A lost conversation. That’s what I think about when I think of Sana Mir. I was interviewing her for this article on the rivalry between India and Pakistan’s women’s teams, and as I started to transcribe it later, I realised that a part of the recording was incomplete. I scrambled to type out everything I remembered from the chat; thankfully, most of it was safe, recounting stories of stone-pelting (Asia Cup 2006, when Pakistan toured India), record-breaking (2012, when Pakistan beat India for the first time in World Cups), and an Asian collusion at Lord’s.
This last occasion was in 2014, when Mir played alongside Jhulan Goswami, Mithali Raj, and Shashikala Siriwardene for a Rest of the World side playing against the MCC, as part of the club’s double centenary celebrations. “I remember Mithali was standing at mid-off, and that was the first time Mithali was cheering for me, ‘that was a good ball, do it again’. It was quite an amazing feeling cheering for each other,” Mir told me at the time.
It is an anecdote that reflects Mir’s global appeal, attested to by the many congratulations that have poured in upon her retirement. They recognise Pakistan’s greatest female cricketer, whose intangible legacy is as rich and valuable as her tangible one.
Let’s count what we can first. Mir finishes as ODI cricket’s fifth-highest wicket-taker, and she is in the top-10 in T20Is too. She led her country to two Asian Games gold medals, pieces of metal that were instrumental in the transformation of the image of women’s cricket in Pakistan in the early 2010s.
She was recently named captain of Wisden’s Team of the Decade, underlining how highly her leadership is rated around the world. Her career survived an early back injury, and the switch from medium pace to off-spin that it demanded. Her bowling evolution saw her reach the No 1 rank in ODIs, the first Pakistani to do so (by which time she had added leg-spin to her bag of tricks). Most significantly, she led Pakistan to two WT20 wins against India, in 2012 and 2016, the only times a Pakistan team have had success over India in World Cup cricket.
But to understand what Sana Mir means to Pakistan, it is necessary to peek into Pakistan. I had that honour when I was a part of the India Under-21 team that toured Lahore in 2005, when Mir was making her first appearances in green. But 15 years ago is a long time. To stay current I called up Ahmer Naqvi, Karachi-based freelance journalist who wrote this profile of Mir in 2015.
“If you stop the comparison with male cricketers, then Sana Mir is easily the most recognisable athlete in Pakistan,” he said. Athlete, not just female athlete. She has been the face of campaigns run by bigwigs like Uber and Pepsi. She has been the voice of social causes, speaking out against body shaming. She has been on billboards, as a contradiction and inspiration to countless women who are told they cannot ride pillion on motorbikes unless they sit side saddle.
Women’s cricket in Pakistan has been walking a tightrope for a decade. Naqvi describes the Overton Window of society there, where feminism and women’s rights are difficult conversations even in well-educated circles.
Cricket is inseparable from the national psyche, but expanding this construct to include women in a leap many are yet to take. To even have discussions on women’s cricket, you need to find a few firm feet on a lake of thin ice. And in those rare and unwelcoming patches, women’s cricket finds a few inches to put down roots, seeking sunlight and space.
“In that sense, the idea of women playing cricket is just very difficult to discuss in polite society. For it to survive it always needs to not be too apparent, until suddenly it becomes acceptable. That’s a really central dilemma,” says Naqvi.
In this context, Mir’s 15-year international career grows even taller, especially the first Asian Games gold medal in 2010 (India did not send men’s or women’s teams). From receiving death threats a decade earlier, the Pakistan women’s team were briefly the toast of the nation, elevating them above the men, who won the bronze.
Charged with not just becoming the best cricketer she could, but also helping her team believe the same, Mir’s competitiveness has paved the way for other leaders to emerge. Bismah Mahroof and Javeria Khan have both led the side since 2017, and Nida Dar became the first Pakistani to play in the Women’s Big Bash.
Helping the team believe they could beat powerhouse neighbours India is something she counts most special. “We had a mental block before that (2012) that we could not beat India because we had never beaten them... Once you beat a team, they are not unbeatable next time you face them. That’s why that match is very special to me. To be able to do it, cross the line.”
The latter third of her career saw some inevitable clashes with the establishment. She was the first woman cricketer to achieve national recognition, a sister-figure to many in the team, even after the captaincy passed on to younger players. Perhaps it was the unavoidable complications of being the first woman to truly shine in a male-dominated cricketing landscape. We do not know. What we know is that there was certainly discontent at her exclusion for the squad for the 2020 T20 World Cup, with the captain Mahroof mentioning that she would have preferred to have Mir in the side.
Mir eventually did make the World Cup, at the invitation of the ICC to the historic final at the MCG, where she was among a few select legends of the game to provide a guard of honour to the two teams in the innings break. It was a grand moment to be a part of, with more than 86,000 clapping on, but as a fellow player, I think Mir might have preferred to retire on her own terms, with her teammates flanking her, no matter if there was no one in the audience. But sport carries no guarantees, no scripts, and we all sign up to that.
My favourite Sana Mir memory comes from that lost audio clip, describing the second time Pakistan beat India, in a rain-affected game at Delhi in the 2016 WT20. As the captains were informed about the outcome, Mir’s teammates started their celebrations, but she held on for a split second, showing the grace to not smile too widely as she shook hands with her Indian counterpart. And she told me in that interview that she later counselled her teammates against celebrating too much in the dressing room, cognizant of the fact that the catering and stadium staff who had taken such good care of them so far were all Indian.
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