Cricket provides Pakistan girls a way to live freely © Getty Images
The India under-21 women's team tour to Pakistan is seen as a big step forward for women's rights in the largely conservative Islamic republic. The tour which begins next week is also considered a boost for women's cricket in general on the subcontinent, where the game has an almost universal passion. India's under-21 team is the first-ever Indian women's team of any sport to cross the border.

"In an era when tolerance and equality are promoted in all sports, cricket gives us girls a way to live freely," said Armana Khan, a wicket-keeper batsman from Chaghi, a town in the conservative southwestern province of Baluchistan.

Kanta Jalil, 24, a right-arm medium fast bowler from Abbotabad, in North West Frontier Province, said: "I never faced resistance at home because I used to play along with my father and brothers, but I never thought I'd come this far."

In the remote corners of Pakistan where Kanta and Armana grew up, girls were rarely allowed to go out in public, let alone to wield a cricket bat and throw a ball. Yet the pair defied local customs and religion and are part of Pakistan's new women's national cricket team.

Only recently did the hard-line Islamic government in the North West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan, lift a ban on male sports coaches training women.

However, Pakistan's female cricketers still face the threat of protests or worse from religious zealots. In April, a mixed marathon race in Lahore met with serious opposition leaving a number of people injured when hardliners clashed with police. Cricketing authorities have learnt from that incident and have taken steps to prevent trouble.

"We follow a strict dress code of shalwar (baggy trousers) and long shirts, and male spectators are not allowed to watch our matches, so I don't see there should be any problems," said Shamsa Hashmi, the secretary of the Pakistan Cricket Board's (PCB) women's wing and captain of the Pakistan team.

Opening batswoman Sana Javed, who hails from a small town on the plains of Punjab province, said the baggy clothes were no hindrance. "We are used to them now and can run as fast anyone," said Sana, whose club cricketer father taught her to bat.

The first moves to introduce cricket to Pakistani women were made by sisters Shaiza and Sharmeen Khan in 1996, but they came at the cost of death threats and court cases. The siblings were denied permission to play against India by then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif's government in 1997, which ruled that women were forbidden from playing any sports in public. It was only when the PCB took charge of women's cricket last year that the female game here picked up.

"Women's cricket has come a long way. We owe this progress to the PCB and the Pakistan government," said Shahnaz Sohail, the coach of Pakistan women's team, who added that her girls were overjoyed about playing India. And the anticipation is shared by their opponents. "Our girls are really excited about the tour," said Anjali Pendharkar, the manager of Indian team. She added, "There is a lot of curiosity regarding Pakistan and the culture there. They are keen to see how things are in their neighbouring country."

Pakistan and India have revived a host of fixtures at all levels in the past two years after sporting links were cut in 2002 because of tensions between their governments, leading to a growing sense of rapprochement.