‘I’m just a girl from Bradford who has a passion and love of cricket and never gave up on a dream.’
Winner of Bradford’s Inspirational Woman in sport 2013, with over a decade of working in the sports industry, a cricket coach to women locally and internationally and perhaps the only Muslim woman in Yorkshire to be invited by the ICC to watch the recent T20 finals in India, our woman of influence interview this edition is with sporting talent Halima Khan. In an exclusive with Asian Sunday, Halima shares her journey into sports, brushing shoulders with cricket legend Sourav Ganguly and experiencing the T20 cricket finals.
Tell me how your journey into sports began?
Halima Khan: Around ten years ago, I started on a six-month government funded programme as part of Bradford Council to be a Sports Activator, which is someone who goes out into the community and delivers sports for all at a local level. So that was from a primary age all the way to adult age, whether in community centres, in schools, sports clubs, it was just about going out there and getting people involved in any form of sports. From there I then got some coaching qualifications – cricket was always a passion of mine, being from a South Asian family! My brother plays for a club so it was always something that was there, and so when I had the opportunity to put myself on a Level 1 cricket course I took it and that was it, that was where it started.
So where are you at now?
Currently my full-time paid job is with Badminton England, where my delivery and passion in terms of sports awareness is still the same. My job is to try to get more people playing Badminton, with the hope that it becomes a sporting habit for life. Within my voluntary role I’m still heavily involved in cricket, I volunteer at the Woodland Cricket Club with their women and girls section – we’ve actually got trials for their West Yorkshire girl’s district team coming up soon. And that’s something that I’m looking to continue to do, being a part of a club setting and form those links. Especially when I deliver my sessions in the community, the aim is to provide some form of pathway for some of these girls that I coach that have never even tasted cricket. We’re developing a sport for them to go into, so working and linking them with a women’s cricket club is an ideal platform for them.
Speaking of cricket, we’re told you’re probably the first Bradford girl to travel all the way to India to be with the ICC for the T20 finals– How did that all happen?
Is that a fact? [Laughter]
I’m sure it is!
Well a few years ago I did some work with the Bermuda Cricket Board as part of the ICC development programme.
I was lucky enough to be approached by Bermuda to support the development of their women and girls. After some background work developing coaching plans and writing development plans, I was fortunate to then go to Bermuda and put all this work into practice. It was a great experience, being out there in Bermuda, not just to impart some of the knowledge and experience that I had in cricket and working in such a strong county like Yorkshire, but also to take some learning from Bermuda cricket as well, which added to my international sporting experience. And it was through this work (which is still ongoing) that I received a call from the ICC director for the world cup game.
So I’m very thankful to Neil Speight, one of the Directors of ICC and CEO of Bermuda, for inviting me to the finals. I felt immensely proud and it was good to feel appreciated for the work that I did with an opportunity to go to India.
We hear it wasn’t all plain sailing to India though?
Yes, one of the issues that I had was that I had to apply for a visa, and everything was quite late – I only found out mid-March, which you’d think would be sufficient time given that I’m a British citizen, to apply for an Indian visa (normally three working days) however being of Pakistani parentage the process ended up being a lot more difficult than I thought. I was being told by the embassy that the chances [of getting a visa on time] were probably quite slim. However, I’m not known for not trying and persevering and trying to reach somewhere in whatever I do. I sent off the application and I was very lucky that I had an official invite letter from ICC director Neil, Lord Patel who I’d like to thank again for providing me with a sponsor letter, Imran Hussain MP, and your MD, Fatima Patel, all supporting me with the application and my own workplace providing me a letter of support. I had a good support network around me and I think one of the things that amazed me was how quick the turnaround of these people was – one phone call to Lord Patel and within three hours he had that letter ready in my inbox.
Not many can boast of getting support from a Lord, an MP and a director of the ICC all in one go!
