The Mahika Gaur Effect and the rise of UAE women’s cricket

From around 20 regular players just a few short years ago to 700 now, women's cricket in the UAE is thriving

The UAE women's team is beginning to attract big numbers compared to just a few years ago. Photo: ICC
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On the day Mahika Gaur was announcing herself on the main stage of women’s international cricket, her ex-teammates with the UAE were also in action.

Had life not taken her in another direction, the wunderkind fast bowler might have been playing against Bhutan in Malaysia instead of for England in front of the Sky Sports cameras.

The impact the former Dubai College schoolgirl has made since switching allegiances to England for their limited-overs series against Sri Lanka has been extraordinary.

She has been featured on the BBC and Sky, and made back page news in many of the UK’s daily newspapers. The English women’s game has been gripped by Mahika Mania.

But the side she left behind have been ticking along nicely in her absence, too. At the Women’s T20 World Cup Asia Qualifier in Kuala Lumpur, which took place at the same time as England v Sri Lanka in the UK, the national team enjoyed one of its finest moments yet in cricket.

By reaching the final, they achieved their main aim of making it to the global Qualifier, where they will compete for one of the final places on offer at the main event in Bangladesh.

When they got there, they did something they have been trying to do for years: they beat a Thailand side who had been blazing a trail through the sport on the continent for much of the past decade.

The UAE players would have loved to have shared their moment of triumph with their great friend. But the result just went to show that, even without the skill of their lost fast bowler, UAE women’s cricket is going places.

“First of all, we really miss her in our bunch,” said Vaishnave Mahesh, the 16-year-old leg spinner who was the UAE’s leading wicket-taker in Malaysia.

“We had a group of people who would meet up often and she was one of them, so we really, really miss her here, not just on the field but off it.

“But what she has done is a remarkable achievement. We couldn’t be any prouder of her. I keep telling my friends that one of my friends is now playing for England.

The numbers are up, and it is not just about that, it is about the quality we have been producing
UAE women's cricket coach Ahmed Raza

“I send them all the Instagram reels about Mahika. When I see her on TV, I just keep shouting out her name.”

There are many remarkable strains to Gaur’s story. She put her A-level studies on hold to open the bowling for England, having been talent-spotted by a county cricket coach at a pop-up coaching clinic at Expo 2020 less than two years ago.

When she first started out in the game in the UAE as a 10-year-old schoolgirl, there were around 15 to 20 players involved in regular competitive cricket.

To go from an intake that small to becoming a starter in cricket’s mainstream is stunning enough. But then consider the fact she was only one of the stars of the UAE cricket team at the point she left, not its only one.

Gaur, 17, was far from the standout player in that side. Vaishnave, for example, is younger than Gaur, yet already has more than 50 T20 international wickets to her name.

Samaira Dharnidharka is another player who is junior to Gaur in age who has rich potential. Theertha Satish is still a teenager, and she has the world at her feet. The list goes on.

“The numbers are up, and it is not just about that, it is about the quality we have been producing," Ahmed Raza, the coach of the UAE women's national team, said.

“That is why we are getting the desired results. You don’t just rock up and beat Thailand, and that, too, in the manner we did.

“We only made 70 runs, but the character these women showed, they were all up for the fight.”

Mahika Gaur came through the UAE cricket system and is now starring for England on the biggest stages. Getty

From a handful of regular players around six years ago, there are now around 700 women and girls playing competitive cricket in the UAE, many of them to a very high standard. So how did it happen?

“In the past four or five years, these girls have had a lot of exposure to matches that push their level,” Andy Russell, the Emirates Cricket Board development officer, said.

“With girls’ cricket, we can put them against boys who are at a higher level than where they are at, so they keep being pushed to get better.

“The nature of the game when they started was that their cricket as predominantly with boys. That meant they were being challenged at a much higher level.

“Introducing a girls-only programme then created that base of players to progress together.”

Vaishnave Mahesh, right, is among several exciting talents representing the UAE. The 16-year-old bowler is the youngest player to cross 50 wickets in T20 internationals. Photo: ICC

The women’s national team play in the boys’ academies Under 16 league competition. It means the leading 25 to 30 players get regular cricket against boys on a weekly basis.

When they started, they finished bottom of their pool by a significant distance. Their performance has improved to the point where they are competing in the top half of the table.

To grow the player base, the ECB run free weekly training sessions for girls between the ages of eight and 19, on Fridays at Skyline University in Sharjah and Saturdays at U-Pro Sports in Dubai.

The “Get Into Cricket” classes are overseen by Chaya Mughal, who has helped spearhead the development of the women’s game in a dual role as national team captain and development officer.

“Firstly, it’s incredibly fulfilling to see the enthusiasm and passion these young girls have for cricket,” Mughal said.

We are very proud of Mahika and what she has achieved ... But what [winning the Qualifier in Malaysia] has shown is there are many more potential players who can compete on an international stage
Andy Russell, Emirates Cricket Board development officer

“Being part of their journey and witnessing their growth in the sport is a source of immense joy.

“Moreover, the programme’s emphasis on inclusivity and accessibility by offering free sessions ensures that cricket becomes accessible to girls from various backgrounds.”

The growth of the women’s game in general, not just in the UAE, has also made it a more common option for parents to encourage their children towards sport.

Mahesh Hariharan, who is Vaishnave’s father, played cricket to a high standard himself in Chennai before moving to Dubai when his daughter was two years old.

“It pleased me and my wife,” Hariharan said of his daughter’s decision to pursue cricket alongside her academic studies.

“We always wanted her to be in a team sport. We feel that team sport teaches life better than any school curriculum or university.

“Team sport makes you grounded because, even if they do well, if the team doesn’t do well they cannot just enjoy the moment.

“Team games teach about life, and how to handle success and failures. As parents, we were very happy she took to a team sport like cricket.”

While Gaur is the most vivid advertisement possible for their development programme, the ECB do want to keep hold of any future stars they help on the path to the top.

“We are very proud of Mahika and what she has achieved,” Russell said. “We first knew her as an 11-year-old who was already very tall, and you could see she had a lot of natural ability and talent.

“To see her progress and reach the heights she has at a full member is great. She is obviously a huge loss for us as we loved having her in our system and she contributed very well to what we were trying to achieve.

“But what that result [the UAE winning the Qualifier in Malaysia] has shown is there are many more potential players who can compete on an international stage.

“Our development programme gets a huge boost because of Mahika’s story, but the players who are coming through, we will try and retain them.”

Updated: September 18, 2023, 3:16 AM