They came for Covid and stayed for cricket: how Indian nurses transformed Maltese sport

The Mediterranean island owes the subcontinent for its unprecedented success on the field

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A group of Indian nurses have turned around the fortunes of Malta's female T20 cricket team and found fame in their adopted Mediterranean home.

The migrant medical professionals are leading a cricket revolution in the small island nation, after winning their debut T20 international match against Romania last month.

The team of unpaid sportswomen were led by captain Shamla Cholassery, a medical nurse from Kerala, when they won 3-0 to lift the Continental Cup on August 28.

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Most of us work a 7am to 7pm shift and train from 9pm to midnight or 1am
Shamla Cholassery, captain of Malta's T20 cricket team

Malta’s first women’s cricket team has 20 members, the majority of whom are nurses from India with little or no experience in cricket. The rest of the team consists of players from Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, South Africa and the UK.

None are from Malta.

Speaking to The National, the nurses-turned-cricketers said they were "bowled over" by the turn of events that led them to swap their scrubs for cricket jerseys.

“This was the last thing I ever expected in my life to happen,” Ms Cholassery, 29, said. "I had played some cricket with my cousins back home but had never wielded a bat for a professional match."

Like thousands of qualified nurses in India, she had dreamt of finding a job abroad for better salaries and working conditions. Coming from a hilly district in the north of Kerala, she had not even heard of Malta before.

In August 2019 Ms Cholassery landed in Malta as a care assistant, with the help of a recruiting agency that sends medical nurses abroad. Within a year she passed the written exam and qualified to work there as a nurse.

“Sometime in January this year, I saw a WhatsApp message from the Malta Cricket Association saying Malta was setting up its first women’s cricket team and was looking for players,” she said. "I love cricket and thought it would be fun."

Ms Cuckoo, with the Continental T20 cup. Photo: Shamla Cholassery

Her husband Jamsheed, who also moved to Malta and plays football for local clubs, also encouraged her to join, she said.

But Ms Cholassery was not the only Indian nurse to respond to the advertisement.

Anupama Rameshan, Anvy Vimal, Cuckoo Kurian, Ramya Vipin and Aneeta Santosh all turned up for the selection process. None had played professional cricket but merely wanted to enrol for the love of the sport.

“I had played with my cousin when I was in school, that was my only association with cricket,” Ms Kurian, 30, told The National.

She relocated to Malta in 2018 so that she could earn enough to send money to her family in India. She said she took up cricket to break the monotony of life.

“It was work and home,” the care home worker said. "I did not have a social life.

“After the first practice session, I got hooked on the game."

For Ms Rameshan, who was named player of the match against Romania, Malta was a destination of choice. She followed her brother and sister-in-law, who were both working as nurses in Malta.

Although they have since migrated to New Zealand, she says she wants to stay and continue playing cricket for Malta. She is currently working as a nurse at Mater Dei Hospital.

From rookies to professionals

The health workers said they enjoyed the sport so much that they committed to doing their best for the team. After a long, tough day at work, they still took time out for training at least three times a week.

“We got selected in February 2022, and since then we have been training rigorously," Ms Cholassery said. "We have long working hours. Most of us work a 7am to 7pm shift. But we found time and trained from 9pm to midnight or even until 1am. On Sundays, we work till 2pm and train from 4pm to 8pm.

“When we started off, only two people — Sanjana from Nepal and Jess from the UK — had experience. We had to start by learning the basics, we knew nothing.”

But, she said, everyone was supportive and welcomed them warmly.

Shamla Cholassery with husband Jamsheed. Photo: Shamla Cholassery

“No one looked down on us," she said. "They were happy about our enthusiasm to play.”

The team’s coach, Lee Tuck, told The National he was overwhelmed by the response he got when he wanted to set up a women’s cricket team.

“I wanted to build a team that can play quality cricket internationally," he said. "When I saw the girls for the first time, there was only one thing I told them. Show me your dedication, the rest I will facilitate. But they went over and beyond my expectations.

“It blew my mind to see how much energy and time they were willing to put in for training. They inspired me to give my best. They work long hours as nurses but they turned up for every single training [session] and were willing to work as hard and as long as it took,” said Mr Tuck, who is from South Africa, where cricket is hugely popular.

The Cricket Association organised everything from transport to training kits and match equipment for the team, which is 90 per cent comprised of medical nurses.

“We have some others who work in the service and retail sector as well,” Mr Tuck said.

Starting at a slow pace, he gave the players the time to first enjoy the game.

“We used soft balls first to avoid injuries," he said. "I did not go hard on them so that no one would quit in a few weeks.”

It then took only six months of intense training for the women to master the game.

He said the team members have become celebrities in Malta after their incredible win, with cricket now attracting more interest in the country as a result.

“There are professional men's leagues in Malta that I helped set up," he said. "In the last two or three years, the sport has evolved in the country." He said the men’s cricket team also has many migrant workers working in the medical sector.

“The women’s team will continue training and our aim is to participate in the 2028 Olympics when cricket will be a competing game,” Mr Tuck said.

As for the women, they said there was no question of quitting cricket.

“We love the sport and want to continue playing for Malta," Ms Cholassery said.

"Most of us are still working full time and that helps us support our families. But cricket is our passion and we will not give it up."

Updated: September 24, 2022, 9:13 AM
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