PSL 2021: People wonder how can a woman be talking about sports', says Pakistani sports presenter Zainab Abbas

Dubai - From a makeup artist to Pakistan’s most recognised female sports presenter, Zainab Abbas, who is in the UAE for the ongoing Pakistan Super League, maps her journey


Rituraj Borkakoty

Published: Thu 10 Jun 2021, 3:27 PM

Last updated: Thu 17 Jun 2021, 6:48 PM

If it was not for the nudge from her mother, Zainab Abbas would perhaps still have been content with her life as a professional makeup artist. Bringing about a revolutionary change in the world of Pakistan’s sports broadcasting was certainly not in her imagination. Making her clients look elegant with makeup brush was.

But then Andleeb Abbas, a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan, had an inkling that her daughter might have a significant role to play in cricket, albeit off the field.

Married to a former first-class cricketer, Nasir Abbas, Andleeb had seen how her husband’s passion for the sport trickled into her daughter.

From a very early age, Zainab would follow all Pakistan games religiously, even the ones against minnows like Kenya and Zimbabwe.

So Andleeb pushed Zainab to go for Dunya News channel’s audition for a show on the 2015 ODI World Cup.

Zainab didn’t take it seriously because she had no experience in media.

What she did have, though, was the love and the knowledge of the game. So when she did go for the audition, she was comfortable because she really didn’t have any “expectations of getting the call again”.

But that’s what happened. “They were happy to see that somebody — a woman — is talking about the game with so much passion and they thought that I could add another flavour, or another dimension to the show that they had constructed,” recalls Zainab.

So what began as an unplanned foray into a new territory — sports broadcasting — soon became a full-time career as Zainab grew from strength to strength, eventually becoming the first Pakistani female presenter to be part of an ICC World Cup broadcasting team in 2019.

Now here in Abu Dhabi for the Pakistan Super League (PSL), Zainab is brimming with excitement for her next big project in England.

Sky Sports has roped her in for England’s highly ambitious new league – The Hundred – cricket’s newest format in which teams would play 100 balls each.

Zainab would be part of a multi-national Sky Sports broadcasting team in a league that has attracted some of the biggest stars in world cricket.

But it was not an easy ride for Zainab when she took her first steps in Pakistan’s male-dominated sports broadcasting industry.

Negativity and prejudices threw countless obstacles, but Zainab leaped over those with poise and dexterity, eventually earning the respect of the pundits and gaining over 4.6 million followers on social media.

In an exclusive interview with wknd., Zainab looks back at her journey and how her success has now inspired many young girls in Pakistan to follow in her footsteps.

Your father was a former first-class cricketer who played with the likes of Ramiz Raja in domestic matches. That perhaps was a reason you fell in love with the game…

I think it was. Both my parents did have some element of influence on why I chose this as my career. While growing up, I used to watch all the matches, and I used to often get told off by my parents, for not really studying at times. In fact, I was more focused on watching the games, and understanding them. And I remember I grew up in a completely sports fanatic family, so it was not just cricket, it was other sports as well. But cricket was a massive part of our household. I grew up in a joint family, so we all used to watch cricket together, it used to be a festive occasion anytime there was a cricket match on.

Your husband Hamza Kardar is the grandson of Pakistan’s first cricket captain, the iconic Abdul Hafeez Kardar, who played Test cricket for both India (before the Partition) and Pakistan. Cricket has a fascinating connection with you…

It was not something which was pre-planned. It just so happened that I got married into the family which had a cricketing legacy. Abdul Hafeez Kardar was, of course, the first Test captain of Pakistan. Everybody has read a lot about him, his leadership, how the team excelled under him. So I think I am really happy that I have become part of a family which has a cricketing legacy. It certainly makes life more relatable because this is what I do. I feel like I am blessed in that sense, to be part of a family that understands the game, that has a history attached to it, and it certainly makes my job much easier.

But, perhaps, it was not so easy to establish yourself as a female cricket presenter in Pakistan. It’s an industry dominated by men…

When I started, I got a culture shock because sports presenting was very much male dominated. I now feel times have changed for the better. But when I started, I didn’t really know anybody around who I could take help from. There was no female idol that I could really look up to because at that time, there was nobody. So I was kind of thrown in at the deep end, and trying to find my own path. I feel, at that time, you are always challenging perceptions of our society. There are lots of prejudices, there are lots of pre-conceived notions about women talking about sports because there’s always that mentality that ‘how can a woman be talking about sports?’. So those were the challenges that I had initially. And it took a lot of hard work, a lot of consistent efforts to be able to change that.

You have indeed changed that and now you have more social media followers than some of the top international cricketers. Do you feel a sense of responsibility when so many people look up to you?

When you have a voice, when you have a platform, which can reach millions of people, you should always use it in a positive way. And I try to do that. I always attach myself to some good social causes. There is also a social responsibility, and I feel that whatever you say on that platform really influences your followers and people who look up to you. So, I try and associate myself with good causes. Apart from doing what I am doing, it’s also very important to use my platform in the best way possible. If you have been blessed with this kind of following, then you need to understand the level of influence you have on people’s lives. I am quite conscious of that.

Now that have established yourself as a top-notch presenter, your journey will inspire lot of young girls in Pakistan to follow in your footsteps. What will be your message to them?

I get a lot of messages and people who didn’t really think that this was ever an avenue for them to express their love for the game, have now seen that it’s possible to follow my path, it’s possible to grow and reach new heights. My message to them is very simple, you need to be very passionate about what you do, you have to be passionate about the sport, and there are no shortcuts in life. You have to be very hardworking, and you need to be prepared to sacrifice and compromise on a lot of things when it comes to your personal life. I have missed a zillion family events because I had been away working. In anything that you do and excel in life, there’s always a sacrifice, there is always somewhere that you lose out. But you need to keep your focus. If this is what you want, then you need to ensure that you don’t let the negativity around you get to you. Yes, things are changing now, but anyone new, like I said, will always face criticism. They will always be under a lot of scrutiny. So my message to young girls is that only get into it if you are passionate about it and if you understand the sport itself. Also, work really hard and never give up. You need to have that positive attitude and once you are there, you will definitely find new opportunities and hopefully end up somewhere.

What kind of opportunities do you see for women’s cricket in Pakistan?

In the last few years, more attention has been given to the women’s game (in Pakistan). They are taking supportive measures for women, the maternity leave programme that the PCB has introduced, where it is supporting women even after giving birth, and also encouraging them to come back to the game. And then, you have somebody like Sana Mir (Pakistan’s greatest female cricketer), who is also doing commentary now. I think it really inspires women to see that there is a certain path that they can take and become the next Sana Mir. So there’s been a change. Of course, it’s not same as the men’s game, but there has been progress.

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