SHARJAH // As the tape stops on the voice recorder and Humaira Tasneem, the gently spoken captain of the UAE women’s cricket team, heads back to nets, she suddenly adopts a stern tone. “Make sure you put in the bit about the hijab, please,” she says, definitively.
Among the 40 or so women training together at the nets at Sharjah Cricket Stadium, Tasneem cuts a conspicuous figure for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, she is an outstanding cricketer. So good, in fact, she spends as much time coaching other less experienced players at the net session as she does honing her own game.
And secondly, the 20-year-old architecture student is one of the few players wearing a headscarf.
“When I was young I didn’t wear the scarf to play,” Tasneem says. “When I first did I wondered if people would ask why I was wearing it, but nothing like that ever happened.
“It is a Muslim country so people saw me wearing a hijab and said: ‘That’s great’. I don’t think anybody would be so shallow that they would have an issue with it. Nobody does.”
It has certainly not prevented her from pursuing a passion for cricket she inherited from her father, which was encouraged by her distant relative Mohammed Azharuddin, the former India captain, then developed via feisty matches with her two brothers.
She has been involved with the national team since she was 12, and wants to be a role model for other women cricketers.
“I’m pretty sure there are people hidden out there who are not playing cricket because they think a hijab means they could not play,” Tasneem, who was born in Al Ain, says.
“But it is fine. When we had the Gulf Cup [a tournament UAE won in December] felicitation, one of the girls came to me and said: ‘I hope I can be like you one day’.
“That felt so good. She was wearing a hijab and she said: ‘I want to be a cricketer, just like you’. If people see any Hijabi playing sports, it must help. I’m pretty sure there are girls out there who wear a hijab and don’t come to play sport because of it.”
Tasneem’s message is clear: there should be no impediment to playing cricket. It is a mantra cricket’s administration here are trying to get across, too. Theirs is a sport for all, and the more the merrier.
It is part of the reason the Emirates Cricket Board are currently in the midst of a nationwide talent hunt for male and female cricketers. It is a little bit like X-Factor for UAE cricket, just with less flashing lights, and more sympathetic put-downs.
At one session for men in Ajman recently, there were in excess of a hundred aspiring players. As many have 20 have been picked out for further assessment by Aaqib Javed, the national coach.
At last week’s women-only session at Sharjah, numbers were less. The fact the majority were wearing the grey, sponsor-issue training kit of the national team was a pointer to the fact most of the players were already well known to the selectors.
The others were an eclectic mix. One had played for the Pakistan national team in the past. Now she lives in the UAE, she coaches cricket, but plays little. Another, a Sri Lankan left-hander in a pink cap, batted like a female Kumar Sangakkara.
Others were less far down the development pathway. One young aspirant told the organisers it was her dream to be playing cricket. A clue to the fact she was just starting out in the game was obvious by the fact she went in to bat with her forearm guard covering her triceps instead.
Another warmed up by bowling to her eight-year-old son at the back of the nets. She said it was her dream to represent the UAE at cricket, too.
There is a practical reason the powers-that-be want to increase their female player pool. The ECB want the national team to look beyond the Gulf-based competitions they play most regularly, and start winning acceptance into International Cricket Council events.
To do that, they need a proper domestic competition. It is hoped the talent hunt will help attract players to help fill a new, four-team tournament scheduled for late April and May.
“That will provide a chance to get some stats on each player,” said Andy Russell, the development manager who is overseeing the restructuring of the grass-roots game.
“Throughout the summer we will bring them all together again, for training throughout the three months.
“It gives them some sort of structure, and something to do every month. In the past it was from tournament to tournament, and that could be one year at a time.
“We wanted to get away from everyone training together because that is not really how you grow the game. This is the first step towards getting the players to enter more leagues.”
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