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Interviews

Meet Diana Baig, Gilgit-Baltistan's sole player at the 2022 Women's World Cup

The fast bowler talks about growing up in the mountains, her "royal" name, and wanting to take her team to at least the semi-finals of the World Cup

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
04-Mar-2022
Diana Baig bowls, Pakistan v Thailand, Women's  T20 World Cup, Group B, Sydney, March 3, 2020

Diana Baig has taken 37 wickets at 30.94 from 35 ODIs for Pakistan  •  Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan is home to a number of mountain peaks taller than 7000m, several large glaciers, thousands of ancient rock artefacts, and just one international cricketer: Diana Baig. It's hardly a surprise that she is a force of nature.
Baig is named after royalty (the princess, y'know?) and she has defied both conservative culture and absent facilities to move mountains. She is a double-international, capped in both cricket and football for Pakistan, has a degree in health and physical education, eyes a long-term future in coaching, and has immediate goals to take Pakistan further than they have ever gone at a women's cricket World Cup. And she's doing it all because she was inspired by a story in a magazine more than a decade ago.
"In 2010, I was looking at a magazine and saw that the Pakistan team had won the Asian Games - a women's team. There were pictures of the team in the magazine, and when I saw that, I got very inspired," Baig says from New Zealand, where she has completed her quarantine ahead of the World Cup.
At the time, the sports-obsessed Baig was throwing javelin and shot-put for her region but not so much into cricket.
"Where I come from is a beautiful place, but there are a lot of conservative people there. They don't support sports," she said. "As a child, you are not allowed to play outside your home on the road. If you are a girl, you should play inside your home, and even if you are playing inside, they will ask: 'Why are you playing?'
"When I was a child, I didn't have a role model and I never thought about playing international cricket. I watched men's cricket at that time. My family loved cricket and we all loved to watch cricket. Once, I saw a Pakistan-India women's match on TV. In my mind, I started imagining that someday I will play. I was just imagining, but I didn't have hope."
The idea that she could become a cricketer took shape when her athletics coach turned her towards the game.
"My coach told me there was a team going to play cricket and he asked, since I throw shot put, do I know how to bowl. He asked me to try and I did. After a while, he told me I was doing great and I went to Islamabad with the team. We played against Islamabad and I got selected for the Islamabad region.
"I played my first national championships [in 2009-10, at the age of 14] and saw the women I had seen in the magazine - Javeria Khan and Sana Mir and Nida Dar. It was a dream come true."
"Whenever I think about my journey, I always think about my father, how he encouraged me. He was always excited for my success and wanted me to push hard always"
What Baig didn't know then was that the Asian Games win had prompted the Pakistan Cricket Board to professionalise the women's game. It eventually paved the way for her to make a career in cricket, but via football.
"In 2014 there was a team going to Lahore for the [football] national championships and there was a shortage of players. They asked me to play. I went to Lahore to join the team. I played my first national championships in football there.
"After that, I got selected for a national football camp. There were about 50 girls in the two-month camp. Eighteen of us were selected and I was a defender. I played some international tours, but in 2015, the Pakistan Football Federation [PFF] was banned, so I stopped playing."
She didn't stop watching, though, and continues to support any team Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi play for, but often has to cheer alone. European football is not well followed in her home town and the local scene has died down as the PFF has fallen in and out of FIFA's favour. At the time of writing, it remains banned over government interference and there are fears of development stalling and players being lost to the sport. In Baig's case, football's loss was cricket's gain as she turned her full attention to bowling after the 2015 football sanctions.
With nowhere to practise in Gilgit, which has "no ground and not a single net", Baig moved to Lahore, where she could study and train at elite facilities. "I went to Lahore in 2016 and I started my studies at Lahore College for Women University. I selected that university for cricket. They have their own cricket ground and nets.
"We studied in the morning and after that we'd go for practice. I managed to get regular practice, which I didn't have before. Then I played at the 2017 World Cup and it changed my whole life and career. I became a permanent part of the team after that."
Before that World Cup, Baig had played two ODIs and a T20I for Pakistan in two years. In the World Cup, she played five matches and took wickets in all of them but was benched for the final two games. She was their joint second-highest wicket-taker despite playing fewer matches than anyone else in the front-line attack, showed an ability to swing the ball both ways, and established herself as an energetic fielder and charismatic cricketer who could nail down her place in the team.
Baig has played in 28 of Pakistan's 34 ODIs since and was their joint-highest wicket-taker at the 2020 T20 World Cup.
"I just try to bowl consistently in one area but I am working on my variations too. Sometimes I don't execute them very well, so I try to do a lot of repetitions to get them right." She sees her ability to bowl variations as crucial to her role as one of Pakistan's emerging core of senior players.
"In 2010, I was looking at a magazine and saw that the Pakistan team had won the Asian Games. I got very inspired"
"In our team, we have people of the same age group. We have some seniors, but we don't have that much experience, and I feel like I need to take responsibility. I will try in every game to do my job well and help the team to win, especially because at the last World Cup, we didn't win a single match.
"This time, we are here for something. We will not repeat that [result] again. This is not the same Pakistan team from four or five years back. We are here to prove that we are a different team now and we will fight in all our matches."
Baig's goal is to make it to the semi-finals and she thinks it's realistic, given how the squad has grown into a group of players who know each other well and like being together, on and off the field.
"The one thing about our team environment is that we are quite religious," she said. "In our team, the priority is namaz. Everybody, when going for practice, will be sure we've done our namaz first and then we start. And when we come back, we do namaz as well. We also really enjoy each other's company. We respect each other and know each other's moods. It's fun together."
A quick glance at the PCB's YouTube channel confirms the women's team is having a good time and that Baig is the life of the party. She interviews her team-mates, leads the volleyball warm-ups, and provides diary-style snippets of what the team is up to. She even had a bowl-out challenge with fellow fast bowler Fatima Sana, the ICC's Emerging Women's Player of the Year.
If you think that means Baig is gearing up for a post-playing career in broadcasting, think again.
"I have a degree and I will study more because my future plans are to go into coaching," she says. "I would love to coach women. And I would also like to build facilities in my area, in Gilgit. There are a lot of things that need to be fixed. You need a proper plan for that area."
That plan may even include education about women's empowerment, which Baig identifies as crucial to the people in the Gilgit-Baltistan region.
"In the area I come from, you need support, and if your parents are not supportive, you can't do anything. You can't even study if they are not supportive.
"My parents are - alhumdulilah - very supportive. Whenever I think about my journey, I always think about my father, how he encouraged me. He was always excited for my success and wanted me to push hard always."
It was Baig's father who gave her the name Diana, an uncommon name for a Muslim girl in Pakistan. "I was born in 1995. At that time Lady Diana [Spencer, Princess of Wales] was very popular. My father liked the name, so that's the name he gave me."
It's just one of the things that make her stand out in Pakistan. "I also have a different haircut, so a lot of people recognise me," she says, patting her shoulder-length locks, shorter than most of her team-mates wear their hair. "People do know who we are, because people care about cricket."
Luckily, she doesn't get recognised on the streets to the point where it has become stifling. She still gets to go out and do the things she loves, like hitting Joyland, an amusement park in Lahore, to "ride the same rides again and again", or going home, to remind herself of where she's from and how far she has come.
"I go for trips and to get a break when I can. I just love the mountains. It's my home. And still, I am the only international cricketer to come from that area - man or woman - and I am proud of that."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent