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'We're a serious cricket team'

The Zimbabwe women's team after their arrival in Bangladesh BCB

"If Don can do it, I can do it too." So said Betty Wilson during Australia Women's tour of England in 1951, when she was told that the ground she was playing at - Headingley - was the one where Don Bradman virtually always made a hundred. She did indeed reach a century that day, in just 75 minutes, hitting the last ball of the day for four to win the match.

Wilson, who was never paid for playing, was a consummate professional in an amateur era. Women like her have been knocking on cricket's glass ceiling for generations. Yet, in an age of million-dollar IPL contracts, World Cups in multiple formats, and a global cricket audience of well over a billion people, Associate and women cricketers enjoy virtually none of the fame and riches of the game's top echelons, and are largely motivated only by their love of the game.

"I just had to do it," says Zimbabwe allrounder Tasmeen Granger of her choice to pursue a life in cricket. "I fell in love with it." Like Wilson, Granger is not paid to play and does not have the safety of a professional contract. She is a member of the Zimbabwe women's squad that has arrived in Thailand looking to qualify for their first ever major event - the World T20 in India in March next year, which will run concurrently with the men's tournament.

Granger is part of a new generation of Zimbabwean women battling to elevate their game to the status of the men's in the public eye. When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, healthy local cricket structures helped to plot the men's path towards Test cricket, yet, as Isabelle Duncan - another notable cricketer - explained in her book Skirting the Boundary: a History of Women's Cricket, there was an "urgent need" to revitalise women's cricket in the country "after its almost complete decline. The women's game was in a dire state with very few players, no funding and a weak standard." Thirty-five years later, things have improved, though there is a long way to go yet.

Granger described her start in cricket as an act of rebellion after her parents stopped her from playing rugby. "My parents said: 'No, it's a guys' sport, stop that!' And then I was like, 'Okay, fine, you say it's violent, so I'll play cricket. I came up in the system in high school, playing with the guys, because there was no girls' team at Petra High School."

Granger had an example to follow in Bulawayo: Sharne Mayers, two years her senior at Petra, had done the same thing and played for the boys' side at school. Mayers was named Zimbabwe Women's Cricketer of the Year in 2010, aged 18, and immediately made an impact in the national side. Granger was the same age when she joined Mayers in the senior squad.

"My parents said: 'No, rugby is a guys' sport, stop that!' And then I was like, 'Okay, fine, you say it's violent, so I'll play cricket" Tasmeen Granger

Virtually every member of Zimbabwe's squad started out in international cricket as a teenager. Mary-Anne Musonda, who, like Granger, is an offspinner and handy batsman, is already a nine-year veteran of international competition, at 24. Musonda was a 13-year-old hockey prodigy at Kwekwe High when a cricket coach spotted something special in her.

"My hockey coach and my cricket coach were friends," said Musonda. "My cricket coach was passing by and I think he saw me swing the hockey stick or something, and he spoke to my hockey coach. He said, 'You should try to play cricket', and I thought, sure why not. When I tried cricket I actually started enjoying it more than all the other sports. I just got into it, and that was it." Two years later she was part of the national squad at the Africa Region World Cup Qualifying series in Nairobi in 2006 - a groundbreaking tournament for the Zimbabwe women, as it marked their first ever full international competition.

Musonda carried drinks for all but one of the games, but she thought, "I'm here, it's enough. Because with the calibre of players that were there, I knew it was not possible for me to play. Just being there with them was the best. That was pretty brilliant for me. Good exposure, good experience and I really enjoyed it."

Cricket structures available to girls have improved greatly since the likes of Mayers, Granger and Musonda started to play the game, and particularly since the franchise system was adopted nationally in 2009. Many high schools across the country offer girls the chance to play cricket, while every provincial franchise now includes a full women's team in their programme, and the Under-19 side, which has won the Four Nations tournament in Botswana three years running, regularly joins the national team in camp for exposure and experience.

"Before, it was a case of if coaches spotted girls in certain schools, they'd just tell you, 'We want you here on trial,'" says Granger. "It's gotten better over the years, but when I started you'd find that if we wanted game time, we'd play with the boys' development side. That's how I got into playing club cricket. There's a club called Emakhandeni, where the likes of John Nyumbu and Brian Chari play. That's the club I started playing for, and that's how I got game time. And it helped a lot."

Like the men's side, Zimbabwe women have also suffered from a paucity of bilateral cricket in the past, being focused almost entirely on tournaments. Yet that is beginning to change, and with increased exposure Zimbabwe are progressing. "Our women's team has definitely come a long way and since I debuted there's been big progress," says Granger. "In 2013 we found ourselves at the global qualifiers in Ireland. We fell three runs short of qualifying for the World Cup in New Zealand. We went to the qualifiers in December last year in Benoni and we won the tournament. Besides South Africa, Zimbabwe is one of the outstanding teams in Africa. We played South Africa at home about a year and a half ago and we got thrashed badly. And now the team went up to South Africa about a month or two ago, and now we're losing by three runs, two wickets, three wickets, like that. It's a huge change."

There is greater stability and continuity in the national squad. "There are rookies and kids coming into the system, but the national team is quite stable," Granger says, "and it's more or less the same team that's been playing together for the last two or three years. Now we have camps almost every month, whether it's a fitness camp or a technical camp, we're practising a lot more. Management, the likes of Caroline Nyamande, have done so much. You can tell it's growing."

More games also means that it is more likely that the women's game could be fully professionalised, though that is still some way off. "We haven't had an opportunity to be contracted yet, so to decide that you will focus only on cricket without a contract is unrealistic," says Musonda. "We haven't developed to that level yet but it is heading in that direction. The more exposure we get, the more game time, then the more realistic it gets for us to be contracted. If you don't have games then a contract won't happen.

"Without a doubt we need investment. We really need some kind of sponsorship. Most of the time we might be able to go and play games, but then we don't have funding or equipment. The structures are there, we just need input into those structures. With that, anything is possible. Get all the girls involved at school, get as many games as possible. That would kick-start something positive."

Granger's career is also beginning to provide examples of the opportunities available to Zimbabwean women in cricket. She became the first Zimbabwean female cricketer to play for an overseas side when she was selected to play in a combined Canadian-American side in the Atlanta Women's Cricket Tournament - which also includes national teams from the Bahamas and Cayman Islands - for two years in a row in 2014 and 2015, and has also just landed herself a player-coach job with the East Christchurch-Shirley Club in New Zealand. That post will allow Granger, who holds a Level 1 certificate, to further her coaching qualifications, bringing vital experience back to the game in Zimbabwe. Her contract runs from October to March, but she says she will be available for Zimbabwe whenever needed: "I can't abandon my country, ever. I'm always available for selection, though it will be weird not to train with them."

Granger and Musonda are conscious of the fact that they may be role models to the next generation of women in Zimbabwean cricket, just as players such as former national captain Julia Chibhabha (sister of Zimbabwe batsman Chamu) were to them. "People like Sinikiwe Mpofu and Julia Chibhabha, they stuck it out when things weren't really working, and it's because of people like that who decided: 'Okay, look, we're not getting the best deal here, but let's not only think of ourselves. We're going to retire, sure, but what about the girls coming up behind us?' They were pioneers, and they did it really well," says Granger.

"Julia Chibhabha has to be the one who sticks out, not only for the way she played cricket but the way she carried herself as a captain and as a senior," says Musonda. "I really liked playing with her. Internationally, I really look up to [England batsman] Sarah Taylor. She's a legend."

"Without a doubt we need investment. We really need some kind of sponsorship. Most of the time we might be able to go and play games, but then we don't have funding or equipment" Mary-Anne Musonda

There is a slim chance that Musonda could get to play against Taylor, as it is rumoured that Zimbabwe are attempting to engage the England women's team for a one-off match at home. "It's a possibility," says Musonda. "I was talking to my manager Caroline Nyamande and she said there is a chance that we might play England."

Nyamande, who is the national coordinator for women's cricket, and manager of the national side, is one of the main driving forces of women's cricket in Zimbabwe, and the team's trip to Thailand for the qualifiers has been her focus for several months. "Although we have played China and beat them before, we will not take them for granted," said Nyamande before Zimbabwe's opening match against China at the Asian Institute of Technology Ground in Bangkok. "We have had good preparations, including touring South Africa, while the icing on the cake was the Bangladesh warm-up games. All players are raring to go and they are quite geared up. We want it so bad."

"We're out to prove a point," says Granger. "We're not just a development side. We're a serious cricket team. Ten teams go to the qualifiers, and only two qualify, so it's going to be tough. So we're gunning hard for it. As a team, we want to go to the World T20. Our group has got fire in it. If we can get to the final, we're going to a World Cup. And the girls do really deserve it because we've worked hard for it. We've come a long way."

The top two sides from each group will make it to the semi-finals, and the final is on December 5. The two trophy finalists will join defending champions Australia, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies in the main tournament next year.

"It would be a start to my biggest dream, just getting to the World T20 and performing there," says Musonda. "For Zimbabwe. That's my goal, that's my dream. Just putting Zimbabwe ladies on the map."