Breaking boundaries: Bangladesh’s women cricketers

Gifted cricketers Chumki Akter and Ismat Ara were born in poverty in Bangladesh. Now they are playing the game at the highest level. Mark Seacombe hears how a British charity is offering young women the future of their dreams.

Powered by article titled “Breaking boundaries: Bangladesh’s women cricketers” was written by Mark Seacombe, for The Observer on Sunday 4th December 2016 07.30 UTC

At the age of 10, Ismat Ara was facing a wretched future. Like millions of girls born into acute poverty and deprivation in rural Bangladesh, she was destined for marriage in childhood, perhaps as young as 12, an abrupt end to her education and a life of drudgery. Or something worse.

Five years later, she is standing proudly, but nervously, on the turf of the Sher-e-Bangla National Cricket Stadium in the capital, Dhaka, resplendent in her blue and yellow strip, waiting to be introduced to Jos Buttler, captain of England’s one-day international cricket team. “I look forward to seeing you on television,” he tells her. A rising star, Ismat is now destined to play for the national women’s cricket team. “That is my dream,” she says, in her self-effacing, quiet way.

This is the story of how Ismat, now 15, got from there to here.

The village of Ulipur, one of the most impoverished places in one of the world’s poorest countries, lies in the district of Kurigram, in northern Bangladesh, in the shadow of the Himalayas, a day by road from the capital. It has no electricity, no running water and there are no cars. For several months of the year, during the monsoon, much of its land is underwater. There is a Bengali word, monga, which means “no food, no work”. It is often uttered in Ulipur. And this is where, in 2001, Ismat was born and where, she told me, she expected to stay.

Team spirit: the Sreepur girls with England’s Steven Finn.
Team spirit: the Sreepur girls with England’s Steven Finn. Photograph: Sarker Protick for the Observer

By 2011, however, life was becoming intolerable. She was living alone with her mother, Anju, who was suffering from severe mental health problems and increasingly unable to care for her. Her father, who is now dead, had walked out to marry another woman and her two elder brothers had also departed. And then Ismat was attacked by a neighbour, which left her traumatised. Social workers stepped in and she was put in the care of a local NGO. To Ismat’s great fortune, that NGO had links with the charity Sreepur Village and she was soon on her way south.

Sreepur is 35 miles north of – but a world away from – the cacophony, the squalor, the pollution and the traffic chaos of Dhaka, in central Bangladesh. Once off the busy highway, a bumpy rickshaw ride costing 30 taka (about 30p) will take you a couple of miles along a straight but potholed metalled road, past paddy fields, an incongruous cement factory, and through the colourful Umbrella Market, to the gates of the village.

Ismat would not have known it, arriving as a 10-year-old child – insecure, frightened, disorientated – but inside the gates she would find a haven (usroystal in Bengali), a place of safety. And she would get to know “Mother” Pat Kerr, a former British Airways stewardess whose vision and fundraising efforts built Sreepur.

Visitors to the village, which is now caring for 150 mothers and 540 children, often find themselves surrounded by a bunch of smiling young faces. As I walk into a courtyard, in the gloaming, after the school day is over, I am mobbed by about 30 small children, demanding attention, imploring me to pick them up. One boy proffers what is left of his piece of fruit. And when I attempt to say goodbye, I find I have two new friends: a girl clutching my left hand and a boy my right. These children, and the others I meet at Sreepur, appear to be happy (khushi). They are certainly being nurtured, properly cared for, fed well – and, yes, loved – perhaps for the first time. The same applies to their mothers, all of whom arrive emotionally scarred. Most have been mistreated by men; some are former prostitutes.

Net profit: fielding practice with fast bowler Steven Finn.
Net profit: fielding practice with fast bowler Steven Finn. Photograph: Sarker Protick for the Observer

A healthy, well-balanced diet is one of the keys to improving their lives. And Sreepur grows much of its own food. The village sits in 17 beautiful acres of lush, fertile land, full of fruit trees: banana, coconut, mango, lychee, papaya, guava; there are vegetable patches and a huge herb garden, several fish ponds and a herd of 20 dairy cows. Fresh water is on tap, from a very deep well.

Pat Kerr’s passion, her driving force, is empowering girls and women, in a country where to be born female is a handicap. Education is pivotal for the girls. And she aims to equip the mothers with the skills – such as tailoring, weaving and cooking – and the financial knowledge and confidence to enable them to live independently once they leave.

Ismat has undoubtedly been empowered by playing cricket. Literally so. “I feel the power when I have a bat, or a ball, in my hands,” she says.

“The girls always get left out” is one of Kerr’s mantras. And it is the reason why Sreepur formed a girls’ cricket team in 2012. Kerr thought it was important that the girls learned how to be part of a team. “We wanted it to be a non-contact sport,” she says, which ruled out football and the ancient contact sport of kabaddi, which is the national game. “And we wanted it to be a sport where – in a Muslim country – the girls could dress modestly.” So cricket it had to be. Not the national game but definitely a national obsession.

Kerr believed playing cricket would boost the girls’ self-esteem, give them self-discipline and teach them about trust, fair play and respect for others. “When they started, they knew nothing about sportsmanship,” she says. “If they got angry, they would just throw the bat on the ground. But gradually they learned to be polite to opponents. It taught them a lot about positive behaviour. They did much better in school and their general behaviour improved.”

Making a difference: Sreepur founder “Mother” Pat Kerr with some of the school’s children.
Making a difference: Sreepur founder “Mother” Pat Kerr with some of the school’s children. Photograph: Sarker Protick for the Observer

“Ismat had no sense of personal discipline,” says Kerr. “She didn’t bother with school work and was quite disruptive. But from day one she was good at cricket and her school work began to improve almost straight away.”

For those who had watched her playing with the boys, it was no surprise that Ismat, equally adept at batting and fast bowling, emerged as the star of the team. When I asked her whether the boys had been reluctant to let her join in, she smiled her wide smile and her big brown eyes twinkled. “Once they saw that I could play, they let me join in.” But it was not until the arrival of Shathira Jakir Jesy, a spin bowler in the national women’s cricket team, as coach in March 2014 that everybody at Sreepur realised how special Ismat was.

Jesy, who has played for her country since the team’s inception in 2007, recognised that she was talented enough to reach the top. As a result, Ismat underwent rigorous tests at the elite national sports institute, the BKSP, where most of the Bangladesh national players, men and women, were educated, and was awarded a scholarship. She is now in her second year at the institute, outside Dhaka, and thriving at cricket and in her academic work.

Jesy describes Ismat as “a very brilliant cricketer”. An accomplished fast bowler, with good batting power and fine shots, she is also “the most talented fielder”. And the effervescent coach, herself a graduate of BKSP, should know. As well as playing for Bangladesh, Jesy, 25, is blazing a trail for women on national television and radio as the first female pundit and commentator on the men’s game.

Off to school: children are attending the morning assembly before starting their daily activities.
Off to school: children are attending the morning assembly before starting their daily activities. Photograph: Sarker Protick for the Observer

Kerr is excited for Ismat. “Now the world opens up in front of her,” she says. But she is also excited by the effect on all the girls at Sreepur. “This cricket is not a trivial thing! Even the girls who are not playing are enthused by it. It’s an amazing empowerment vehicle – something they can be proud of. But can you imagine how they would feel if a girl from here was playing in the national team? Can you imagine that? YES!”

The link with the England cricket team goes back a long way. Twice, touring teams have visited the village, the last time in 2003. On that day, Chumki Akter, the Sreepur team’s other outstanding player, needed no formal introduction to another England captain. She simply held up her arms and, obligingly, Freddie Flintoff picked her up. She was five years old and had no inkling that she was being held by one of the world’s finest sportsmen. The press pack loved it, of course, and the picture went round the world.

Back then, Chumki, now an outgoing and confident young woman of 18, had been at Sreepur for only a few months. She and her three-year-old sister Bristy were abandoned or lost (they don’t know for certain) by their stepmother, Rani, who had taken them to a fair in the centre of Dhaka, not far from their home. “I pleaded with my stepmother to let me go on the big wheel,” says Chumki, “and when it had finished I couldn’t see her anywhere – there were so many people. I found my sister in the corner, crying. I held her hand and we walked and eventually we found a road.” Fortunately, they were rescued from the street later that day by a man working for an NGO. But all efforts to find their family and their home proved fruitless.

Bowled over: the Sreepur team warming up for a practice match at Mirpur national stadium.
Bowled over: the Sreepur team warming up for a practice match at Mirpur national stadium. Photograph: Sarker Protick for the Observer

Chumki says she lives for cricket and “would love to play in the national team”. Like Flintoff, she is an all-rounder: an opening batsman (never a batswoman, she insists) and a fast bowler. But she is now studying to be a physiotherapist at college near Dhaka and has no opportunity to play cricket.

She says she is fortunate to have escaped childhood marriage. “Now I know a lot about society outside, and what happens to young girls, I feel so lucky to be here. I am not a great Islamic religious person, but I believe God saved me from the burden of having three children as a girl. It was his will.”

Pat Kerr is neither a cricket lover nor a fan of any particular sport – reading is her great pastime – but sport, nevertheless, provided her with what she describes as “one of my proudest moments”. In the run-up to London 2012, she was asked to carry the Olympic torch in Oxfordshire. It seems a fitting honour for somebody who has been lighting the way for the desperate for more than half her life.

“I am so glad you are writing about my girls and not about me,” says this modest woman.

In the summer, Ismat travelled home, alone, to Ulipur for the first time since 2011 to see her mother. “It was very, very emotional seeing her again,” she says. “My mother asked me, ‘Where have you been all this time? I want you to stay with me.’ But I have another life… Pat is my mother now – because my own mother couldn’t protect me.”

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