I’m an American — and the only thing I knew about cricket until about a week ago was that they take a break for tea in the middle of the match.
So when the most famous woman in Pakistani sports agreed to show me how to throw (or bowl, actually) a cricket ball — it was a little embarrassing.
Evidently, I bend my elbow a bit too much, Sana Mir tells me.
“Just keep this elbow straight, and bring this hand as straight as possible," Mir says. "Better! Yeah?”
We’re at the Lahore Country Club. Behind us, pitchers are running toward batters and hurling the ball overhand at them.
The batters knock them away with big, flat wooden bats.
“When I started off, there were hardly any girls playing cricket, so it was on the streets with my bigger brother ... where I learned,” she adds.
Mir’s father was in the army, so they moved a lot. And every time they did, she had to prove herself again to the neighborhood boys.
“All those tests that I had to give, in every city and every team, show that I have got cricket in me," she says. "[It] made my belief stronger that I am better at cricket than many other things."
And in Pakistan, that means something. The sport is huge here. Imagine the popularity of football, baseball and basketball all rolled into one, and you’ve got cricket.
In 2003, Mir gave up a spot at an engineering university to pursue cricket full time. She got a push from her father.
“He said that we have got a lot of female engineers, we don’t have a lot of female cricketers,” Mir recalls.
Since choosing sports over academics, Mir has helped build up Pakistan’s first professional women’s cricket team. As captain, she’s led the team to wins in big international tournaments and against neighbor and longtime rival, India.
Up-and-coming bowler Maham Tariq attributes a lot of the team's success to Mir’s leadership.
“I have no words to express — she’s so amazing," Tariq says. "In fact, on the field and off the field, her attitude, she’s so always motivated. Playing under her captaincy, I think I can’t ask for more.”
But Mir says she’s most proud of how her team’s performance has affected the country off the field.
"There are two kinds of perceptions we have been able to change. One is that Pakistani women can’t play cricket, or any sports. This was the perception we changed inside Pakistan," she says. "Outside Pakistan, a lot of people thought that women are not allowed to do stuff in Pakistan. So that is another perception that we have been very proudly able to change.
Even though it’s getting more acceptable for women to play cricket, it’s still not exactly easy.
There are no dedicated fields for women. They don’t have the same cricket clubs as men. Women’s participation in all sports is low here — no Pakistani woman has ever won a medal at the Olympics.
Mir says supportive families who encourage pushing boundaries are key to moving toward gender equality.
“These girls are here not because these girls wanted to change something, but their families, their fathers, their brothers, their parents, their mothers wanted to change. So this is something that’s really encouraging for me to see,” she adds.
On Thursday, I drove around Islamabad trying to find girls playing cricket — to ask if Mir was a role model for them.
I couldn’t find any.
So I surveyed a bunch of college guys getting pumped up for a match, including Sameed Akbar. Akbar says he knows who Mir is.
“She’s a good player, her family’s supporting her, and she also performed really well in domestic and streets, as well,” he says.
But when I asked if any of the guys had ever played with a girl — the answer was a resounding chorus of "No."
There’s still a lot of work to be done for women’s cricket.