"As a tiny horror, breaking windows while playing cricket in my lawn, I would shut out the complaining from our neighbours by commentating on my own game. ‘What a shot by Marina Iqbal! She raises her bat to thank the cheering crowd’,” the former woman national cricket team all-rounder tells Eos.
“I used to mumble whatever came to my head about my game as I made runs, just like I had heard commentators doing it for cricketers on TV.”
Though she managed to suppress the habit somewhat during her playing days, the love for mouthing off stuck there, at the back of Marina’s mind.
What got her started again was an interview of former Australian cricketer Melanie Jones, who also took to cricket commentary following an illustrious playing career.
“That’s when I realised that I could also do it,” she says. “I played my last domestic match in 2018 and I started commentary that same year in October, during the ICC Women’s Championship in Australia. But the women commentators of Pakistan actually got noticed during the Pakistan Super League [PSL] 2020.”
Marina is among a growing number of women, some of them former players but others simply big buffs of the game, who are storming the hitherto male only preserve of the cricket commentary box.
“Mel was my inspiration,” admits Marina.
“She has also become like a mentor after I told her this. She still gives me feedback,” she shares, adding that now she also gets helpful tips from cricket presenters such as Aalia Rasheed, Asif Khan, Dr Nauman, etc.
Keen on turning it into a profession, Marina also took a course in cricket commentary in England. “I also told [former women’s team captains] Urooj Mumtaz Khan and Sana Mir about it,” she says.
“Cricket commentary may seem like an easy job but it is not. It is a technical field.”
The last T20 Cup made many sit up and take notice of the new breed of female Pakistani cricket commentators. But shattering the glass partition in the commentary box has not been like batting on a bully track
Marina has also done commentary in the Pakistan and West Indies women series in 2019, as well as the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy and the National T20 the same year, and radio commentary for the PSL and the National T20 last year.
“In the commentary box, at first our male colleagues were quite sceptical about us, but all that is changing now as we prove ourselves,” she says.
“My family knows that cricket is my life and that I can’t leave cricket. So they are glad to see me involved in the game I love so much,” she says. Asked if there is good money in this line of work, she smiles and shrugs. “Well, not as much as in cricket, but you never know, that too might happen someday.”
Captains to commentators
Former Pakistan women’s team captain and current chief selector Urooj Mumtaz Khan is also making waves as a female commentator these days. Like Marina, she also stepped into the field because of her passion for the sport.
Urooj also tried her hand at Urdu commentary for PSL, but she acknowledges that it is very difficult, especially for her, because it requires you to have good pronunciation and command over the language.
“I have always heard English cricket commentary, so my mind was also programmed that way, and Urdu commentary proved to be a completely different ball game,” she laughs.
“In English commentary, too, the way you deliver a message is important. And sending across your message is not easy. Still, my cricket background sees me through it. Having played cricket at the highest level has helped me excel here as well,” she says, adding that her favourite cricket commentators include Ian Bishop, Nasser Hussain, Alan Wilkins and Mel Jones.
Former captain Sana Mir is another former player who has moved from doing pre- and post-match shows into pitch reports and commentary.
An equal opportunity
Zainab Abbas, whose work was also well-received during the National T20 Cup, has not played cricket like the other three, but carries an abiding passion for the game. She also says that the presence of women in commentary and presentation panels sends a very powerful message of how things are changing around the world and in Pakistan.
“Women are playing sports and talking about sports. I feel glad to be part of it,” she says.
“I started broadcasting some six years ago and did some cricket commentary too here and there while covering the game,” says Zainab. “I have also done several ground interviews, but when I entered the field, gender stereotyping prevented it from being considered an avenue for women.
“People will always have opinions but as long as you know the game and are willing to evolve, you can also change mindsets. I proved myself. I have also worked with the International Cricket Council. ICC picks you for your work, not because of commendations or recommendations,” she says.
“But now the world is realising that like other workplaces, commentary boxes should also have both genders. I had to create by own path. It was not really about fame or glamour but about creating opportunities for more girls,” she says.
Anchoring by choice
Although sports presenter Sawera Pasha, who also runs her own YouTube channel, says that she enjoys sports anchoring more than commentary, she adds that by encouraging women commentators, the Pakistan Cricket Board has laid down a platform for young girls and women to express their talent and passion, both on the field and off it.
“Still, I feel that my forte is sports anchoring. Just like an anaesthetist won’t do surgery, I won’t do commentary and analysis,” she says.
Assessing the new kids
Sports presenter Aalia Rasheed, whose sports expertise isn’t restricted to cricket, has seen the slow change over the years and believes that, undoubtedly, the future of female commentators is very bright.
“To become a cricket commentator requires a deep knowledge of the game, good communication skills, and command over key information, such as statistics, records, etc.,” she points out with regard to the qualities required.
“An outspoken and talkative attitude is also helpful. And complete awareness about the current issues, controversies and happenings should be at the top of your list as a commentator. Given all this, our female commentators are doing a reasonably good job,” she says.
Asked to assess the strengths and weakness of the current crop of the women commentariat, Aalia is candid.
“Leena Aziz was the first Pakistani woman cricket commentator. She has been working with PTV [Pakistan Television] and a few other private and government radio stations, and she has vast cricketing knowledge. The PCB, recently, also introduced several female commentators during the National T20 Cup, which is a commendable step.
“Commentators such as Marina Iqbal and Urooj Mumtaz Khan are cricketers themselves but that doesn’t make you an authority on air, since playing cricket is very different from explaining cricket. A cricketer-turned-commentator could be good at technical knowledge. However, she may not necessarily be equally good in explaining the situation. And at the same time, a non-cricketer commentator could be more vibrant and eloquent during her conversation, but it’s not necessary that she has a fair idea about pitch and conditions. But these two girls are rocking.
“I think Urooj is more fluent and sounds crisp, while Marina explains the game situation more interactively. Both young ladies track down each and every moment of the matches. With the growing craze and enthusiasm for cricket, the induction of female commentators is really a welcome step,” she adds.
“Zainab Abbas, the most popular cricket host, also did commentary during the National T20 Cup. However, she is best as an interviewer. She should stick to her original role as an anchor. Sawera Pasha and Zainab Abbas both have a grip over their subject and undoubtedly they are the most likeable personalities on screen.
“Twenty years ago, no one could have imagined that female commentators would be shining in an absolutely male-oriented game,” observes Aalia. “But our prominent male commentators should give a little leeway to the girls when they are in front of the camera or on the microphone, as learning is a gradual process.”
Eos managed to track down Leena Aziz, the pioneer female cricket commentator Aalia mentioned, in Edinburgh. She says that her journey started as a cricket writer when she was contributing articles for the The Muslim newspaper in Islamabad.
“I was always a cricket lover,” she says.
“My father was a cricket fanatic so you can say that it was in my blood. From the age of six, I was playing competitive cricket with my older cousins and my father. In my teens, I started to write for The Muslim. Then PTV picked me for analysis because the managing director at the time, Raana Shaikh, was impressed with my columns.
“I began work at PTV with great cricketers such as Sarfaraz Nawaz, etc. Then I thought my knowledge base was great and since cricket was my passion, why not commentate? But in those days, it wasn’t easy — it never is for the pioneers and women! But I was resilient and managed to convince people at PTV to give me an opportunity. So, from television I went to radio Pakistan and by now have done over 200 international matches for them, spanning over 17 years. But the journey wasn’t easy at all. I feel it’s easier now as I have paved the way for the ladies commentating nowadays,” she says.
About radio commentary, she says that it is definitely more difficult “as you have to be the listeners’ eyes and ears. There are also no breathers, so the stamina has to be good. Moreover, I feel that Radio Pakistan is a nursery for all commentators in Pakistan. You learn your trade there and then, once you’ve done that, you can commentate both for television and the radio.
“Personally, I enjoy both, but honestly I feel television commentary becomes a tad easier if you have the radio experience. I am a traditionalist, so I admire radio commentators more, because the challenge is greater than television,” she says.
What about sexism? Leena says she wasn’t criticised openly, “but it is the behind-the-scenes intrigues that become difficult to handle. Men seem to believe that commentary is their birthright, thus the politics. Therefore, for every commentary job you have to fight doubly hard in comparison to men. With time you learn to deal with the politics, although it’s frustrating. There will be always someone who doesn’t like you because you’re a woman, but there will be someone who’ll support you, too,” she points out.
Talking about the new breed of female cricket commentators, Leena says that it feels great to see so many young ladies commentate these days.
“In a way, I feel I inspired them in some small way,” she says.
Her advice to them: “Respect the profession. If you are serious about commentary, then only commentate and not multitask. It’s a time-consuming trade. One has to learn and watch cricket from all over the world, and that demands time. Therefore, either be a commentator or choose to be an engineer, a selector or a coach. You can’t and shouldn’t do all. I have tremendous respect for Ramiz Raja as he quit the job with the PCB to devote his time entirely to commentary. That’s the way to go.
“The other advice is to watch Test matches, listen to commentators on Sky Cricket — Nasser Hussain, Michael Atherton, Bumble [David Lloyd] even Isa Guha — and pick up the finer points and modern terminology,” she says. “The more time you have on your hands, the better you’ll become, and you’ll be abreast with the nuances of the game.”
The biggest nuance to be acknowledged is that cricket is no more just a gentleman’s game.
The writer is a member of staff She tweets @HasanShazia
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 3rd, 2021