A CONVERSATION WITH DR. SAMARA AFZAL
Not many doctors that can say that Chris Woakes has worn their name on the back of his shirt. As part of an ECB initiative to celebrate key worker efforts during the pandemic, Dr. Samara Afzal was nominated by the National Asian Cricket Council and saw Chris Woakes wear her name on the back of his training shirt, ahead of England’s first test against the West Indies, in August 2020.
Like Woakes, Samara also represented Warwickshire County Cricket Club. Now having left professional cricket behind, Samara is a full time G.P. But things could have been very different. From an early age, Samara would love playing park cricket with her dad and cousins. Around the age of 14, one of Samara’s male family members would advise her father that it was not appropriate for Samara to play cricket in an environment where other men, from outside of the family, were present. “Being with boys and being coached by men…A lot of families don’t agree with that…I said to my dad that I really loved playing cricket and that it’s not my fault that I’m a girl. That really got to him.”
Instead of cricket in the local park, where other members of the community might not have approved, Samara’s dad found her a local club…a 40-minute drive away. Being from a working-class background, with her parents in full time work, attending training sessions wasn’t the easiest thing in the world. “It was only when I started driving and attending university that I started attending more training sessions.” Think of the years lost here, just because of the toxic, internal nature, of your own culture. Confronting the toxicity isn’t an easy task either, as any confrontation (even if simply to advise) of your elders in such a community is seen as disrespect. There is no room for conversation. Even if a child of a working-class family can get to training, there is also the small matter of cost and equipment. “When I started at Warwickshire, we had to pay for our own kit. Nowadays, it sounds bizarre that you’re playing for a county and there’s a bill for your match shirt. That’s changed now.” But looking back, we may have lost an entire generation of athletes simply due to a cost barrier. “I remember in primary school we had a football team. I remember cutting up one of those big crisps boxes into shin pads and wearing them for training. I felt so out of place and never went again.” Samara was lucky that she was still given an opportunity. Being part of Munir Ali’s academy (Moeen Ali’s dad), she was able to improve her skills and go on to play for Warwickshire. “Moeen’s dad was really good to me. He took me on and let me train with the boys. That was really helpful. But I was encouraged to do medicine. It was like ‘yes you can play cricket but this can’t be affecting your studies. You have to become a doctor.’ I really want to change that mindset now.”
Being a British South Asian female makes for a career in cricket, or any other sport, seem almost impossible. If it’s not your own family trying to stop you, or the expenses incurred, it’s the trials and tribulations of venturing into adult life. Barriers to the game do not stop at just ethnicity and socio-economic background. “For girls, having periods is a big thing. Having periods and playing in whites. Honestly, the number of times I’ve thought ‘I can’t play’. Or, you’re playing and you’re very conscious because you’re wearing whites and you’re thinking ‘what if something happens?’ I don’t think it’s fair on women to play in whites because I am sure every girl that’s on her period will have that playing in the back of their mind. Why can’t the sport accommodate women?” Veteran Indian female pacer Jhulan Goswami recently called menstruation the most “challenging part” for a female athlete. Imagine the number of female athletes suffering in silence, especially in the South Asian community where menstruation is just not talked about. Poet and author Jaspreet Kaur addresses this taboo without pulling any punches, in her book and BBC Sounds series called ‘Brown Girl Like Me.’ Jaspreet discusses how different cultures apply restrictions on women who menstruate, thus giving the idea that those who menstruate are ‘dirty’ or ‘unclean.’ There is also a lack of research around menstruation. “Brown women have been let down by unequal and archaic approaches to female health for decades,” Jaspreet says.
To allow for more female talent to come through, particularly from the South Asian demographic, it’s obvious that not only do mindsets within the culture need to change, but we all need to change the conversation to help the conversation, regardless of ethnicity. Such as the conversation around periods. Change the negative language that alludes to being dirty. Cricket itself needs to be more accommodating and thoughtful, with regards to gender and even socio-economic backgrounds. Cultures need to change the way they think about cricket as a career for females. Change the mindset that girls and boys shouldn’t mix from an early age. “One of the reasons I think I am quite confident is because I played cricket with boys. I was the only Asian girl the majority of the time, so I had to come out of my shell. It gave me those vital life skills,” Samara says. “There’s still so much work to be done to let girls flourish in sport.”
With the Hundred just having wrapped it’s second season, the discussion around the merits of the competition, as well as the impact on red-ball cricket, still remain. I don’t see that argument disappearing anytime soon. The one that cannot be denied is the eyes it has drawn towards women’s cricket. “It’s given women’s cricket that platform it didn’t have before. Because of the Hundred, people now know who Abtaha Maqsood is, even though she’s already played for Scotland. I think it’s been a great step.”
In a summer where the Hundred has had women’s cricket on terrestrial TV, with record crowds, and the England women’s national football team became European champions, women’s sport could be at a turning point. That said, the England team that brought football home this summer lined up with an all-white first 11. Where there might be a turning point, let’s hope we all turn that corner together.