SRINAGAR: It’s a hot, sunny day and a small group of girls are running, sweating it out in the playground. They have donned tracks, their hair is neatly tied up and they are all wearing earphones to drown out the continuous teasing and comments from curious and even insolent passersby. They are all young, under 25 years, fearless and ambitious to make a name for themselves – as cricketers!

This is a small, local girls’ cricket team, which under the leadership of its coach and trainer Sakeena Akhtar, is not just breaking stereotypes in Kashmir but is also proving that no dream is too big for the Valley girls to fulfil. Although most of them are realistic about their prospects and, for now, are just glad to be able to get outdoors and play, they do hope to get into the game professionally. Of course, their winning attitude comes from their teacher and mentor, Akhtar, who has spent many years fighting the system and a conservative society to bring sports to girls.

As Akhtar purposefully strides into the playground, geared in track pants like her players, she calls out to the girls: “How many rounds have you done so far?” They’ve done quite a few but she’s not satisfied. “A few more are needed to get them warmed up before they start off with the practice,” she remarks. Clearly, Akhtar is meticulous and dedicated, qualities that initially helped her hone her skills as a player and are now enabling her to train a remarkable set of prospective female cricketers, who may be able to fulfil her abandoned dream.

Right from when she was a little girl, Akhtar knew she was different because unlike most girls who loved playing house with their Barbie dolls, she was always looking for ways to get out of her home and play cricket. She loved running, catching and hitting the ball out of the park. “I started playing at a very early age which is a good thing. But my journey as a cricketer was a very tough one simply because there is not much social acceptance for girls who want to pursue sports. I had to really stand up to resistance from within the family as well as the larger community. I played with boys and it was never okay to do that. But what could I do; girls were not interested in playing,” she shares.

However, Akhtar doesn’t regret her decision to stick to her stand. “It’s traditionally a men’s game so I knew there were bound to be challenges. And anyway everything for girls in Kashmir is difficult as there are several societal restrictions and pressures. One just needs to have strong willpower to overcome the hurdles,” she elaborates.

It’s largely thanks to this positive attitude that Akhtar was able to graduate from playing gully cricket to making her presence felt at the university level and later at the inter-zonal games played in the run up to the Rani Jhansi Trophy. She could have easily made a bid for playing in the big leagues but it was impossible to carry on “with all the serious disapproval and everyday reprimands at home”. She gave in eventually. “I couldn’t play for the country because I was unable to stand up to family pressures. I left the game at a time I was beginning to perform at my full potential as a player,” rues Akhtar.

Of course, Akhtar didn’t stay away from the game for too long. On the advice of an acquaintance she made up her mind to pursue a coaching diploma from the National Institute of Sports once she finished her graduation.

“This was one way in which I knew I could stay in touch with cricket. I wanted to make myself useful and share my skills and techniques with the younger generation. Coaching presented the perfect platform to pass on my expertise and understanding of the game,” says the first-ever qualified woman cricket coach in Kashmir.

Today, as a cricket coach at Kashmir University for the last eight years, Akhtar has guided numerous prospective players coming from different parts of the state. “We have girls coming in from far flung areas. Last year, we had a girl from Pahalgam in south Kashmir, who is now playing from Punjab,” she informs. Incidentally, another former student of Akhtar has been representing Punjab since the last three years. Jasia Akhtar has impressed everyone with her hard-hitting batting style that is perfect for the T20 format of the game.

Although things are changing and people are becoming more accepting of girls taking to sports, Akhtar believes that more efforts need to be made in terms of providing them with better infrastructure, improved coaching and more match practice. “There has to be more funding for the game at the state level. There are no proper coaching camps for girls and while there are local tournaments for the boys there are none for the girls. So if they don’t get to play, how can they develop a match temperament? Just regular practice can’t teach them all that they need to know to be ready for the nationals; they have to play with different teams and come up against all kinds of players to learn the tricks of the trade. Unfortunately, our girls don’t get much exposure at the local level and then they are directly promoted to the national level. That is the primary reason for their failure there,” she points out.

Even as she is closely observing her girls run around the park, there are a number of boys who stop over to pass derogatory remarks on them. “See the environment we work in. Even in the university, people keep staring while we practice. I tolerate a lot, but these young girls would get demoralised,” she states.

For now though her students – she is coaching around 10 girls at present – are upbeat. Asra Shafi, 23, is a spirited player who hopes to play at the national level. Lean and fair, she is ready to do what it takes. “I wish to represent my state and I will work hard to get there,” says a determined Shafi, with a big smile on her face.

Shafi had started playing when she was in school and her passion has only grown ever since she first picked up the bat. These days, as a mark of the changing times, many private schools have introduced sports as a compulsory activity for girls. In fact, parents like Arif Hussain, a government servant whose both daughters are in the school cricket team, are slowly getting comfortable with the idea of their girls taking to the track and field. And yet, they are not ready to see this as a viable career option. Speaking for his lot, Hussain says, “I don’t see sports as a good career choice for girls. What will it pay them in the future? There is no scope in cricket, especially for the girls in the Valley. At least not at the moment.”

Hussain may be referring to the reality today, but if Akhtar and her feisty students have their way then the future will definitely be very different. Howzat for hope!

(Women's Feature Service)