Malawian Under-19 Women’s Cricket Team breaks through thick glass ceiling, one game at a time.

Blantyre, Malawi – Vivek Ganesan founded the Cricket Academy in 2010. He decided to start small, with one team of 10 players, all local children from low-income areas. The academy grew faster than expected, and three years later, Ganesan found himself managing a nationwide sport and education programme in 25 schools all over Malawi.

“I swore not to treat a player differently whether … they were the cousin of a minister or high-ranking official,” said Ganesan, a boisterous 38-year-old with seemingly limitless energy.

He is the current president of the Malawi Cricket Union, or the MCU, and executive director of the Cricket Academy, a nonprofit organisation with the aim of promoting the development of grassroots-level cricket and empowerment of women in Malawi, particularly in schools and low-income areas. Some of his original players are still part of the academy today and play for the national teams.

Although Malawi’s constitution, written in 1995, guarantees equal rights for men and women, gender disparities exist. Women remain disadvantaged and the differences are particularly marked when it comes to poverty, violence and HIV and Aids.

A single mother is far more likely to be poor than a single father. Violence against women is a daily reality, and due to sweeping unequal gender status in society, even sport is affected.

Which makes the story of the Malawian Under-19 Women’s Cricket Team all the more remarkable.

Colonial shadows

Cricket in Malawi has a chequered history, dating back more than a century. Introduced by Scottish missionaries in the 1870s, cricket quickly gained popularity. After Malawi became a British protectorate in 1883, hundreds of administrators, civil servants and their families moved to the country, creating clubs and grounds wherever they settled.

Thanks in part to Malawi’s first president and anglophile, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, cricket survived the country’s chaotic transition to independence, remaining an important part of Malawian elite society. Today, there are more than 10 clubs spread over three regions with over 30 men’s cricket teams. The game is also played in schools and townships across the country.

Although the sport has emerged from its colonial shadow, cricket remains a game for the privileged males. For the vast majority of Malawians, only recently has the sport begun to slowly open its doors.

When Ganesan took over management of the MCU in 2013, the sport and its governing body were in disarray. In 2010, as an international cricket body, Malawi had been suspended from the International Cricket Council (ICC).

According to an official close to the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the sport body was plagued with “bad governance, political meddling, corruption and discrimination”.

There was a lot of animosity between the different clubs and teams, Ganesan told Al Jazeera, and “there was no coherent vision for the development of the sport, and no effective or sustainable attempt was being made to include and integrate … all Malawians.”

From Left to Right: Vice Captain Mary Mavuka, 18, batsman Dalitso Ndipo, 19, and Captain Shahida Hussein, 17, pose on the pitch of their training grounds [Julia Gunther/Al Jazeera]

Another life for daughters

Ganesan took the “blueprint” he had created for the Cricket Academy, which was closely modelled on ICC guidelines and applied it at the MCU when he took over. He threw out the institution’s archaic statutes – written in 1922 and never updated – and drafted a new constitution, enforcing a strict set of new rules regarding governance and team selection.

Players would no longer be selected based on race, class or political connections, but purely on merit. Ganesan’s measures resulted in far more local Malawian players picking up the game, something that had never happened before.

It worked and within six months of Ganesan being elected president of the MCU Malawi was reinstated into the ICC – meaning Malawi got its international ranking back, that the country could once again take part in international tournaments, and be eligible for funding and sponsorship deals.

One addition that Ganesan is particularly proud of is having introduced is the Under-19 National Women’s Team: Malawi’s first-ever female national cricket team.

However, as cricket is still a male-dominated sport, the traditional and cultural expectations of Malawi’s patrimonial society mean that gender inequality in sports continues to be a serious obstacle.

Vice Captain Mary Muvuka helps a teammate put her helmet on during a practice session at their training grounds at St Andrew’s International School [Julia Gunther/Al Jazeera]

Most of the girls who make up this team come from low-income families where people earn less than $2 a day.

“By the time girls are 18 or 19 years old, their families want to marry them off. Once they’re married, they soon have children, and the opportunity to play cricket disappears,” Ganesan says. “But you have to be careful, because it is a choice that, in the end, the family has to make. I can’t impose on them what I want. All I can do is show them another life for their daughter.”

Ganesan tried to tackle this problem by working on self-confidence with the girls.

“When most girls first join the team, their confidence is often so low that they’re afraid to pick up a bat,” Ganesan says.

He sees cricket as a means of empowerment.

“If women in Malawi are going to be more independent, we need to help them change the way they see themselves.”

Ganesan spent a lot of time talking to the parents or guardians of girls whom he thought had potential to convince them to allow their daughters to play.

What Ganesan is trying to instil in the girls is about more than going for the win.

“You have to understand that these girls are trying to break through a very thick glass ceiling. Most have spent their lives having their confidence and sense of self-worth undermined by a society that views women as second-class citizens – as the weaker sex,” he says.

That is why he regularly organises tournaments against other national teams, to show them that they are not alone.

“The simple act of getting on a plane, for the first time, in uniform, together as a team, has already opened the eyes of the girls, and helped broaden their horizons,” Ganesan adds. “Seeing how other teams play and function has helped them understand what needs to be done in order to win.”

Captain Shahida Hussein reacts as one of her teammates hits a ball during fielding practice while training on the cricket pitch [Julia Gunther/Al Jazeera]

Playing for women

Captain Shahida Hussein, 17, has been part of the Cricket Academy for just over two years and has picked up the game more quickly than most of her teammates.

“I chose her as captain, firstly because she is a great player, but also because of her leadership and enthusiasm for the game. Although she is shy and not very outspoken, Shahida is always trying to do that little bit extra, and more importantly, encouraging the others to do the same,” Ganesan says.

Impressed with her drive, Ganesan offered her a scholarship so that she could complete her high school education. Shahida is proud to be part of the Under-19 Women’s team and thrives on the responsibility of being its captain.

“It is very important that girls play cricket in Malawi because we can represent our country as women,” she says.

Members of the Malawi Under-19 Women’s Cricket Team during a practice batting session at their training grounds [Julia Gunther/Al Jazeera]

Despite all that the Cricket Academy has managed to do, its future is far from bright.

“My biggest concern is the Cricket Academy’s sustainability: not only from a financial point of view, but also its durability as a vehicle for improving the lives of his players off the pitch,” Ganesan says.

The Cricket Academy continuously struggles with funding and the situation is so serious, that Ganesan has, on several occasions, been forced to invest his own money.

“I lie awake at night worrying about how I’m going to get transport money for tomorrow. Without long-term investment, it’s going to be very difficult. I’m afraid that, without funding, the academy is going to stagnate, and when it stagnates, things tends to go backwards.”

However, Ganesan remains positive about the future.

“Look at what we’ve managed to do with the little we have. The girls give me hope. Every day. When I see them play and when I think about everything they have accomplished, it gives me the energy to keep going,” he says.

Ganesan hopes that, in the future, one of his players will take over his work and mission.

“At the end of the day, it is about getting them ready to run cricket in Malawi. I hope that one day, Mary, or Shahida, or one of the other girls, will be the one shouting from the sidelines. That’s my dream.”

From left: bowler Brenda Ndipo,15, bowler Triphonia Luka, 15 and bowler Chimwemwe Juma, 16, on the pitch at St Andrew’s International School, Blantyre, Malawi, 2016 [Julia Gunther/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera