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Jahanara Alam remains grounded despite flying among T20 superstars

Jahanara Alam celebrates a wicket IDI via Getty Images

For someone with an innate love for motorcycles, Jahanara Alam quit driving her Yamaha scooter, the only one she has ever owned, after her very first ride.

"Pick-up beshi niye phelechilam [I went one gear up too early at pick-up], so I didn't want to do anything silly and injure myself," the Bangladesh allrounder laughs, explaining why she decided to ride pillion on the vehicle after that. "But I can tell you I'll get around to hitting the right gears someday because the scooter is a special one; I got it as a gift after we beat India in the Asia Cup final [last June]."

Close to a year on from hitting the winning runs in that last-ball thriller at Kuala Lumpur's Kinrara Academy Oval, Alam finds herself in Jaipur, at the Women's T20 Challenge, mingling with the Indians she had consigned to their first Asia Cup loss in tournament history.

"To be the only Bangladeshi in a pool of only 12 foreign players," says Alam, "in a potentially path-breaking tournament for women's cricket, and be captained by a legend like Mithali Rajā€¦ no, I hadn't imagined this a month ago. The organisers inviting me is perhaps a vindication of things I may have been doing right individually, and of how far Bangladesh have come as a team."

Not many can claim to have witnessed the growth of Bangladesh women as closely as Alam. After all, she played - aged 18 - in Bangladesh's first official international fixture in 2011, two days after they secured ODI status with a win over USA at the World Cup Qualifier.

Since then, Alam has captained Bangladesh in a world tournament (the 2016 World T20), evolved into a utility pace-bowling allrounder, and made it to ICC and ESPNcricinfo's Team of the 2018 World T20 (as the 12th player), having taken the team's first-ever international five-for against Ireland in a T20I earlier in the year.

Alam, 26, acknowledges the effect of the rub of the green while speaking about nearly all the highlights of her career so far. The most memorable of those, of course, was Bangladesh women's first title in a multi-team tournament: the 2018 Asia Cup.

"I'm a firm believer in perseverance and teamwork leading to good fortune," Alam says, reflecting on that humdinger of a finish in that tournament final. The title triumph earned each member of the team a cash reward of BDT 10,000 (approx USD 118.30), brought out a viral moment from the men's dressing room, and gave women's cricket one of its most remarkable underdog stories.

"Yes, I put bat to ball, [the non-striker] Salma [Khatun] aapu (sister) literally ran for her life, and it was me who had to put in that dive to seal the win, but those two runs wouldn't have been possible without the astute planning of our head coach Anju [Jain] ma'am and assistant coach Deivika Palshikar.

"They backed me as a pinch-hitter, and when I saw someone as experienced as Harmanpreet [Kaur, the India T20I captain] come in to bowl, I told myself, 'Keep calm because this shouldn't be yet another instance of a Bangladesh men's or women's team fluffing their lines at the last minute'. Thankfully, fortune favoured us that day and rewarded me with my own Hasibul Hasan [whose winning leg-bye in the 1997 ICC Trophy final won Bangladesh men the title] moment."

"As a woman, when you can earn your own bread and support your family, it's a great feeling" Jahanara Alam

Much of her cricketing journey has had a touch of serendipity to it. The eldest of five siblings, Alam's initiation into the formal training in cricket happened in 2007. "Till about age 14, I did not know any cricketers' name, or had any idols to follow," she says, adding that the "rules of the game seemed too complicated" to be of interest to her.

In 2007, the Bangladesh Cricket Board directed its divisional units to form women's teams. "One day, [Sheikh] Salauddin sir - in charge of the BCB game development unit's Khulna division - asked me if I'd like to play cricket. I trialled but performed terribly in all departments. Imagine going to a trial without knowing a thing about spin or pace bowling, or ever having held a bat ever before!"

Within a month, though, word started going around that Alam had been clocking speeds higher than any girl in Khulna ever had. That, and her natural ability to swing the ball away from the right-hander, catapulted her in the Khulna divisional side. The following year, her impressive run at home in an unofficial one-day series against Hong Kong involved what she puts down as "the first unofficial hat-trick by a Bangladeshi woman in a one-day fixture". A national call-up, for a tour of Sri Lanka, came that summer.

Looking back at her formative years, Alam credits her parents, who encouraged her to put off her plans for taking the Secondary School Certificate exams and pursue cricket at a competitive level instead.

"I count myself as immensely fortunate in that regard," says Alam. "In a conservative Muslim society like Bangladesh, parents pushing their child into cricket instead of mandating them to focus solely on academics is a rarity to this day."

The first sportsperson in her family, Alam now lives in Dhaka for the major part of a year. "Months go without my meeting my family," says Alam, "But that's only a tiny cost to pay for representing my country in a sport that has given me financial independence and social standing. As a woman, when you can earn your own bread and support your family, it's a great feeling."

Among the 21 players on the BCB's current roster of contracted players, Alam's cricketing commitments has kept her from completing her graduation for several years now, a task she aims to complete someday soon.

"I have always been a positive and self-driven individual," says Alam. "Those two traits, besides my family's forward-thinking outlook, has helped me maneuver through several social stigmas. The conservative outlook towards how a girl should lead her life is still prevalent in Bangladesh. But unlike earlier, when people couldn't imagine a future in women's cricket if a girl wanted to take it up in her teens, now, especially after our Asia Cup win, I see many parents willing to at least consider the prospect."

Having recently been to India, on a six-day visit as the only cricketer on a 100-member Bangladeshi team of young delegates, Alam takes heart from the spike in interest in women's cricket in her country.

"Look, we are still a long way off from reaching, say, where Indian women's cricket is now, and our batting is an area we're working particularly hard on, but lots of positives have emerged in the recent past from our cricket," Alam says. "The local and national media coverage around it has improved, so more young girls are getting to know about our team; we are getting invites to inaugurate stores and, if we can win more matches, private sponsors may also come forward soon."

In the next five years, Alam hopes there will be more Bangladeshi women's cricketers waiting in the wings for the selectors to pick for the national side. Also, with initiatives like the ICC-WBBL's rookie placement programme, where her team-mates rubbed shoulders with some of the world's best female cricketers in 2017-18, more foreign leagues, she reckons, will feature Bangladeshi cricketers.

"Rumana [Ahmed] and [Khadija Tul] Kubra did it in WBBL and the Women's T20 Challenge is a start for me," Alam says. "Both these opportunities have been a huge motivation for me to keep working on my skills. My dream is to play in the WBBL someday and make it to the top ten allrounders across formats. Hopefully, what we achieve as individuals will eventually contribute to Bangladesh women getting into and then remaining in the top five team rankings, so we don't have to take the qualifiers route every single time to play a world tournament."