It is difficult to pinpoint which part of Mahika Gaur’s story is the most unlikely.
The fact she could be talent-spotted at a coaching clinic at Dubai Expo 2020 and, less than two years later, be picked to play for England.
Or that someone could make it to the ranks of one of the leading forces in women’s international cricket so rapidly from the first cohort of female players to play regular organised cricket in the UAE.
The 17-year-old fast-bowler is about to be rendered ineligible to play for UAE for the foreseeable future, having been picked in the England squad for their limited-overs series against Sri Lanka, starting on Thursday.
Realistically, given how impressed England appear to be by the 6ft 2in schoolgirl, she is unlikely to be seen in UAE colours again.
If it is to be 19 T20 internationals and out for Gaur’s UAE career, then she goes with overwhelming goodwill from the team she is leaving behind.
Chaya Mughal, the UAE captain and women’s cricket development officer, spoke on behalf of her team last week when she said how thrilled she was by the news.
The ripples of her elevation have been felt far and wide, even in the United States. Humaira Tasneem was the captain when Gaur first played for UAE in a match against Indonesia back in 2019.
The Al Ain-born all-rounder now lives in the US, where she no longer plays regular cricket. Despite now being out of sight, the news about her former colleague did not pass her by.
“It is incredible, and very satisfying, to see a person like Mahika achieving so much – just because she deserves it,” Tasneem said.
“She has been a great team player, she has taken advice from everyone and tried her level best to improve herself as a player.
“She has earned the reward for working so hard. It makes me happy from the bottom of my heart to see her achieving so much.
“I hope she knows we always have her back. We will always be there for her, no matter what, and we are always cheering for her from the sidelines.”
'She is really humble'
Coincidentally, Tasneem, who is now age 28, also started out in the UAE team when she 12, just as Gaur did.
Back then, though, the opportunities for women’s players in the UAE were sparse. Tasneem was at the forefront of the Emirates Cricket Board’s push to attract more females to the sport.
At the time Gaur was taking her first steps in cricket, the number of regular players in the women’s game in the UAE maxed out at around 20.
The foundations the ECB built back then were clearly strong ones. Last year, a national team choc-full of young talent went on a record-equalling run of wins in T20 international cricket.
Gaur might have flown the nest, but there is an enviable array of teen talent still around, like Theertha Satish, Vaishnave Mahesh and Samaira Dharnidharka, to name just three. Inspired by Gaur et al, the women’s game in the Emirates could be set to blossom further still.
Any aspiring young player would do well to pick Gaur as a role model, according to Tasneem.
“What really stood out for me about her was that she was really, really humble. She was super, super kind and a very big team player,” Tasneem said.
“I think that is so important if you want to go to that high, professional level with a team like England.
“Mahika had these characteristics when she was younger and that really stood out to me.
“People might say she was chosen in the England team because she is tall and left-handed, which gives her an advantage. That is absolutely true, but I think what really sets her apart is her determination, and her really kind and nice character and personality.
“She is really humble, has a lot of humility, and always has everyone’s back. Even when she’s fielding, she will feel she always has to get that catch no matter what. And if she doesn’t, she is going to feel bad about it for the rest of the day.
“That is what I saw in her, even from a really young age.”
Gaur and her family arrived in Dubai from the UK when she was aged eight. She had already taken to cricket bowling to her dad in the back garden, but found chances to play in the UAE limited, so tried badminton instead.
The lure of cricket was too strong, though, and she returned to the sport at nets at the ICC Academy.
Adnan Sabri, one of the Academy coaches from the time, says he was immediately struck by the newcomer.
“I remember meeting this tall, lanky girl who was just nine or 10, and saw her bowling with a double hop, but still the consistency of her line and length was amazing,” Sabri said.
“There was something we could see in her. Most of the time she was bowling at the target.
“I had a chat, and said, ‘Do you mind if we try to correct your hopping?’ It was amazing. Within about half-an-hour, she was able to do that.
“She was a very quick learner and was always willing to ask questions. She was very organised, humble, and happy to listen to every single coach.”
Sabri says it was immediately apparent Gaur had a talent for the game, but it was impossible to know quite how far it could take her.
“I told her the first time I saw her she had the ingredients to be a good cricketer, but I did not know she would reach this level,” Sabri said.
“Back then there was not as much cricket for women players as we have now. In the first tournament she played, she took a couple of wickets and that was the time when I thought she had something different from other players.
“With her height, her consistency, she was something different from others. We thought she could make a significant contribution to cricket.”
UAE debut aged 12
Within a couple of years of that introductory session, Gaur was being thrown into the full UAE women’s team aged just 12 at a tournament in Bangkok.
As if to emphasise just how young she was, the player of the match in that game was Chamani Seneviratna, an all-rounder who had once scored a century in a Test match for her native Sri Lanka before Gaur was even born.
According to Chaitrali Kalgutkar, there was never any concern over giving Gaur her chance when she was so young.
“We never had any issue,” said Kalgutkar, who was also coaching when Gaur first arrived at the ICC Academy, and closely followed her rise thereafter in her role as part of the management of the UAE women’s team.
“She had the potential, and we wanted to get her to that level so we could get the most out of her. She used to produce, even back then. She was a good team player.
“When she first came into the team, she was shy because she was so young. She didn’t know a lot of people but we started to make her feel comfortable. A lot of experienced players started helping her and interacting with her.
“That gave her confidence to be bold enough, and that is why she is where she is today.”
Gaur was born in Reading in England. Her route back to the country of her birth came when she attended a coaching clinic at Dubai Expo 2020 at the start of 2022 conducted by coaches and senior players from Lancashire.
The county side were impressed, and offered her the chance to train with them. That led to a sports scholarship at attend boarding school in the UK, as well the chance to join the set up of Manchester Originals in the Hundred.
This summer she made an eye-catching breakthrough in that competition. She was named in the England squad for the Sri Lanka series, and, days later, went viral online with a stunning delivery in the Hundred that dismissed Australia batter Phoebe Litchfield.
Kalgutkar says moments like that are “a source of pride for us” and reckons she will be well suited to succeed in England.
“We saw the talent in her and ever since then she has been working hard towards making the most of it, both in her fast bowling and her overall development,” Kalgutkar said.
“She was always tall, even back then, but we never expected her to get this tall.
“She always had the attitude to work hard and learn more. Her idol was always Mitchell Starc and she always wanted to bowl like him. She wanted to be tall like him, and now she has done all of that.
“The amount of potential she has is incredible. Yes, age is a factor. She is young.
“The conditions will help her because in UK you need these kinds of bowlers.
“We always knew she had a bright future and that she could play for an international team like England, but we never knew it would be so fast.”
The fact Gaur is an inspiration for girls who aspire to play cricket in both UAE, England, and South Asia, too, is unquestionable. But it does not just stop there.
UAE women’s cricketers frequently play and train with boys as part of their development programme.
Neil Siddharth, a Dubai-based cricketer who also plays district cricket in the UK in the summer where his aunt lives, aspires to follow in Gaur’s footsteps.
“I faced Mahika in nets as part of my training group, and it was a good experience for me to face a tall left-arm fast bowler who bowls good in swing at good pace,” he said. “She has a perfect action and she will really suit English conditions.”
Siddharth’s father, Kalyan, said watching the towering Gaur bowling at his son “was scary as a parent” but was struck by her attitude.
“The boys train together with the girls at nets, and she always stood out because of her personality. It is easy to remember her because of it,” he said.
“If she is bowling against a smaller boy, she wouldn’t think to herself, ‘Oh, I can just bounce him out.’ She works out what is best for the situation required and makes sure quality cricket is played.”
Playing against boys
From playing against boys in Ajman, to potentially facing Sri Lanka in the colours of England. And she is just getting started, according to Tasneem.
“On a personal note, for me it is so fulfilling to see players like Mahika accomplishing so much,” Tasneem said.
“We have seen players like her and Esha [Oza, the current ICC women’s associate player of the year] playing in a lot of franchise games with big women cricketers from around the world. They are making us so proud.
“For me, having been in the UAE team in 2009, seeing what it is today is really, really rewarding.
“There was a time when we had only 15 to 20 girls coming for trials, or even practice back in 2011. Now, in 2023, UAE women’s cricket is in a whole other arena.
“I am so happy to see records being broken and seeing players playing with other big women cricketers. It is truly amazing.
"And, you know, Mahika is just getting started. This is only the beginning of possibilities that are endless for her.
“I can’t wait to see what happens next for her. Inshallah, the best is yet to come.”