'We enjoy each other's company, which helps us in difficult times'
From being rookies to assuming the mantle of their side's batting line-up, Pakistan women's three leading run-getters - Bismah Maroof, Javeria Khan and Nain Abidi - have walked the same path for close to a decade. Over a video call from the UK before their first World Cup match, the trio opened up about personal hardships, career-altering realities, finding a friend in the captain, and the youngsters looking to make their mark in the game.
You are the top scorers for your country, and have shouldered the responsibility of propping up the Pakistan top and middle order for close to a decade now. What has it been like playing alongside each other for this long?
Bismah Maroof: We started out roughly around the same time and, for the bulk of our career, we've played together. In a way, we've grown up together in this team. There's a sense of reliability that has developed between us over the years. Most of the partnerships we've individually been part of have been among the three of us. We enjoy each other's company a lot, so that helps us bear up against difficult phases, on the pitch and outside of cricket.
Javeria Khan: One advantage of batting with Bismah or Nain is we run between the wickets quite well.
Nain Abidi: The understanding we share off the field as friends, perhaps, reflects in the middle. When we are batting with one another, the greater part of communication is non-verbal, apart from, of course, when responding to a call while running (laughs). Hum log zyadatar aakhon aakhon mein hi baatein kar letein hain [We mostly communicate through eye contact]. With all these years of playing together behind us, we've developed a camaraderie that helps us read each other well and calm one another down when things may not be going our way.
Each of you holds one of the top three scores in women's ODIs for Pakistan. Talk us through those personal bests, starting with Nain's 101 not out, which was the first ODI century by a Pakistan women's cricketer.
Abidi: I remember making a lot of 90-something scores in the club games I was playing in 2012. I would get a lot of criticism for not being able to convert those knocks into a hundred. Batting at one-down, I got a good opportunity against Ireland in Dublin that year. But when I entered the "nervous nineties", I got to know why they call it so (laughs), because it was the first time in an ODI I had made a 90-plus score. But after a point, I replayed all the criticism I had got earlier, especially from my relatives. When I eventually brought up the century, it felt… umm… it's difficult to explain, you know. It's not just your maiden century but the first one in the history of Pakistan women's cricket. In our country, playing cricket is not the first thing you'd expect a girl to do, so it felt like I had planted the seed for something new, something more than just a three-digit figure on the scorecard.
Javeria, how about your unbeaten 133 against Sri Lanka, which is the highest ODI score by a Pakistan women's player, and came three years after Nain's hundred?
Javeria: Nain's century set the precedent for us and, in a way, instilled a new-found confidence in the team. Perhaps, most of us started believing we could replicate that feat. So in the third ODI against Sri Lanka, where we were chasing 243 at Sharjah for a series sweep, I got a good start as an opener and didn't want to give it away after I crossed fifty. If we could pull it off, it was going to be our highest successful chase in ODIs. I have vivid memories of getting to the hundred but not after that. I am glad I could do it for the team, because as professionals, that's our job. But I think more than remaining unbeaten or the highest individual score [for Pakistan], it's the clean sweep that gives me more joy even today.
Bismah's 99 a record of sorts too. You are one of only four cricketers in women's ODIs, along with England's Charlotte Edwards, Ireland's Mary-Pat Moore, and Sri Lanka's Chamari Atapattu, to have been dismissed on 99.
Maroof: (laughs) Gosh… the century that wasn't to be! I didn't know my 99 would have any such record attached to it.
We were batting first [in Sharjah] against South Africa, and I was on strike, on 98, with one ball left in the innings. Having hit the delivery to deep cover, I completed the first run quickly and went for the second. Unfortunately, though, [Lizelle] Lee's direct hit was bang on target and I fell short by a whisker.
I guess it's never a nice feeling for any batsman to miss a hundred by a run, but since we won that match, the disappointment subsided to a great extent. But now that you've brought back the memory of that 99, yaar, ab century karni hi hain [Man, I've got to get that century]. Hopefully, it will happen soon.
Have you ever looked up to someone as a cricketing inspiration?
Javeria: AB de Villiers. I've admired his batting and fielding skills since his debut. The range of shots he has can boggle anyone's mind.
Abidi: As a kid, I used to be really restless; not only did I have a monkey mind, but I would also behave like one (laughs). I would feel this compulsive need to jump around, be engaged in some activity or the other. Thankfully for me and those around me, I was into sport from school and through my college days. So maybe because of the hyperactive tendencies, I always liked the way Jonty Rhodes would throw himself around on the field, take those spectacular diving catches.
Maroof: Ever since I first watched him play, at ten, it's been Saeed Anwar. The cover drives he would hit, the back-foot drives, the aggression… all of that appealed to me immensely. That he, too, used to be a left-hander, was, perhaps, the icing on the cake.
You've spent the greater part of your career under Sana Mir's captaincy. How much of an influence has she been is shaping you as players?
Maroof: I was quite young when I debuted [at 15]. As a teenager, I hardly had any practical knowledge of the world or the team, but Sana, who was already one of the senior members in the side by then, helped me get along with my team-mates and understand the dynamics of international cricket. With time, our bond grew, and today, I feel fortunate to say she's one of my closest friends in the team and outside of cricket. No matter what the problem - personal or professional - I can discuss it with her, at any hour of the day. As for her leadership, even before I took over as the T20I captain in 2016, she would groom me, explaining how important it is for a leader to be open to ideas from team-mates. That's one lesson I try and bear in mind always.
Abidi: In 2012, I lost my father and it had become really difficult for me to come out of that grief. Besides, there were back-to-back national camps taking place during that time and the 2013 World Cup selection was also due in a few months. Given that everything was happening so quickly, I couldn't cope with the stress and went into depression. I had retreated into a shell. I'd hardly speak to my team-mates. There was very little enjoyment left for me in the game. I had almost made my mind up about taking an indefinite break from cricket. But Sana was the only person who made me rethink my decision. She would tell me, not once, but many times: "Why would you want to take a break? You don't need it. You know that." That was her way of pushing me out of my comfort zone. She has played a huge role in my being able to tackle my depression. And if you're wondering if I took the break, I'm glad I didn't. Thanks to her.
Javeria: When I was suspended for a reported action in 2010, Sana Mir was the one who suggested I play as a batter. Before that, I used to bat at No. 8 or No. 9 and didn't have much confidence in myself as a batter. I saw myself only as an offspinner. Her decision to promote me up the order and then encourage me to open the batting revived my career.
With close to ten to 11 years of international cricket and at least 75 ODI innings each under your belt, you are now senior members of the side. Who are the youngsters in the Pakistan system who you have an eye on for the future?
Javeria: Ayesha Zafar, our opener, and Muneeba [Ali] Siddiqi, although she's not part of the [World Cup] squad. Both of them are batters and have good cricketing sense. During our regular net sessions, Ayesha would be the first one to enter the nets and the last one to exit. I haven't seen many youngsters who invest as much time discussing cricket as she does.
Maroof: Ayesha has an aggressive mindset. Very few female cricketers in the national ranks have that kind of an attitude. She has a lot of attacking shots in her repertoire that can help her be successful in the years to come.
We also have some promising medium-pace bowlers like Waheeda Akhtar, who's yet to make her debut, and Kainat [Imtiaz] and Diana [Baig], who are relatively inexperienced on the international stage but have the potential and hunger to perform.
Abidi: Until a couple of years ago, we were struggling to find the right combination between the senior and juniors. But among the young girls who have come in, I think Ayesha shows a lot of promise. Nashra Sandhu, the left-arm spinner, who was our leading wicket-taker in the qualifiers, also has a sound tactical understanding of the game. Diana is a good fielder and, on her day, she can get you wickets up front.
Can you describe each other in a few sentences?
Abidi: Bismah has a cool head on her shoulder. She is technically gifted, very graceful, and can light up the dressing room with her smile. She's been the backbone of our batting for years now and the patience she shows in bailing us out of tough times is a trait I admire in her greatly as person as well as a fellow cricketer.
Javeria is one of the more aggressive batters of our team. When you have her at the other end, you don't feel much pressure, because the pace of her game is brisk. She's free-spirited and keeps the mood in the dressing room light.
Maroof: They are the naughtiest members in the side and are the life of the Pakistan team. Any banter, prank or laughter that keeps the dressing room buzzing is likely to come from these two ladies. Besides, they are very supportive of the youngsters in the side and ensure there's no communication gap between the seniors and juniors.
Javeria: Bismah's one of the most hard-working, sincere and positive girls around. When I started playing for Pakistan as a batter, I looked up to her and have, ever since, wanted to emulate the way she leads the team with the bat. She's my best friend, and even without my asking her, I know she'll be there for me in times of need.
Nain is very passionate and confident about her game. Off the field, too, she has a strong personality, and she interacts with and encourages the juniors.
