween’s father has worked there for more than 20 years, in the public sector coal industry as a dozer operator. Parween’s mother runs both a boutique and her home from there. And it is there that Parween was raised as the middle child of a “humble family in a humble town".
Parween was a willing hostage to one sport or the other all her childhood. Like so many Indian children, after school, she would dump her bag at home and head straight to the nearby stadium, where she first tried her hand at athletics. After she grew tired of long jump, javelin throw, and 100-metre dash, she began a dalliance with football. The youngest by far, and the only girl among the local boys, she became so much a part of their evening games that she was often entrusted with the charge of their only football overnight.
“Our parents would get a bit angry, especially when she would come home late in the evening from practice,” said her older sister Nemat. “But the next day she just stuck to the same schedule.”
Even though football was (and remains) close to Parween’s heart, she discovered cricket around the same time she saw that football would not take her far. Introduced to the gentleman’s game by a female friend, she started wicket-keeping and batting in local tennis ball tournaments. Her affinity at the sport was soon apparent, and it precipitated three big decisions in the Parween household.
The first was a change of school for Parween, and this was tricky, because Parween’s parents were quite clear that she could only continue sports as long as she did not neglect her studies.
“She was always a good student as well, and ended up getting 93 percent in her 12th”, said her brother Amir Sohail, oldest of the siblings. With her brother’s support, her parents took the decision to look for a school that would allow her more flexibility and had good sports facilities.
It took two changes of school, the second to a well-known private school - a big financial step for the family - to bring Parween the opportunities she needed. She was invited for Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association trials, and started climbing her way up the age group ladder.
Then came the family’s second big decision. “Facilities in Singrauli were not good, there were hardly any proper pitches, and hardly had people to play with”, said Amir. “So we decided that she would go to Rewa, and she developed professionally there.” Parween would stay in a hostel at Rewa, which was five hours away from Singrauli, where she had better facilities to train. And all the while, she was pursuing her degree in commerce.
The path paved by hard work led her to the century in the inter-zonals in 2015, and it made people sit up and take notice. When Western Railway advertised an opening for a wicketkeeper the same year, Parween was the one who made the cut. In the biggest decision of all, Parween accepted the position offered to her and moved to Mumbai.
“There was a big decision-making process at home”, said Amir, “because it meant she would have to put her studies on hold. We asked her what she wanted to do then (and) she said her heart was in sports. She could continue with distance education.”
Since joining Western Railway, and being picked in the Indian Railways squad, Parween’s opportunities at the senior level have dried up. In the 2015-16 season (representing Madhya Pradesh), she finished on top of the dismissals chart in the one day competition, with 12 scalps behind the stumps. But in 2016-17 (representing Railways), she did not get to play a single game in the 2016-17 season, since the Railways team also featured India’s regular wicket-keeper Sushma Verma.
She got her only opportunity in the season for India U-19 in the Challenger Trophy, and there it was her glovework that pressed her case. An incredible stumping of Mithali Raj off a ball that turned and bounced sharply, helped her make a push for the Indian T20 team, despite next to no runs and hardly any senior level experience in the season to her credit. She made her T20I debut last year, against West Indies at home.
After making the Asia Cup T20 squad, she was excluded from the ODI team that went to Sri Lanka for the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifiers. But when the selectors preferred to go in with two wicketkeepers for the World Cup, she was drafted in for her biggest tournament.
Although unlikely, she could play a part in the playing eleven, with Verma’s own international credentials being far from well established. Even before she sets foot on English soil, she is in a potentially tricky situation. Once again, any chance she gets could easily be her last.
But then Parween is used to taking the few opportunities she gets.
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England all-rounder Chris Woakes expressed sympathy with those affected.
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