It was a sultry evening in Sharjah, but Samiya Saleem showed no signs of surrendering to the conditions. Drenched in sweat, she kept running in for more than two hours, bowling at a good pace and knocking back the single stump that was her target. The only break she took was to bandage the blisters on her ankle. Dipanki Borcar, after finishing her stint in the batting nets, crouched behind the one stump that Samiya aimed for. Standing up at the wicket to Samiya's pace was not an easy job, but the 18-year-old missed nothing.
Around them, more than 20 other girls worked to hone their skills in preparation for the Asian Cricket Council's Under 19 Women's Championship, which starts in Singapore on October 4. The girls, mostly of Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan heritage and born in the Emirates, range in age from 10 to 18. Their team will represent the UAE at the tournament. The session at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium started at 7pm, but showed no signs of winding down after three hours of non-stop running around. Pleas from Mohammed Haidar, their coach, to pack up for the day were ignored, just as they also are in the morning training sessions.
"These girls, they just don't want to stop," Haidar mumbled, running to a group in a huddle of sorts, engrossed in discussion. The coach finally persuaded the girls to leave. He knew it will be the same again the next evening. "I am coaching both men and women, and I think the girls are more dedicated and hard working," Haidar said. "We have been training [with the girls' team] since July, in the mornings from 7am to 9.30am.
"The girls would arrive at 6.30am and if I told them to stop at 9.30am because it was getting very hot, they would say, 'No. We want to continue', they would insist and carry on until well beyond 10am. "You will not find this among the boys. With them, if you have a two-hour training session, after one and a half hours they will say, 'Sir, thank you very much'. They have plenty of excuses; girls will not give you such excuses."
Seeing the numbers of girls that come to the nets, and their enthusiasm, it is hard to imagine there was no women's cricket team in the UAE four years ago. In 2006, the Emirates Cricket Board launched an initiative to create a women's team and a year later they were in Malaysia taking part in the ACC Women's Championship. In their first game, against Bangladesh, the eventual champions, the UAE were bowled out for a mere six. In the other two matches, the team totals were 14 and 45.
"When we first started four years ago, we did not have many girls," Haidar said. "But we kept pushing hard, convincing the girls and their parents, telling them how it was good for their fitness and overall development. More than the girls, we had to make their parents understand. "Once we could convince the parents, the number of girls started growing. Before that, we used to just struggle, but get nothing out of it. So we had to work really hard to create this team."
Dipanki, who has represented the UAE for three years, can vouch for the growing number of girls playing cricket and the general improvements in the standards of their game. "Recently we had an inter-school tournament, so we got new girls in," she said. "The majority of the players have been those who have been playing for three years, but now we have got new girls and they have improved a lot. Even the senior players, we have improved over the years. It's really good to see that."
Haidar is excited about some of the younger girls coming to the nets. One of them, who drives down from Ras al Khaimah with her parents, would barely rise above the stumps. She is 12, but bowls with exceptional accuracy, with a fluent run-up and consistently putting the ball in the corridors of uncertainty. Some of the younger girls are expected to make the team that travels to Singapore. "We have about six or seven girls aged between 10 to 13, and some of them are better than the 20-year-olds we have," Haidar said. "So it is great fun for me, as a coach, to see these developments, to see our efforts bearing fruits.
"When I heard that some of these girls are coming from Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah, you cannot believe how excited I was. I am really happy that girls are getting attracted to cricket." Haidar said the Emirates Cricket Board has been very supportive. "Whatever I ask for, at any time - ground, nets, balls or whatever - they provide me," he said. "The officials are really very helpful and that is why we have been successful in promoting this sport among the girls."
Most of the girls, when they first arrive, are untutored in the nuances of the game. Some struggle with the basics - their batting grip, footwork, bowling run-ups and falling shoulders at the time of delivery. Haidar speaks to them regularly, working patiently to correct their faults. For some, he is trying to find new roles - a batswoman might be asked to try spin bowling as her second weapon. "These girls, 90 per cent of them, they don't know anything [about the technical aspects of cricket] when they come here," Haidar said. "So it is a great challenge for me. We have to start from scratch with them. I have to teach them how to grip the bat and how to hold the ball. It is a really tough job, but they are really good at picking up because of their enthusiasm for the game.
"If you had seen these girls three or four months before, there is a 100 per cent difference. So I am really happy to see the changes." Samiya and Dipanki do not take much of their coach's time. They have been around from the time UAE's first women's cricket team was being formed and are expected to be the stars of the show in Singapore. Dipanki, a student of Heriot Watt University in Dubai, took to the sport after a regular dose of cricket on television. At the start, she wanted to be a bowler, but her admiration for MS Dhoni, the India captain, made her settle on wicket-keeping.
"Initially, I never really liked this sport, but I started watching it on TV," she said. "My brother is very fond of cricket. Then we had a few inter-school matches and I played for my school. Later, I found out about the Sharjah Cricket Council's team, so I started coming here and started playing cricket. I got a good platform here. "I tried my luck at bowling, but I couldn't really get it right. Frankly, I really admire MS Dhoni and he is a keeper, so I started keeping and it turned out to be good."
Samiya's initiation into the game happened a lot earlier. She started playing when she was five and by 10, inspired by Wasim Akram, the former Pakistan fast bowler, she started bowling pace and told her father she wanted to play international cricket. "I really love Wasim Akram because he is left-arm bowler and I want to be like him," said Samiya, 17, who also bowls left-arm. "I realised I could bowl fast when I was playing for a club in Sharjah. I guess I was 10 years old or something. Then I told my dad I want to play internationally and he brought me here."
Samiya represented the country at the 2007 Women's Championship and the U19 tournament in Thailand the next year, picking up a memorable four-wicket (four for 15) haul against the hosts before near tragedy struck. The team was awoken in the middle of the night by Samiya's shrieks of pain. There were fears of a possible brain tumour and she was rushed to hospital. Scans revealed there was a cyst, which needed immediate surgery. Samiya's life was at risk and the doctors made it clear the chances of the operation being successful were 50-50. Her father was rushed to Bangkok as the doctors refused to operate without his permission.
"It was a really difficult time," said Haidar, who was accompanying the team as manager. "When the girls heard about her problems, they did not want to play their matches. On the day of her surgery, we were playing Oman, but the girls refused to take the field. "Her operation finished at noon and I rushed to the ground after that. We were to play the second match of the day, which started at 11am. Until 2pm, they were not ready to play, but we finally managed to convince them. I told them she is OK and the surgery was successful. Only then did they agree to play. Thank God everything went well and she is playing for the UAE again."
Samiya does not talk much about the incident, but she does regret missing out on cricket because of the surgery. "It was OK," she said. "It made me miss my matches, but thanks to God, the Emirates Cricket Board and everyone who helped me out, also the Thailand Cricket Board. Thanks to all of them, I came out well. "I was fine, I was well. I could have played more, but they were like ? I was hospitalised, so ?"
Back with the national team, Samiya wants to improve on her four-wicket show against Thailand. "That was like the biggest achievement of my life," she said. "But I want to take even more ? do even better." Dipanki also has high hopes and said: "We are going with a really positive frame of mind. We hope to play well in every game, focus, try to win every match we can and reach the finals." Humaira Tasneem, 15, who also has been around for three years, shares the sentiments.
"I think we can win it because we have some really good players," said the off-spinner, who wears a hijab. "We have good stamina and we are building it up. So yeah, I think we can do it. I want to be good and make my family proud, make the UAE proud." firstname.lastname@example.org