If you are a female athlete of Palestinian-origin, born and raised in Kuwait and based out of Australia, what sport are you most likely to end up falling in love with?
For Maryam Omar, that sport is cricket.
Her passion during her formative years lied with basketball, she trained in martial arts and grew up surrounded in an Arab family and a culture that is obsessed with football. But she chose cricket to be the sport that allows her to don the Kuwaiti jersey.
In a conversation with Scroll.in, she said, “I’m really big on the concept of God and believing that, you know, everything happens for a reason. And for me, I feel like the stars were aligned. I was lucky enough that straight after school, I got introduced to cricket and started travelling to all these different countries, and I fell in love with the game.”
Thanks to the influx of expatriates from the cricket-obsessed subcontinent, more and more people in South West Asia are now picking up the bat, learning the sport and becoming professionals. It’s also the story of Maryam, the Kuwait international who is part of the Sapphires squad at the FairBreak Invitational Tournament.
An aggressive top-order batter for the Kuwait cricket team, a middle order batter if the situation demands relying on her quick running skills and a gun fielder, Maryam is what one calls a value cricketer.
It wasn’t until her final year at high school that she first heard about cricket. A push from her mother, her own love for challenges and the guidance of Indian and Pakistani sports coaches is all that took Maryam to do what most Arabs would not consider mainstream.
“As an athlete who played different sports, being competitive is important. I hate to just participate. It’s always my mentality that if you do something, do it all the way, don’t half-do it. Make sure you excel in the things that you do, and leave an impression, don’t just participate, try and compete, try to be the best person that you can be,” she said.
Lessons that a daughter learnt
This winning mentality that Maryam takes so much pride in can be attributed to her mother’s upbringing that revolved around ensuring that her daughters were empowered women.
“As females, we have to always fight for our spots. And so my mom told us, ‘I want you to be strong women who can look after themselves and never have to depend on men.’ That’s the reason why we are who we are today. We’re really strong. We’re humble. We look after each other and we definitely fight for our spot in this world,” said Maryam.
It was after a nudge from her sports teacher who showed her the possibility of representing her country at one of the trials at school that she took on the challenge to excel in a sport that was so far from the mainstream. It needed Maryam to set up a serious verbal contract, so to speak, with her rather practicality-driven father.
“Being my naive 17-year-old self, I told my father, ‘I want to be an athlete for living and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ And he was like, ‘Don’t be naive, don’t be foolish, alright? Make sure you get a degree.’
“He was like, ‘How good are you? Like, you know, how good will you ever be in the sport? Will you be a professional where they ever pay you in millions? It’s never going to be possible. So make sure you get your degree first. And once you get your degree, that’s your future sorted. And then you can do whatever you want to do.’
“He used to say, ‘I’m not going to pay for your university just so you can just barely pass and do other things. I want you to make sure that you excel in your studies and then your hobbies you can take a look after’. I said to my father, ‘Look, you let me do my cricket. And I’ll just excel in my studies’.”
In the years to follow since that negotiation, Maryam earned a scholarship on merit and went on to score straight A’s in her university in Australia and become an engineer. She earned the trust of her employers pitt&sherry who fully supported her dream as an engineer and a cricketer from an Associate nation playing the game she loves.
It just signified that Maryam grew into a becoming an individual who had learnt to understand these negotiations, like that with her father, as a lesson for responsibility and time management while like her mother intended, she became a woman who knew how to fight for her spot.
‘Seeing is believing’
Maryam knows a thing or two about the most efficient methods to promote cricket in regions such as the Arab world. Based on her own experience of being ‘scouted’ from a high school, she reckoned that tapping into the sport through the school system is one of the most effective ways.
“That’s how I got picked. I was lucky enough that I was in one of those Pakistani schools that got targeted, but there are so many other Arabic schools with students from different countries where they obviously haven’t heard of this game before” she said.
However, according to her, there is another method – a stronger, more impactful one. Role models, idols and mentors.
“The reason being is, you know, seeing is believing. You look around, you don’t see a lot of Muslim athletes with a headgear or hijab playing. So for a young girl to not be able to relate to an idol, it might put the idea of that specific sport out of reach.”
Maryam, who proudly sports a mean headgear herself – much like Scotland’s off-spinner Abtaha Maqsood, American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and boxer Amaiya Zafar to name a few – thinks that being pioneers in the game helps big time.
“In Kuwait, I’d say I’m proudly pioneering it in cricket,” she said.
‘Testing the possibility of a dream’
Before the FairBreak Invitational began, Maryam had a reputation for her fielding. And that proved to be spot on as she displayed her skills in the deep in the Sapphires’ first match itself as she ran-out Natasha Miles.
“Fielding is one thing that I can control,” the 29-year-old explained. “So I need to look up to my diet, I need to look after my fitness. I was good at it as an athlete, but I’ve improved on that skill as I went through. Like, if I am taking those catches, stopping those boundaries, there is a lot behind that. It is commitment, dedication, and also really good training.”
Another moment to remember in Maryam’s campaign at the FairBreak Invitational was the batting cameo of 26 runs off 20 balls that comprised four boundaries, after coming into bat at six against Barmy Army. Sapphires’ may have lost the encounter by a mere 6 runs, but it was enough to show why she deserved to be there and why a platform that gives equal opportunity to cricketers from Associate nations, underrepresented communities and diverse backgrounds is vital.
She also acknowledged the huge opportunity that playing FairBreak among ‘superstars’ was, especially glad to take home lessons from the likes of Sophie Devine, Sana Mir, Shabnim Ismail and Elyse Villani.
For Maryam, the mammoth challenge to balance life as a professional cricketer and engineer is already going well but she felt a sense of security after watching Bismah Maroof inspire several female cricketers – the hope that one can lead the side in the World Cup and explore the possibility of motherhood.
“To see Bismah do the things that I want to do in future was very inspiring. So, that’s another barrier broken. Now I know that in future, if Allah gives me a little child, I can consider taking them with me.”
All the negotiations, breaking cultural stereotypes, the frequent travelling from Australia to Kuwait, being passionate about a sport that doesn’t really pay her bills and the demands of balancing two professions cannot be easy... but there’s a zen like calmness in Maryam’s response when asked if she had any regrets.
“Never. Never until this day. I don’t feel like I’ve regretted a single thing that I did,” she smiled.
“I was always the kind of person that if I have a slight idea of a dream form in my mind, I always like to test the possibility of that dream. I think passion drives my hard work and if I’m passionate about something, it just makes me go crazy.”