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From Bogra to Brisbane: the Bangladeshi women expanding their country's horizons

Bangla bash: Rumana Ahmed (left) and Khadija Tul Kubra in Belgaum, on their tour of India Annesha Ghosh / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Imagine you're on your first visit to Australia and Stuart MacGill has a one-on-one session on legspin with you at the SCG. Then you bump into Mitchell Starc, who, on being introduced to you, says, "Of course, I know who she is."

"I didn't expect such a famous cricketer to have heard of a female cricketer from Bangladesh," says Rumana Ahmed, Bangladesh women's ODI captain, who along with her team-mate Khadija Tul Kubra, got to experience the action at last season's WBBL up close as part of the ICC's Rookie Placement Programme.

Among eight cricketers shortlisted from five member countries of the ICC, Ahmed and Tul Kubra joined Brisbane Heat and Melbourne Stars to see how elite clubs train, play high-intensity T20s, and socialise as teams.

"More than just the skill, or the fitness routines, I wanted to tap into their reading of the game, and study their body language - how these top women's cricketers adapt to the pressure of modern-day cricket," said Ahmed, as she prepared to lead Bangladesh on the ODI leg of their tour of South Africa.

Her side hasn't played an international match since the World Cup Qualifiers in February last year. "We are No. 9 on the ICC rankings, so unlike our men's side, our playing opportunities are limited and that has stunted our growth to a great extent. So to train alongside players like [Jess] Jonassen, [Beth] Mooney, DK [Delissa Kimmince] and [Deandra] Dottin is a big achievement."

I met Ahmed and Tul Kubra in Belgaum last December when a full-strength Bangladesh A toured India for one-dayers and T20s against the hosts' A team, and later spoke to them after they returned from their WBBL stint in January. They talked about how they made it to the national team - two very different stories.

Ahmed comes around to the topic of her childhood while describing the pain of "wasted talent".

"I lost my father young, and in a family of four siblings, I started my formal training [in cricket] after my SSC exam in 2008," she says.

"My mother has never liked the fact that I play cricket. Not that she's ever opposed it; it's just that she doesn't like that I play cricket. She barely tells anyone I'm the captain of the national team, you know, unlike what most mothers do."

What about when she was chosen to go to Australia?

"When I told her over phone that I would be going to the WBBL, the first thing she said was, 'Play, but don't forget to read namaaz,' Ahmed, 26, recounts with a laugh.

"I am her child, so she's obviously proud of it, but you've got to understand much of my mother's thinking is a result of all the reeti-neeti [traditions] that shape our society.

"In a society like ours, and in the subcontinent, it takes a lot of struggle for a girl to get to the field. I like answering people through my actions. All the effort I've put in, my team-mates and coaches have put in, I don't want to let all that go waste.

"At this stage of my career, I don't want marriage to be a point of no return for me. I believe there will be time for me to get married, raise a family, but I don't know of any female player from my country who gave up cricket for marriage and was then able to return to the game."

For Tul Kubra, 23, breaking the news that she was going to the WBBL to her father went quite differently.

"He thought I had got the captaincy for the India tour," she remembers. "But when I told him what it really was, he didn't say a word. Not one. All Abbu did was weep for minutes. He had never expected I'd come this far with cricket."

Stirred by the sight of his pre-teen daughter playing cricket with her brother, Jamil Akhter, despite facing severe opposition from his family, felt "cricket could be the gateway to a better life" for her.

"He would pack my lunchbox and send me to the camp in Bogra, where Aapu [Ahmed] and the Bangladesh team had been training ahead of the tri-series [involving Sri Lanka and Pakistan in 2009]," says Tul Kubra, who was 14 at that time.

"Abbu would say, 'Academics is important, but what you'll learn by seeing these girls, you won't get to read in the books. So go, watch them play.'"

"None of us ever heard this girl speak," Ahmed says of first meeting Tul Kubra. "But we could see the eagerness in her eyes - a kind of fascination for what she would see us do."

An offspinner, Tul Kubra was first taught by her father and then coach Muslim Uddin in Bogra. In January last year, she took career-best figures of 4 for 33 while successfully defending a total of 136 against South Africa. However, she says turning out as Melbourne Stars' 12th man on her penultimate day at the WBBL was just as thrilling as her international four-for.

"I had to board an early-morning flight the next day, so I had packed my kit bag and left it in my room before leaving for the match. Just when I was about to get on the bus, the team manager said, 'You'll need to get your kit bag, you'll be the 12th man today.'

"When I heard that, my mind raced back to how I had been telling Abbu I needed somebody to accompany me to Australia. I was a little scared about travelling alone. But he said, 'An airport is a metaphor for society. If you make your way through an airport all by yourself, you will conquer great things in life.'"

"From there to watching that Super Over [at the Melbourne derby between Stars and Renegades] from the dugout, I'd say I'm quite fortunate. Allah gave me the opportunity to watch players like Amy [Satterthwaite], Mignon du Preez and [Lizelle] Lee handle the Super Over the way they did. It's about fighting to the finish. And that six from Satterthwaite and then our reply - there was so much to learn from their intent, their body language."

Ahmed, a legspinning allrounder, is Bangladesh's leading run-maker and wicket-taker in ODIs, and the only female bowler from the country to have claimed an international hat-trick. She has played all of Bangladesh's limited-overs matches since they got ODI status in 2011.

On the India tour she was the top run scorer in both the ODIs and the T20s, took five wickets in six matches, and even her fielding stood out, especially one low catch she took, diving full length after running in about 30 yards from long-off.

Ahmed knows Bangladesh can't progress further without regular games. Although they performed reasonably well in the 2014 World T20 at home - winning two of their five matches - they have only played 12 T20Is since.

"If you look at the way Pakistan has improved - they beat New Zealand last year, who would have thought? That's because regular playing opportunities have injected confidence in these players. Even though they may have lost most of their series, the team has been growing in confidence.

"It's not that we are light years behind, but the self-belief can develop only when we play against international sides, understand what they're doing right, what we're doing wrong. That's where an experience like the ICC-WBBL rookie programme helps."

Seeing her more experienced team-mates at Heat work out problems on the field taught Ahmed a lot about the mental aspect of the game.

"When you see a Jonassen care so much about the team - it feels as though she owns the team - you feel like giving that 5% more to your own side as a player and captain," Ahmed says.

"And the way she and Mooney would bail Brisbane out of difficult scenarios - that could be a lesson for not only us but all subcontinental teams on how to stay calm, have a positive body language even when it seems like you are headed for defeat."

Ahmed and Tul Kubra also enjoyed their time with their team-mates off the field, and were touched by the warmth with which they were treated.

"DK [Kimmince] and Dottin would pick me up from the hotel and drive me to the ground every day. Everybody knows her [Dottin] for her big-hitting, but she's also very helpful. I needed a local SIM card, so she drove me to a store far off to get me the SIM."

Tul Kubra remembers the nervousness she felt when she met Stars' players and support staff for the first time.

"[Erin] Osborne treated me like a friend from day one. She would herself come to me, explain the finer details of offspin bowling. She did her best to make me feel at home.

"When you think of these big teams like Australia, England, West Indies, you're always in awe. What you don't realise is, most of these players are friendly, warm and always willing to help you. They are human beings like us!

"I was missing our home curries one night, so my team-mates drove me to an Indian resident's place for dinner and they decided to use their fingers to eat, just the way people in the subcontinent eat! That was a great moment to be part of."

Ahmed wishes others like her could experience the sort of coaching session she got from MacGill.

"That one hour sir spent with me, talking about the variations I could develop, how the courage to give it a good rip alone can fetch you a wicket at times. It's the kind of experience parents from our society would want their daughters to have, I'd like to hope."

Now, back home, both Ahmed and Tul Kubra are hoping to share what they learnt with their team-mates, starting with the 30-player camp in Sylhet. The national team, staffed with a recently refreshed coaching faculty, including former India allrounder and assistant coach Devika Palshikar, who was recently appointed deputy to head coach David Capel, trained there ahead of their international season: the tour of South Africa is to be followed by the Asia Cup in Malaysia, a ten-day tour of Ireland, and the World T20 Qualifiers in Netherlands.

"We are trying to make sure this WBBL experience was as much our team-mates' as it was our own," Ahmed says.

"If our journey can instill confidence in our team-mates and inspire any girl in Bangladesh to take up sport, make them believe it's possible to create one's own identity and go places if you persist with it, we will think we have made decent use of the opportunity the ICC gave us through the WBBL."