Wed, 17 April 2024
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''They said there's no future for women cricketers in Bangladesh''

Update : 09 Mar 2024, 09:48

Last November, in a match where Bangladesh were looking to keep the one-day series alive against Pakistan, Nigar Sultana, their keeper-captain, scored a steady 54 to take her side to 169. But after 47 overs, Pakistan were touching distance from clinching the series at 153 for 7 when Nigar ran out Diana Baig in what was the first of three run-outs that culminated in tying the game. In the Super Over that followed, Pakistan scored seven and Bangladesh needed two to win off the last ball. Nigar, on strike, stepped out and hit Nashra Sandhu over mid-off for four to level the series and pay tribute to the people who made it possible for her to do any of that.

"After I hit the four, I just ran to my parents in the gallery where I hugged them. It was the best moment of my life," 26-year-old Nigar told ESPNcricinfo's Powerplay podcast. "I think it inspired a lot of parents. A lot of women take up this sport and dream about one day playing for Bangladesh."

Nigar said that it's the bravery of her parents and those of her team-mates that has helped create a revolution in the women's game. Cricket is no longer a taboo activity for women in Bangladesh, which is also going to host the women's T20 World Cup later this year.

"Initially it [the culture of women's cricket] was not that good because we are a Muslim country and it was very difficult for women to choose cricket as a profession because we have our conservative culture that thinks girls should be indoors or they should be doing house chores. But I should thank all the parents [of female players]. They are brave and they supported their girls.

"I came from a very middle-class family from a small city. For me, it was very, very tough. Whenever I went to the ground, people would say so many negative things. They said there is no future for women cricketers in Bangladesh, and we shouldn't be out wearing jerseys and t-shirts. It was not a good culture. The hardest part was for parents to be willing to let their girls play out their dream."

The tide started turning in 2018, three years into Nigar's career, when Bangladesh beat India in a last-ball thriller in the final of the women's T20 Asia Cup.

"It was our first big achievement and it got the attention of all of Bangladesh," she said. "After that, the revolution began. We never looked back."

A month later, Bangladesh went on to win every game in the 2018 T20 World Cup Qualifier and get to their third T20 World Cup (they have gone on to play in two more). More importantly for Nigar, they also qualified for their first 50-over World Cup.

"This is how it started," she said. A few months after the ODI World Cup in 2022, the ICC unveiled its first women's Future Tours Programme (FTP), which Nigar described as a "game changer" because of the regularity of fixtures.

"Before [the FTP], we didn't play continuous international cricket. Even if we played a lot of practice matches or many domestic matches, international matches are very different. Now we are playing international cricket regularly. We play against the top sides, so we can learn and get experience. This changed the whole atmosphere for our team. We know now how to deal with pressure situations in the international game. Before, we only played against the top sides in ICC tournaments or in a tournament like the Asian Games."

And the proof is in the results. In 2023, Bangladesh played four bilateral white-ball series - compared with one each in 2021 and 2022 - including their first in nearly a decade against India. Even better was that they got their first ODI win against India and drew the series 1-1 after tying the deciding game. Nigar top-scored in the win with 39 and triggered a collapse of six wickets for 34 runs in the final match when she ran out Harleen Deol in the 42nd over. India captain Harmanpreet Kaur criticised the umpiring in the game, calling it "pathetic", and was heard insinuating the officials favoured Bangladesh in their decision-making but Nigar would not be drawn into that kind of talk.

"That particular match was really exciting and both the teams actually played good cricket. Apart from the other incident [Harmanpreet's], it was a very good match," she said. "We felt the game could have got away from us when it rained [at which point India needed 53 more from 12 overs]. I told my girls that after the rain when we get back to the field, India will come hard at us and maybe we can do the same. Just keep believing in yourself and with every ball, just fight for it. We are not going to lose until we lose."

The series gave Bangladesh the confidence that they can challenge the best in the world. Fargana Hoque scored Bangladesh's first ODI hundred, and Marufa Akter, Rabeya Khan and Nahida Akter troubled India's batters, who were reduced to 91 for 8 in the first ODI.

"So many players from our team idolise Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana and Jemimah Rodrigues because they've been watching them and dreaming about playing against them. It was a huge, huge thing for the youngsters on my team. And I think it was a good takeaway for us. We don't go by the names right now. We just wanted to play as a team," Nigar said. "In our team, we don't have the big hitters, we don't have particular match-winners. but what we believe is whoever gets a start, she should finish the game."

Bangladesh followed it up with ODI and T20I series wins over Pakistan and notched up their first wins in both formats in South Africa. Later this month they host world champions Australia for their first bilateral series in Bangladesh, a contest Nigar believes is ideal preparation for a home T20 World Cup. But there is something more she would like as well.

"It is quite disappointing because there is no BPL [for women] right now. When the WPL started with the exhibition matches, we proposed a BPL women's tournament to our cricket board. When you play a franchise league, it opens a door for you because you could get to know other players, experienced players. Women's cricket is not walking at the moment, it's running. If we could have a women's BPL, it will inspire a lot of women to take up the sport. I should also mention that it's very important when you get financial support and you will get a good amount of money from [such] a tournament. I hope the Bangladesh Cricket Board will arrange BPL soon for women's cricket because the T20 World Cup is coming and it could be great preparation for the team."

Nigar's point about the ability to earn a living from the game must be taken seriously. In FICA's 2023 report on women's cricket, Bangladesh were among the countries praised for the progress they have made in developing the game and they have since gone on to increase salaries and match fees for players. In return, the team is producing results and, led by Nigar, also inspiring a nation.

"I keep everything simple. I say to my girls: I'm not your captain, I'm just your colleague. What I believe is that if you maintain a good culture off the field, it will have an effect on the ground because your dressing room will become more relaxed and more fun and you enjoy each and every moment, so I tried that and it worked for me.

"I'm a very fun person. And I'm very naughty. I never miss a chance to do dancing, singing and naughty things. It makes my character more approachable to the players. And they can come to me any time, they can talk to me about their life, cricketing or personal." Source: ESPNcricinfo

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