A window into Pakistan Women's bonhomie
A peppy Bollywood number plays in the Pakistan Women dressing room as they wind up training on a hot day at the Air Force Sports Complex in Palam. The players have been put through the paces for a better part of the last two hours. Batting, fielding drills, high catches, bowling, and stretching exercises. Suddenly, a squeaky voice asks, "Yen gaana kisne bajaaya (who played this song)."
The attention turns to the song. Some members like it, others don't. Some are too tired to walk back in to change it; there are others who jump at the opportunity. Some disagree, some laugh. Finally they give in. The song plays.
All along, there's leg-pulling, banter, dance, laughter, conversations, chai, and more. Above all, the camaraderie within the squad is one of a happy family. In another corner, Sana Mir, the captain, is busy preparing for her second batting stint. A member of their support staff jokes: "Chai, wai rakho. Ab, aapko bowling karna padega (leave the tea aside, you'll have to go and bowl)." There's laughter again.
It's a group of free-spirited individuals revelling in each other's company, pulling each other at every step. If one drops a catch, there's someone with a "koi nai yaar, agle baar le lena. ("doesn't matter, catch the next one)." A small injury at training, and the entire team rallies around the player. The concern is genuine.
"It was always there, but we all saw Javeria Khan's injury, it was pretty bad, we were all shocked initially," Bismah Maroof says. Her team-mates describe Javeria as the "most fun-loving" and they miss her. The camaraderie and warmth is visible not just on the field, but also in little things like choosing of seats in the bus, controlling of playlists, and bowling order at the nets.
Unlike the men, there is no weight of history, no chaos, no talks of having to beat India at any cost. Pakistan Women have beaten India Women twice at ICC events. There are no talks of being cornered tigers, no pressure of expectations or reputations to live up to. The team knows while they are no world beaters, they are out to have fun and make the most of the exposure and opportunity to play on the big stage, on live television.
While they look to win, they are also sensible enough to understand a loss isn't the end of the world, as cricket, for most, was almost an afterthought, not because they didn't like the game, but because circumstances forced them to rethink. Some took the game like fish to water; other developed their love in the quest to "do something different."
Picture this. Anam Amin, their Player of the Match in the first two games, wasn't even born when Imran Khan lifted the World Cup in 1992. Sibling rivalry and admiration for Daniel Vettori got her to copy his action, and eventually refine it to where it is today. Mir, the captain, was told by her parents: "There are way too many doctors and engineers in Pakistan, do something different." Drawing inspiration from the 1992 triumph, she did and has been the undisputed leader for the last seven years.
Maroof wasn't even sure if she wanted to play cricket, for academics was her "kind of thing" until she watched a Saeed Anwar cover drive as a 10-year old. At 15, she made the national team. Nida Dar's parents didn't want their daughter playing a "rough and tough" game with the boys. Then there is Diana Baig, one of the youngest in the group, who was a javelin thrower, a shot putter, also a twin international - having played football for the national team. Cricket for them isn't life, they say, only a part of life. Mir believes her team is a microcosm of the modern-day Pakistani women, who are making a name for themselves in different spheres back home.
But when they combine as one, the team is a tight-knit unit, courtesy the love for the game. "Not just on the field, off it too," Maroof says. They are all good friends; there is no senior-junior divide. "Aapne deka hoga (you must have seen)," she reminds. "This time we have massively enjoyed the tour of India. We have had a chance to see more of the country. It's tough to get off days in the middle of a hectic tournament, but we made the most of it."
"This time" is the operative word, for things were far different when they visited India for the World Cup in 2013. Political tensions forced their matches to be moved out of Mumbai. Threats from a local political outfit forced the entire team to be lodged inside the Barabati Stadium complex in Cuttack. "That was tough, it was difficult for us as a team," Maroof recalls. "But it feels so long ago. Not just as a team, even as individuals we have come a long way. Now the younger players coming through are a lot more confident and trendy."
So what kind of things have they been up to? While Australia, New Zealand and England have focused on recoveries through pool session and ice baths, the Pakistan women enjoyed the sights and sounds of Delhi. Of course the security protocols had to be followed, but there was a sense of freedom, which they haven't always had in India for various reasons.
At the India Gate, they posed for "groupfies," enjoyed "kaala khattas" (ice lollies) and pani puris, (street snack) then went on a bus ride to Humayun's tomb, Rashtrapathi Bhawan, enjoyed street shopping in Old Delhi, took time off to enjoy the colours of Dilli Haat and even attended a fashion show, that was attended by a few film stars.
"The colour, the music, the festivities, it's so much like Lahore," Maroof says. What she doesn't is, how they were given front row seats, after word spread around that they were members of the Pakistan Women team. "There were requests for photos too, it feels different because we don't always get that kind of recognition."
What are their takeaways from the India tour? "Oh, the support of the crowd. 7000 people, I have never played in front of those many ever," Maroof gushes. "Delhi was special, fans wanted India to win but the applause after we won was amazing. The moment we returned to our hotel, our phones started buzzing. I can't remember the number of calls or messages I would have received from back home.
"Even those who hasn't seen us play back home were glued to their televisions." She doesn't allow you to interrupt, the excitement and joy palpable in her voice. "Even in Chennai in our first game, they rooted for us. We had only heard about the crowd support there, but to witness it was something else. We didn't expect it."
Maroof's sentiment is somewhat reflective of how the Women's World T20 in India has been a joy ride for the team. A maiden semi-final appearance, which is very much in their sights, could become a reality if they beat Bangladesh on Thursday. "England too, the India win has made us confident," Maroof says. The feeling resonates in the camp as well.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo