(Repeats feature first moved at 0002 GMT)
KARACHI, March 3 (Reuters) - At an age when most women in Pakistan are settling down to married life, Qanita Jalil is preparing for what could be her last shot at making her name as a cricketer in her conservative homeland.
“I am 27 and my mother is now pressurising me to get married. It might be my last tournament,” said Jalil as she looked forward to taking part in the women’s World Cup in Australia, which starts on Saturday.
Proudly sporting her green Pakistani track suit after a spell of fast bowling at the team’s training camp before setting off for Australia on Sunday, Jalil said her five brothers had encouraged her to play cricket.
“They all supported me. I started playing with my brothers and learnt from them. Without their encouragement my parents would not have tolerated my playing cricket,” said Jalil, who has a masters degree in economics.
While their male counterparts are idolised and earn millions, women’s cricket in Pakistan is still an amateur sport. Playing opportunities and training facilities are scarce for girls.
Jalil belongs to a moderate Pashtun family from Abbotabad in the North West Frontier Province, a region which, despite being rocked by violence and fighting between Islamic militants and security forces, has provided a steady flow of quality cricketers to the national men’s team.
In a country where people struggle to balance a lifestyle based on Islamic values and moderate liberalism, cricket remains a binding force for many but religious parties and conservatives have frowned upon women competing with men in sports.
Girls and women have had to follow a strict code and play before female-only crowds.
“In Pakistan it does not matter which background you come from but it is a long struggle to gain recognition as an athlete. No one takes women’s sports seriously,” said team captain Urooj Mumtaz.
The Pakistan team which qualified for the 2009 World Cup last year in South Africa is an interesting blend of women from privileged backgrounds and big cities and those from smaller towns and conservative families.
They all faced the same problem of having to win the support of their parents and male relatives to allow them to play sport.
Mumtaz, a dentist, said her players saw cricket and the World Cup as a means of becoming more independent and being taken seriously as sportswomen.
There has been women’s cricket in Pakistan since the 1980s but this will be the team’s first official World Cup appearance. A team not recognised by the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) competed in 1997 and finished bottom of their group.
Pakistan defeated Ireland, Netherlands, Zimbabwe and Scotland in last year’s qualifying tournament before losing to South Africa in the final.
Their success generated a wave of media interest at home.
“Cricket is equally popular among girls and boys in Pakistan and the number of girls now playing cricket has increased by hundreds in the last two years,” said Shireen Javed, the head of the PCB women’s wing.
Almas Akram, who is from a small hamlet in Punjab, got permission from her family to play for Pakistan only after the intervention of the board.
“For us playing in the World Cup is a dream come true,” she said.
Almas, whose father is a retired teacher, got her love of cricket by watching it on television and tagging along with her male cousins to matches.
Naila Nazir, a leg-spinner who belongs to the earthquake-ravaged town of Manshera in the North West Frontier Province is excited about going to Australia, home of her cricket hero, former Australian leg-spinner Shane Warne.
“I started bowling watching Warne bowl on TV. He is my idol like our own Abdul Qadir,” said Nazir.
Pakistan coach Umar Rasheed admits his team are up against heavy odds as they face India, England and Sri Lanka in the first round.
“Women’s cricket is more organised in these countries so they have strong sides,” he said. “But I am optimistic. At times enthusiasm and team effort can overcome all odds.”
Editing by Clare Fallon