At only 26, Kiran Baluch, vice-captain of the Pakistan women's team, is an old hand. She is now the holder of the highest individual score in the international game. In this exclusive interview with Wisden Cricinfo, Baluch talks of the women's game in Pakistan, her own career, the future ... and her massive 242 against West Indies at Karachi in March - a match in which Pakistan's captain Shaiza Khan took a record 13 wickets, including a hat-trick, and Baluch, partnered by the young opener Sajida Shah, broke the record for the highest opening stand in women's Tests as well:.
How did you get into the game?
I can remember being involved from a very young age. I used to play a few other sports, like basketball and badminton, at school because they didn't have facilities for women's cricket then, although it is different now. My father played in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, and he has played for PTV [Pakistan Television] and PIA [Pakistan International Airlines]. Because I was the eldest of his children he used to really encourage me to play all the time - he taught me how to bowl and he used to play regularly with me and my youngest brother.
How did you come to trial for the national team, given that there was no domestic competition to play in?
Actually, I heard that Shaiza Khan [Pakistan's captain and the president of the Pakistan Women's Cricket Control Association] was getting a team together and holding open trials to pick players. This was in October 1996, and after the trials they just came up and told me that there was a tour to Australia and New Zealand coming up and would I like to go along or not.
So you hadn't played any competitive cricket at that stage as there was no domestic competition to play in?
No, just at home with my father. Now there is a domestic tournament - the annual Fatima Jinnah Trophy [started in 1997] which is a provincial tournament consisting of four teams. We could have more teams in it because the interest is there, but the standard would be very poor. Before that there had only been a few exhibition matches. But before the tour I played a couple of practice matches in Karachi with the girls and we had nets at the National Stadium.
Were you shocked at getting picked like that?
I was surprised. It all happened really quickly. We started this in 1996, there was a World Cup in 1997, and to qualify and be recognised by the International Women's Cricket Council, we had to play at least three one-day internationals outside our country. Because it was November-December time, the only place we could go to was Australia and New Zealand, and we had to do it then and there. Shaiza said to me, if you are willing and have permission to do it from your family, then we'll call you to the camp.
How was the tour funded?
From Shaiza and [her sister] Sharmeen Khan's family, basically. Their father is a successful businessman and Shaiza works there too. He has always supported us and continues to fund us to this day. Shaiza even puts all her savings into this, as we have a real problem finding sponsors.
So did you have a problem convincing your family about touring?
My father said yes immediately, but my mother was a little concerned, especially as I was going all the way to Australia, although she eventually relented. I had just finished my intermediate exams [equivalent to A-levels] and went off to Australia and New Zealand for the three one-dayers and a few first-class games.
How was that first tour?
An excellent experience overall. I performed reasonably well - I used to bowl more then, but I batted one-down and did OK. But the gap in the standards was a real eye-opener - they were way ahead of us. We played a side match against Canterbury, and because we were a new international side then, they picked six or seven internationals for the team, and it was just amazing how good they were. But we were treated so well by everyone, and because we were the babes of international cricket then, all the teams were very patient with us and willing to help us out, teaching us and spending time with us.
Have you faced any major obstacles or hurdles in doing what you wanted to do here?
No obstacles as such, but because we have only been playing for a few years, most of the team, including myself, are heavily involved in running the board. There is tremendous pressure, and not having any sponsors, not having any money, affects us because we can't just think about the game - we have to think of how we will fund practice sessions, tours etc. At the end of the day, we know that Shaiza and her father will bail us out, but each time a tour is coming the pressure is on. We also have pressures from the PCB; for the last IWCC trophy, they put our names on the exit-control list at the airport to make it difficult for us to leave because they wanted to send their own team. Some of the other girls in the team faced resistance from their parents, but they usually get their way - one of the girls actually went on a hunger strike to get her way. After the parents have seen their names in the paper, they usually understand that the girls are involved in a healthy activity.
Your record-breaking 242 against West Indies recently - how did you feel as you approached the record?
I was really nervous as I got closer. I ended on 138 overnight on the first day of the Test and I was sort of excited and nervous. Excited because I had made my first hundred, and Pakistan's first hundred in international cricket, but nervous because we had checked the record books as we got back and realised that I was close to Mithali Raj's 214. My team-mates all pumped me up and convinced me that I could do it, so I went out confident the next day. I nudged a single to square leg to break the record, and it was an unbelievable feeling. I knew I could do something if I set my mind to it, but this was amazing.
What pleased you the most about the innings?
I batted for five sessions, which was really pleasing. There was a lot of talk before that match about how a four-day match was too long for our team and the game would be over in two days, so to come out and stick around for so long was pleasing.
Were you disappointed you didn't win?
Definitely, because we were in such a strong position after bowling them out in the first innings. But the West Indies fought back hard in their second innings. They are an experienced team and beat us quite easily in the one-day series - some of their players have been around a long time. We, on the other hand, are an extremely young team, in age and experience. Sajida Shah made her debut at the age of 12 some years back and is still only 16. The West Indies came to us from India, and when they faced us they said that we have a much better bowling attack than India.
This was the first time you'd played as an opener, as you have mostly batted lower down in the past. Do you feel more comfortable in this position now?
I do now. I have played as opener for the last couple of years now, but this series has really helped. I opened through the seven one-dayers against the West Indies as well, and had a very consistent series [242 runs at 34.57]. I think I have learnt to be patient more than anything. Before I used to get really nervous, and used to pressure myself to concentrate on scoring runs. Now I concentrate on sticking around, and they tell me that I have the shots to score if I hang around.
Has that 242 been your most memorable moment so far?
It was, but so was playing for the MCC, and scoring 76 on my Test debut against Sri Lanka That was one of my most memorable moments. We lost the game but I helped our team avoid the follow-on. We were in deep trouble at the time - 34 for 5 I think - and I was batting with the tail. I went in at lunch and everyone was just saying "avoid the follow-on". So I managed to farm the strike and avoid it eventually. Sri Lanka had a really good spin attack and a couple of good pacers, so I was quite proud of my knock. Also my first one-day international against New Zealand, where I only made 8, but it was just unbelievable. I was just so excited at playing.
How do you stay in touch during the off-season, if there aren't many games on?
The Fatima Jinnah Trophy doesn't last too long, but we have camps when tours are coming up. We have quite a lot of practice matches after the camps. The next one is in August for the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka. Apart from that, the girls all know that they have to keep themselves fit. I actually play quite a lot of squash, as does Shaiza, which really helps, and I go to the gym as well.
How has your bowling fared over the years? You picked up a few wickets against the West Indies in the one-day series (six wickets at 28) ...
I started off as an offspinner, but over the years, as my batting has improved and as new, better spinners have come into the side, I have become more of a stock bowler, holding up one end. I'm not really a wicket-taker as such but I enjoy my bowling. After this series I may bowl more.
You are also vice-captain. What sort of pressures do you face there?
You have to look after the girls, some of whom are very young, on the tour and really keep them motivated throughout. On the field, Shaiza as captain takes on a lot of the pressure and responsibility herself. She manages very well and I hardly have to do anything with her around, but she comes up for advice regularly, and as a team we discuss and plan together.
Who have been your role models in cricket?
Shaiza has been the biggest influence. I have learned a lot from her. Just for the way she has fought for things throughout, and the way she stands up for her principles. Above all for really bringing women's cricket to the surface in an Islamic country where you face all sorts of problems, not just from the likes of the PCB, but also cultural norms, which are more difficult to battle against. Plus she is the best legspinner in the world.
What would you like to achieve, for Pakistan cricket and yourself?
For Pakistan cricket, I want it to have the kind of platform that exists in India, or Australia and New Zealand where there is a proper domestic structure. There is phenomenal interest in the game here among women, and the talent is also there. Our team is good - we have excellent bowlers and decent batters - but we lack the experience and the infrastructure. So I want to improve that. As a player, I want to be able to break my own world record and maybe score a couple of thousand runs as well. I can play on for a few years yet, so let's see where I get.