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Mir dares to dream with England in her sights

"I have been very warmly supported by the whole of Pakistan, whether it's a small town like Quetta, or big cities like Lahore or Karachi" Getty Images

Playing for the Pakistan women's cricket team would not rank among the easier assignments in world sport. In existence for less than 20 years, their initial foray into international ranks included a maze of legal challenges, brutal newspaper editorials and even death threats.

It's an environment hard to comprehend; a nation too often marred with violence and terrorism and everything that goes with it. A place not deemed safe enough to host men's international cricket for the better part of a decade. For all this, we're conditioned to think a certain way about what must be the lot in the life for a woman playing there. Right?

Yet this is not Sana Mir's story. Not in the slightest. The veteran captain has another tale to tell altogether. One of inspiring generations of her countrywomen to reach their potential. Of daring to dream of what might be possible a decade from now, as opposed to her entry to the Pakistan team in 2005, fresh from a decade of administrative division.

Of course Mir acknowledges the unpleasant past and respects the challenges of the present, but she is principally focused on the opportunities of the future. The lure of the possible.

"Parents are now encouraging their daughters to play sport because they have seen the success of the women's cricket team; that's the hope we need for our country," she tells ESPNcricinfo with pride. "Because of our team's success we see the nation celebrate female mountaineers, female football players, female hockey players; all the female sports have got a boost."

"The cultural set-up is quite different in Pakistan; most of us still live with our parents, so with the kind of money we earn, we are able to basically do our training and manage"

Their progress, notably accelerated over the last five years, is the product of a virtuous cycle. Greater investment coupled with much better on-field results, alongside the ICC's commitment to bilateral series between all teams as qualification for the 2017 World Cup.

This year's World T20 brought the transformation to light in front of a global audience. It was only three years ago at the ODI World Cup that Pakistan were not just winless but thrashed. In March this year, they came within one victory of the final four. Actually, four more runs against the eventual winners, West Indies, would have been enough.

A bad loss to England in the final group game ended their run, but a pair of wins against India and Bangladesh reinforced the view that they can no longer be routinely dismissed.

This approach to Pakistan as a lesser opponent was on display the last time they toured England in 2013. In a double-header T20 series at Loughborough, the hosts won the opener convincingly with usual suspects Charlotte Edwards and Sarah Taylor doing the bulk of the damage. In the second game the former retreated down the order to No. 9 and the latter was rested. The visitors won the game and tied the series in a colossal upset.

It's hard to imagine a similar play being called this time around against a far more potent Pakistan. In saying that, however, new coach Mark Robinson did state that he expected that Edwards - who he moved on as captain - would have "filled her boots" in the forthcoming series, had she played. His point was to praise Edwards' evergreen talent rather than to talk down Pakistan, but nevertheless, it's the sort of quote that can come back to bite.

Not that the visitors need much motivation. For Mir's part, she made her international debut in the midst of an internal shake-up, the Pakistan Cricket Board taking full control of the women's game. She's seen the team "almost grow from scratch" to something that could not have existed then. A team quickly earning universal respect.

"The way the girls have progressed, the way the board is now supporting us, everything is moving forward, we can call it one of the most popular women's sports," she says, adding that it is now also a semi-professional enterprise, central contracts awarded to 22 players.

"The kind of passion I see in girls now wanting to be a part of this team - and the type of fan following we enjoy - it's absolutely brilliant." This helped further again by live television coverage of a T20 tournament named after the former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.

"It has come a long way," says Mir of pay and conditions. "Five or six years back only one department used to sponsor us and now we have four. That covers around 60 or 70 girls outside of the Pakistan team who can earn something from playing."

Mir points out that the tradition of women living at home until they are married helps create a setting where national players are exclusively committed to cricket.

"The cultural set-up is quite different in Pakistan; most of us still live with our parents, so with the kind of money we earn, we are able to basically do our training and manage," she explains.

"It's supportive to the women's team in that sense, so the contracts we get at the moment we are basically able to do just one job: play cricket."

"Parents are now encouraging their daughters to play sport because they have seen the success of the women's cricket team; that's the hope we need for our country"

Discussing the culture of Pakistan more broadly as it relates to her team, Mir's answers are consistent in their theme, especially when asked if the challenges experienced by her trailblazing forerunners in the mid-1990s are prevalent now.

Has she ever felt under threat for playing the game she loves because she's a woman? "Not at all," Mir says firmly. "It is about being culturally sensitive," she adds diplomatically.

"I have played cricket on the street, in grounds and in schools," Mir goes on. "We have to be culturally and politically sensitive, and that's something women's cricket coming under the PCB has done; we have had that shelter around us and that's why my experience is quite different to what they experienced in the 1990s."

Mir acknowledges the still-serious security considerations, her side playing often behind closed doors in Pakistan. It's a reminder that for all the progress, the challenges in Pakistan remain unlike those most participants in the game will ever experience.

"The kind of security you need to have in a public gathering is quite different from the rest of the world because of the kind of situation Pakistan is in at the moment." Mir points out that this is "not only for female cricketers" but any kind of assembly.

There have been flashpoints. Especially the 2013 World Cup in India, when they were forced to stay in the stadium at Cuttack as their security could not be guaranteed in a hotel.

Mir, in understated fashion, says the episode was "a bit tough", noting the most frustrating thing was that her young team weren't able to mix and learn from opposing players off the field. Her bold response at the time was instructive: "We don't mind the accommodation. We are not here to stay in five-star hotels. We are here to play cricket."

"If I thought like that I think I would not have continued this long," she says when asked if security concerns are scary. Then, in keeping with her theme, she pivots to explain how she prefers to view her career as an "opportunity to make a difference" as a leader for her country.

"I have been very warmly supported by the whole of Pakistan, whether it's a small town like Quetta, or big cities like Lahore or Karachi, and every individual says they are proud of me and my team."

Mir concludes her point purposefully: "Sometimes the perceptions that we make out of small bits of news do not reflect the reality."

Despite being an active member of the team, Mir plays the dual role as an elder as well, in the absence of any former players to draw on ("We do not enjoy senior players like Clare Connor or Belinda Clark in our set-up."). In turn, she doesn't hesitate to state administrators "definitely need to improve" their facilities, citing a single ground women cricketers have in Lahore.

Mir also advocates strongly for Pakistan's involvement in domestic competition like the Women's Big Bash League in Australia and England's inaugural Women's Super League later this summer. "Players from all the countries are getting that exposure and I don't think the Pakistan girls should be missing out," she says, citing left arm-spinner Anam Amin as one who could excite.

Amin is part of the cohort of Pakistan players on their first England tour, leaping to third in the ICC T20 bowler rankings after a superb World T20 at age 23.

She leads a spin-heavy attack benefiting from Mir's experienced offbreaks, Bismah Maroof's wristspin, (also promoted to succeed Mir as T20 captain), and Nida Dar's finger spin that accounted for three England wickets in their World T20 fixture.

With the bat, the seventh-ranked Pakistanis are bolstered by the return of in-form opener Javeria Khan (who has too graduated to the leadership team) and Sidra Ameen, who established her credentials in Javeria's absence.

Mir is very respectful of her hosts and knows their depth isn't to be underestimated, but believes her side can beat anyone. Underdogs no doubt, but unquestionably about to face a transitional England team at a good time.

Whether or not they take home the trophies on offer this time around, Mir is eloquent in explaining what her team now means to Pakistan, stating simply: "They appreciate us for living our dreams."

Thanks to the leadership of Mir and her ever-improving team, many more will now go on to do exactly that.