Pakistan’s own ‘Lady Diana’ and her tryst with cricket
A women’s cricket crossword for you. One across (5). Best fielder in her team. Makes batters rethink regulation singles. One of the handful of female cricketers who can pull off those outrageous efforts on the boundary, where you catch the ball, throw it in before falling over the rope, and come back in to catch it.
Lydia (Greenway)? Former England cricketer, and the best female fielder in the world for most of her career? Wrong.
More clues. Bowls fast outswing. Has played both football and cricket for her country. Eventually, had to give up football and focus on cricket, because cricket has a brighter future.
Perry, Australia’s dual international extraordinaire? Wrong.
The answer is Diana. Diana Baig.
Baig seems to have a bit of a flair for making an entry. In Pakistan’s first match of the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2020, against the former champions West Indies, she began proceedings with a hooping outswinger that started outside leg but struck Hayley Matthews in front of the stumps. As the finger went up, hesitation prevented Matthews from reviewing in time, and Baig had set the tone for the day. She would take another wicket in the power play, finishing that spell with figures of 3-0-6-2. Pakistan went on to upset West Indies, yet another result proving how unpredictable this World Cup has been.
Indian viewers will remember a similarly strong start from Baig the last time they saw her play in the 50-over World Cup in 2017. On a rare sunny morning in Derby, England, Baig was playing just her third ODI, and first ever World Cup match. With her tenth ball, she brought the two thousand-strong crowd –half of them Pakistani supporters— to life when she hit Indian opener Smriti Mandhana’s back pad in front of middle stump. After scores of 106* and 90 in the tournament, Mandhana was out for two. Baig went on to bowl three consecutive maidens in that first spell, and entrenched herself at point.
A pace bowler at point? You might not see it in men’s cricket very often, but it’s quite common in women’s teams, where the fast bowler is often the fittest player in the team, and therefore the most athletic. Baig showed off later in that game; patrolling the deep mid-wicket boundary, she caught Sushma Verma above her head, then realising she would fall over the rope, she flicked the ball into the air, fell, got up, and almost made it back in time to grab it. Although it was given six eventually— Baig’s foot was where the pushed-back boundary rope should have been— Diana Baig had arrived.
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It is not surprising if you have not heard of Diana Baig, even though both her skills and her name stand out. She revealed on a chat show that her father named her after Lady Diana, the late Princess of Wales, a woman he admired. If it sounds amiss that a man from a far-flung corner of disputed territory would give his daughter a western name, it is. Even more so is that he would aid his daughter’s pursuit of sport, in a region where getting them to study was a struggle.
Gilgit-Baltistan, almost 500 kilometres from Lahore, in what Indians will describe as Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir, is not an easy place for women to rise. Baig’s own mother had concerns about her sporting endeavours, but the support of her father overruled it. “In the North in Pakistan, it is backward”, Baig said in 2017. “Girls don’t come out like this. But Baba ko bahut pasand tha (my father always liked me playing). He always wanted me to do something.”
Baig’s trysts with cricket and football were both quite serendipitous. Ayesha Ashar, who has been the manager of Pakistan teams, said she spotted Baig in a regional cricket tournament in Islamabad. “There are some people who are talented from childhood and can represent Pakistan”, Ashar then said of Baig. ‘Diana kuch karegi (she will do something)’, she thought at the time.
Football was discovered after and through cricket. She was once again in Islamabad, for cricket training, and the Gilgit-Baltistan women’s football team was in the city, on the way to the National Championship at Lahore. Since they were short a few players, they asked Baig to try out for them. She played that National Championship, and to her surprise, was drafted into the Pakistan football squad for the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) games in 2014 as a defender.
The same year, she moved to Lahore, where she was invited by the Lahore College for Women to seek admission on a scholarship. There she has access to better facilities, and spends her days training and studying. She said in 2017 that she sometimes sees her family only once a year, with the road from Lahore to Gilgit – a 15-hour journey through mountainous roads – a deterrent for travel.
As Baig started advancing in the cricketing ranks, playing two sports became more and more untenable. A year after representing Pakistan in football, she made her cricket debut with the national team in 2015. Unlike Ellyse Perry, who could have made a decent living playing either cricket or football for her country, Baig really had only one option. She made the decision to sideline football, but its impact on her game is only too apparent.
Baig was already a natural athlete, having dabbled in athletics and volleyball as well. But playing one of the most physically demanding sports in the world has helped her be among the most athletic of the Pakistani fielders. It helped that fielding is something she is passionate about; her YouTube feed is full of Jonty Rhodes.
Baig kept up her form in Pakistan’s next game of their T20 World Cup campaign, sniping out England’s opener Amy Jones in her first over with a ball that didn’t swing as much. But in both games, costly last overs ruined her figures. Her overall numbers don’t strike you as outstanding; since her debut in 2015, she has taken 16 wickets in 20 games, at an economy of 5.76.
But when you see her operate in the flesh, the potential is undeniable. Consistently able to bowl in the high 100s kmph mark, with the ability to swing the new ball, Diana Baig is not a finished product, but seems irresistible nonetheless.
Keep an eye out for this one. Diana kuch karegi.