The reserved senior and the chatty youngster make an unusual yet delightful opening pair, and it bodes well for the Pakistan
Nahida Khan is trying to answer how she went from being a serious girl to the prankster of the team, when Ayesha Zafar intervenes: “Meri kaafi help ho rahi hai unko light karne mein (I have helped her a lot in getting lighter).”
Nahida, who made her debut for Pakistan in 2009, is close to 31. She is a picture of composure. She weighs her thoughts before responding. Ayesha, 22, is filled with nervous energy. She is chatty, opinionated, and enjoys the attention - it's not surprising that she's a graduate with specialisation in marketing and human resource. She is also a double international, having represented Pakistan in squash too. Nahida has little interest outside cricket, while Ayesha is a big fan of Tom Cruise. Pakistan’s newest opening pair also travelled divergent roads to get to the same destination.
Nahida had a tough childhood in Quetta, the provincial capital of a troubled Baluchistan, where society is socially conservative. Aside from her father, who passed away two months back, everyone else, including other members of Nahida's family, disapproved of her interest in cricket.
“The atmosphere in Quetta did not encourage girls to go out and play,” says Nahida, who has a masters degree in Sports Science. “Outsiders criticising is fine, but when your own family members do that, it hurts you a lot. When I was first selected for Pakistan, I was scared to tell my family about it. But papa used to always tell me - ‘Mujhe aap pe yakeen hai (I trust you). You can do it’. That gave me strength and has took me ahead.”
After Nahida made 79 against South Africa in Pakistan's opening game of the 2017 ICC Women’s World Cup - the best performance by a Pakistan batter in World Cup history - Sana Mir called her an “inspiration”, and she knew she was on the right track.
Ayesha’s childhood was more fun. She played cricket in the verandah of her house where “all family members used to field and I used to bat”. When not studying, because her parents were clear that education should not suffer, she knocked the hanging ball. She claims that there is “no ground in Karachi where I have not played cricket”. She was gifted a kit bag by her father on her 11th birthday. With both her elder sisters representing Pakistan in squash, she took up the sport to improve her fitness before turning professional. These are happy stories and show the progressive side of Pakistan.
Ayesha gave up squash few years back, but has brought the lessons into cricket, as she showed during her unbeaten 56 against England.
“Squash requires powerful hits. Your right hand is strong, and in batting it means that the ball will go in the air. So, I had to adjust a bit there,” Ayesha reflects. “But squash has helped me a lot. It has given me power in shoulder and wrist.”
While Ayesha’s job is to give quick starts, Nahida is expected to anchor the innings. Nahida credits Younis Khan for enabling her to change her game.
“I was very attacking and used to get out after scoring few runs. First I used to follow Shahid Afridi’s attacking style. Then I changed my mind and game, and followed Younis Khan,” Nahida says. “Younis bhai advised that you need to have patience to bat for 50 overs.”
What makes Nahida’s rise even more admirable is that she started opening four years after her debut. “Ek junoon thaa opener banne ka (I had a desire to be an opener).”
Nahida played crucial role in the Qualifier, while Ayesha impressed with two half-centuries in New Zealand. Those performances earned them the backing of their skipper, and the team management. Keeping an eye on the future, they decided to move Javeria Khan, who previously opened the innings, to the middle order.
“They both approach the game uniquely in their own way. Ayesha hits the ball very nice, and Nahida is a very stable opening batter. She has taken a lot of pressure in the Qualifiers when (there were) early wickets against Sri Lanka and Ireland (and Papua New Guinea, against whom she scored a century),” Mir says. “Ayesha was in the team that went to New Zealand, and we posted 200-plus scores in New Zealand for the first time. That a youngster can stand up against the best bowlers in their home conditions are score a half-century gave us a lot of confidence. We backed her in the Qualifiers and Asia Cup. She is one for the future, inshallah.”
The partners have a set routine before every match. While Ayesha watches the clippings of Kumar Sangakkara, Brian Lara, Virat Kohli and Hashim Amla, Nahida sticks only to Amla.
“We go into every match with a positive attitude to play through the innings. It’s hard luck, sometimes I get out or she gets out,” Ayesha says. “If I have a problem with some bowler, I ask her to handle. Same with her. Mil baant ke kar lete hain (We distribute the workload).”
Even if things are looking promising at the top, Mir says that it is too early to conclude that Pakistan’s opening woes are over.
“They have been doing well in bits. Hopefully, if they can both perform on one day then we can put up a big total on the board,” Mir points out. “I would give it a bit more time. Ayesha needs a bit more time. Time is with her because she is really young. She is confident about her strokeplay. Nahida has matured over the past one year. At the moment, this is the best available opening pair for Pakistan.”
Nahida loves Ayesha’s attacking spirit. Ayesha tells “if I get her patience then I don’t know what will happen, what my score will be!”
The two recognise Mir’s point of having to perform together as a unit consistently. When they start doing that and Pakistan become consistent against stronger opponents, you can bet there will be even more banter between Nahida and Ayesha.