Who is the most difficult bowler you've faced in your international career so far?
Maroof: England's [Katherine] Brunt, [Anya] Shrubsole and Australia's [Ellyse] Perry. But if I'm to pick one, I'd say Shrubsole, because the kind of swing she gets in home conditions makes her almost unplayable at times.
Abidi: I like Brunt's aggression. She has good variations up her sleeve and can swing the ball at will. New Zealand's [Holly] Huddleston is another bowler who can be tricky to deal with.
Is there anybody in the Pakistan squad who is addicted to social media?
Maroof: I should be looking no further than the person seated right next to me (laughs). Nain, by some distance, is the most diligent Twitter and Instagram user in our team.
Abidi: (interjecting) In my defence, I must make it clear I'm not "addicted" to social media. It's just that I want to create awareness among people about the Pakistan women's team, their fixtures, their achievements, their preparations. Probably that is why you'll find me sharing, retweeting stuff more than many of the other girls. It's not a bad thing to do, is it?
In my opinion, though, it's Diana. She likes keeping up to date with everything happening on Facebook and Twitter.
Who is the messiest player in the dressing room?
Maroof: We try and help each other out to keep the dressing room clean, so there's not much scope for one to be messy.
Javeria: That's largely because our manager is quite particular about keeping things clean and tidy.
Which team-mate would you not want to be stuck in an elevator with?
Maroof: Nope, I can't think of anybody. I'm fond of all my team-mates. I would not, however, be very happy about the elevator getting stuck, though.
Abidi and Javeria: Hum sab ek doosre ke favourites hain [We are all each other's favourites]. We revel in each other's company, so we can keep each other entertained for hours.
If you had not been a cricketer, what would you have been?
Abidi: I would have been an engineer, for sure. Cricket wasn't my first-choice profession because I was academically inclined as a teenager. But, thankfully, because of my mom's encouragement, I ended up doing what I now do for a living. Back then, when I needed to take a call on continuing with cricket, I remember my mother saying, "Garden ko itni baar barbaad kar diyein, pattey shattey tod diyein, ab maidan mein jaakine apni ability dikhao [You've ruined the garden so many times, left the plants in tatters, now go and showcase your ability on the field."]
Maroof: Maybe, a doctor. Abbu [father] and others in the family wanted one of us kids to go into medicine. Had cricket not happened to me, I may have been that kid.
Javeria: I had left CA for cricket, so I would have probably ended up as a chartered accountant.
Following the victory of the Pakistan men's team over India in the 2017 Champions Trophy final, a couple of videos of your celebrating the winning moments did the rounds on social media. What does the India-Pakistan rivalry in women's cricket mean to you?
Javeria: It's just another match for us, to be honest. Whichever side wins, they won't get more points for the victory, nor will an extra point be deducted for a loss. It's as simple as that.
Abidi: The hype around this clash, though less in our case than in the men's case, is created mostly by the fans and the media. It's a great thing for the game, but we don't take any added pressure. On social media, people say things like, "Lose to whoever you please, but never to them". I'm sure it's more or less the similar kind of pep talk the Indian side receives too (laughs). At times, such comments can come across as funny because as professional cricketers, the effort we put in all year long, the preparations we do ahead of a World Cup, are not exclusive to the fixture against India. We play them with as much aggression and intent as we do against other opponents.
Is there any player in the Indian team you are wary of ahead of the match?
Abidi: Mithali Raj can be one of the most difficult players to dismiss. She's the fulcrum of India's batting.
Maroof: If you go by experience, Mithali would definitely be my pick too. But [Smriti] Mandhana has been in good form and looks quite solid and calm.
Javeria: I would say Harmanpreet Kaur, because the brand of cricket she plays makes her a player to reckon with.
If you could choose one bowler to hit for a six off the final ball of a knockout match, who would it be?
Maroof: I would like to hit a quality fast bowler, so it helps my confidence too. I'll choose Perry.
Javeria: I would like to have a go at Shamilia Connell [of West Indies]. In the World T20 last year, I was ruled out of the tournament after a bouncer from her fractured my thumb, so it may not be a bad thing to score those six runs off her. All in the spirit of the game, though.
Abidi: [India's left-arm spinner] Ekta Bisht. Hum logon ke beech me chalta rehta hain [We have a competitive thing going between us]. She's got my wicket a couple of times and I've scored runs off her on a few occasions. I enjoy the competition between us because it's pretty even and fun.
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo