UAE women cricketers celebrate a victory over Netherlands. Image Credit: Courtesy: ECB

Dubai: Cricket is a much-loved and followed sport in the UAE. This is hardly surprising, given the significant expat population from the Commonwealth countries and Dubai being home to the ICC headquarters. The sport has undoubtedly flourished here with facilities, sponsorships and strong patronage with the men’s team qualifying for the ICC tournaments off and on.

What about the women’s team? Unfortunately, not so.

That women’s cricket in the UAE has languished is a fair conclusion to make. A melange of structural, stereotypical or demographic reasons could be the reason. Let’s take a look.

Back in 2007, the available pool for selection of 13 was barely enough to form a squad. “Competition was not really there. You knew you were a part of the team,” said current UAE skipper Humaira Tasneem, who began her tryst with the sport at the age of 14.

A positive was the presence of school tournaments, which encouraged cricket among girls, helping identify and develop their abilities. “There are lot of tournaments that should happen at school level, which unfortunately does not happen anymore,” said Charvi Bhatt, former captain and national player for UAE.

Given the limited opportunities, the women have done fairly well. Significant was a runners-up finish at the ICC World T20 Global Qualifiers, having lifted the UAE to a world ranking of 14 in 2018. “It was a pretty big deal since we’ve reached this far in only 10 years,” added Tasneem.

Yet acknowledgement was missing and recognition nowhere in sight. “We went for the global qualifiers and became the 14th-ranked team in the world. Nobody was talking about it and we did not get the recognition we ideally should have received,” said Natasha Michael, who captained the UAE side aged 13 years. It was only then, a good 10 years after their team debut, that their existence as a women’s cricket team was acknowledged.

After ending their campaign on a high note, expectations had risen. It should’ve marked the beginning of a steady and upward journey towards the big stage. However, the situation remained “very stagnant”, according to Michael. She expected the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) to help push the team towards greater opportunities from there onwards.

Although the women received vital experience and exposure from domestic and international leagues, a roadmap seems to be lacking, believes Michael. “As someone living here and wanting to take it up further, there is no platform to do so. It is like a bridge that is missing,” she said. “As cricketers, we have got great exposure because of the ECB, they have taken us places. But a lot more can be done for sure.”

Being part-time players who have to juggle their personal life, education and jobs, training for the sport is bound to get strenuous. Yet, these women have committed themselves to it. It is the undying desire to do well for your country fuelled by pure passion for the sport that has sustained women’s cricket in the UAE today.

“Balancing work and cricket was an issue, but all the girls were always ready to come play cricket and practise after work,” sain Tasneem.

Women’s cricket in the UAE is not a lucrative full-time career option, believes Tasneem, who has represented the UAE team for over a decade now. “I’ll be honest, the career prospects are not good. For us to not get paid full-time is pretty disheartening,” she added. “But all these girls come because of their passion and desire to represent the country.

“We don’t get the benefits that fully contracted players get around the world (they are paid per tournament). We have to put our attention and focus on a day job as well as cricket, which is very tough.”

Such realities of the women’s game make comparisons with the men’s team unreasonable. The men’s team possess the benefits of a full-time contract to facilitate and fund their development in the sport.

However, disparity between men and women in the sport are treated still remains. “While I was growing up, people asked me if I play with the tennis ball as the hard cricket ball must hurt me,” said Tasneem.

“It was always difficult for people to accept the fact that women can play this game as well,” said Bhatt, who believes that cricket is as much a woman’s game as it is a man’s.

Though it seems a long way to go for these women to reach their ultimate goal of playing in the ICC World Cup, the resilient lot are optimistic that with collective national support and increasing efforts from the ECB, people of the UAE will be soon able to talk about their women’s cricket team with pride.

— The writer is an intern with Gulf News