Within the space of 48 hours I had all the relevant paperwork, I sent all the paperwork off that I needed to send off, and that was the start of the visa journey. There were a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails, a lot of chasing up because the visa wasn’t going anywhere, it was just sat on somebody’s desk. This is something that probably needs to be looked at across the board, (visa applications) not just for India but for Pakistan and other countries. Most of the delays are unnecessary. Once an acknowledgement of the paperwork has been confirmed, the time to process is where the problem is, as half the time it’s just sat in a pile of other paperwork and this can be detrimental to someone who needs to travel. My frustration through this process was that here I have been given the opportunity of a lifetime to watch the T20 finals, and although you can obtain an Indian visa in three days, especially as I had provided all the necessary paperwork and more, I was still being given a lead time of around 5 – 6 weeks.
Not one to give up, I had to call the high commission in Delhi to put my case towards them. It was only then that I think something dropped because after I called Delhi and spent half an hour on the phone to Delhi, things speeded up. A couple of hours later I got the call to tell me that my visa had been granted and it was ready for me to pick up. This was on the Wednesday, and I was due to fly out on the Friday. It was a relief getting the visa, but the downside was, due to the delay I lost my flights which were at suitable times for a single girl to go to India! And what I was left with was landing at 2am in the morning and leaving at 3am, however that wasn’t going to deter me from the fact that I got a visa to go to the world cup finals!
“If we want to develop in cricket as a nation of sport, it all starts at the grassroots level, and we have to be a part of that”
Fantastic. You go girl. So now you’ve got your visa, you’ve gone through all the hurdles, got on the plane and landed in Kolkata – tell us about the experience. What was the first feeling you got, as soon as you landed on Kolkata soil?
It sounds really strange, but I felt at home. And I’ve been to Pakistan a few times, never been to India before, but I landed and I felt at home. My driver was kindly waiting for me and straight away he was trying to talk to me in English – and to be fair he had good English – but I was like no, talk to me in Punjabi or talk to me in Hindi because I can speak the language. And the look on his face when I said that, and I thought that’s what I’m here for, I’m to learn and integrate. I was talking to the locals and I was blown away. I mean obviously it was 2am in the morning so I couldn’t see that much on the drive to the hotel, but just driving through the streets I just didn’t feel out of place. Normally when you come to a different country, the first few hours there you feel a bit disoriented and have to find your feet, but I didn’t feel like that at all. And still that feeling is inside me and I don’t know how to explain it more than feeling at home.
And then obviously onto meeting some of your cricket idols.
I was kindly invited to the eve of the ICC cricket world cup dinner and cocktails, which was on behalf of the border control for cricket in India. So I went to that with some colleagues who I’d met previously through my cricketing, one of them being the West Indies Cricket President Dave Cameron – not our prime minister! At dinner I met both the women’s finalists for West Indies and Australia, and it was a great event. It was a nice showpiece of the talent that was in the room. And yes, I got to meet one of my greatest idols who played alongside Sachin Tendulkar who everybody idolises, but sometimes you forget the impact that Sourav Ganguly made. You know, he’s referred to as Dada out there, there’s a reason for that. I was talking to him just in general about women and cricket development and you know, India is doing a lot of work. I’m not saying it’s perfect but nobody is, and they are doing a lot of work around empowering women and developing women in sport. And it was really empowering and inspiring to hear them, and with Sourav Ganguly it wasn’t just a snapshot picture, we were sat there engaged in meaningful discussions.
The following day I was at probably one of the greatest cricket grounds in the world – Eden Gardens, where I watched the T20 finals, for both the women’s and what everyone calls the main event and what games. I was blown over by the sportsmanship from all sides and the atmosphere in the grounds.
I was so lucky with the service I received from India and the ICC and the hospitality that they gave me, I was very lucky to be sat in the president’s box and talking to a lot of ICC directors about the development of cricket and more importantly, just being a part of such a historic final. Nobody would have known at the start of the game that we were going to be part of what was probably one of the best finals I can record in the entire history of cricket, especially a T20 final. The media did report that it was one of those finals, and you know, we thought we had it until the 19th over! [Laughter]
It was a close game!
Yes, in fact after the second ball, I was tempted to just take the ball away from Ben Stokes and say I’ll do the rest! [Laughter] But to be fair to England, it’s not easy in those circumstances. The pressure can get to the best of us, Ben Stokes is a great bowler, the best death bowler when it comes to T20 cricket, and sometimes the pressure of the occasion and having literally – I wouldn’t even say one hand, having almost two hands on the trophy, West Indies came out the better team on the day and they did well under the pressure.
That’s brilliant. So you’ve described to us what was happening, but what were you feeling inside while it was all happening?
I think the specific moment – and it’s recorded on my phone – was when I got onto the pitch. Before they were reading the names of the runners up and the winners out, and I was stood in the middle of Eden Gardens on the pitch side that’s when the thoughts crossed my mind that, who would have thought ten years ago that I would be here? You know, I’m just a girl from Bradford who has a passion and love of cricket, just like everybody else who watches it on the TV, and that’s all it was for me. I suppose you don’t dream big, and this dream was bigger than big, and if somebody said to me that you’re going to be on the pitch celebrating with the West Indies team when their bottles of champagne pop, I would have told them they were living in fairyland. [Laughter] But I was! I was and I recorded it and that moment for me – I don’t think my feet have touched the ground still since coming back.
Life is all about experiences and memories and that’s the thing for me: I just wanted to savour that moment of being part of this. I mean India as well, and I have to say that, because the Indian crowd really knew how to put a party on. And right down to the last ball they were cheering both teams, and that was really great, it’s great sportsmanship to see, that they were cheering both teams on. If India were in the final maybe it would have been a different atmosphere! But the crowd was amazing and I’ve always thought what it would be like to be part of a final and in that moment, and being pitch side. So I don’t have to think that anymore because I was, and I’m not sure it’ll ever happen again so I don’t think I can ever go to watch a cricket game ever again! [Laughter] I want to leave that memory forever.
Grit, determination and so much perseverance has got you where you are. What advice can you offer to others to help motivate them and get them into sports?
I’ll always say to people – if you have a passion for sport, there will be some role which you can play within that sport. And never give up on that dream, there’s a good network out there now of women’s empowerment, especially in the UK with the This Girl Can campaign. I think it’s about knowing the networks and the partners and the organisations that are out there that can help you do this.
During my trip in India I had the pleasure of celebrating the finals with the General Secretary for the board of Cricket control for India, Anurag Thakur, who is also the local MP there. At first he was quite amazed that I was a coach (laughs), and at that point I felt like saying maybe I need to get a bat and ball out here just to prove it to him. Even I was amazed with him. One of the things that amazed me about Mr Thakur was the organisation called HOW – Honouring Our Women, that he had set up.
HOW supports and helps develop women within Kolkatta to become independent and help empower them within their own city, so they don’t have to rely on other people. This was really good to see. Things are not perfect in India, but projects like these and there are so many other NGO’s that are doing similar things is encouraging that good work is happening. So it’s good to empower, and I am try to do that with sport.
I’ve always said to anybody that if they approach me, I’m more than happy to help them along their journey. What I don’t want to do is stop somebody on their journey – I want to start their journey with them and I want to look back and say ‘wow, that’s an amazing achievement that young man or young woman has made’, even bigger than me. I don’t think I’ve really made any achievement yet, there’s so much more that I want to do and so much more that needs to be done. But it would be great for me to look back and know that there’s a network and a trail behind me as well that doesn’t just stop at one person. We have to be the change that we want to see, and only we can do that. People have the power to change the world. I’m probably getting a bit deep there, but if we want to develop in cricket as a nation of sport, it all starts at the grassroots level, and we have to be a part of that.