“Good shot that,” Zaheer Jaffary shouts, as one of the players hits a textbook cover drive.
The youngsters decked out in their blue training kit take their cricket practice seriously – the deliveries fly in at pace and the shots zip across the squeaky floor of the impressive new sports hall.
It’s a far cry from the day Zaheer, a PE teacher at Carlton Bolling College in Bradford, started the girls’ cricket team in 2014. “Three years ago they couldn’t throw a ball and they didn’t know anything about cricket,” he says.
The team was set up when the school had been put into special measures after an Ofsted report found it wasn’t doing enough to tackle the potential risks posed by extremism.
There has been much debate about encouraging more girls to participate in sport and Zaheer took it upon himself to do something about it.
He stood up in school assembly one day and asked if any of the girls fancied playing cricket. “I said: ‘Look on the bright side, if you join the cricket team you’ll get a lot of time off school.’ So we had about a hundred turn up for the first training,” he says, laughing.
The numbers were soon whittled down to 12 and after six weeks of practice the girls took part in their first competition at Headingley.
“The first team we played was a school from Harrogate and they scored 122 and I remember the girls came upstairs crying and saying: ‘I told you we weren’t ready, sir.’ So I said to them: ‘You just need to go out there and make 123,’” says Zaheer. “They did and I think that moment changed their lives.”
They won their next seven matches, beating Harrogate Grammar School in the final of the Yorkshire championships.
Since then the team, like the college itself which was brought out of special measures two years ago, has flourished – they’re now three-time county champions, North of England champions, and in September they were runners-up in the national final.
What makes their story all the more remarkable is that the team is made up of Asian girls who in some cases had never even picked up a cricket bat before.
Their success has earned them a string of accolades, including a special recognition award at the English Cricket Board (ECB) Chance to Shine Annual Awards, and being invited down for a special training session at Lord’s.
They’ve also been praised by cricket stars such as Adil Rashid, Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root and become mini celebrities in their own school with younger pupils coming up to them in the canteen and asking for a selfie. They have become poster girls not only for Muslim girls, but girls everywhere who want to play sport.
However, it has at times been a challenge. The parents of some of the girls were unhappy to begin with about the idea of them playing cricket amid concerns it might impact on their studies and Zaheer, too, has faced criticism.
“Some of the parents didn’t want them to play and I’ve lost one key player who could have gone on to play for Yorkshire,” he says. “If you ask me is it improving, I’d say it’s getting better but we’re nowhere near where I want us to be.”
The team’s success and the growing recognition of their achievements is slowly changing attitudes in the local community.
“When we went to the national cricket finals last month the ECB gave us a coach to take our family and friends down and afterwards I had a couple of parents who came up to me and apologised. They said they didn’t know the magnitude of what the girls were doing and wished they’d supported us from the outset, so that was really pleasing.”
Zaheer says the team’s success has had a knock-on effect for the girls. “They didn’t know one another when we started and they’re like a family now. It’s helped them develop their social skills and it’s boosted their academic progress as well as their attendance levels which are massively high.”
He says the team is helping to break down social and cultural barriers. “It’s not just Muslim girls. We have a big contingent of Eastern Europeans here now and I have Eastern European girls coming up to me wanting to have their picture taken with the team and wanting to come to training. If you were here the other day you’d have seen some of the girls coaching the boys... that’s how far they’ve come.”
The college has embraced the team’s success and a great deal of effort goes into ensuring that the girls’ studies don’t suffer, which means they fit training in before and after school or during lunchtimes. “We work collaboratively here. The head has been amazingly supportive and so have all the teachers,” adds Zaheer.
They have beaten teams with bigger and better resources and are already creating a legacy with another 40 girls coming through the ranks, all inspired by what the girls are doing and hoping to follow in their footsteps.
Watching the players practise, you can’t fail to notice the camaraderie and togetherness. Their smiles belie the hard work, dedication and determination they all put in – hallmarks of any great sporting team.
Fifteen-year-old Zainab has been playing from the outset. “The most important thing is how much of a team we are. In other teams you get individuals who stand out but there’s no ‘I’ in this team, we all help each other. It’s like a big family,” she says.
They have become role models for other girls but Zainab says that just being able to play cricket hasn’t always been easy.
“What we went through to be here today has been so difficult,” she says. “We’ve broken barriers as a team and we need to get to the stage where individual Asian girls can play sport without gender stereotyping.”
Kainnat, who has just turned 16, is a wicket-keeper and also opens the batting for the team, but three years ago she was starting from scratch.
“I’d never played before but it’s become a love,” she says, with a beaming smile. “I’m not a sporty girl but when we’re playing cricket we really support each other and I feel as if we’re role models for the younger girls.”
It has boosted her in other ways, too. “Before we were quiet and now we’re much more confident. I would always cover my face in photos and now I do photoshoots.”
It’s been a journey too for Zaheer, the team’s coach. “When people say I’ve inspired them I think it’s the opposite,” he says.
“They are the only South Asian girls’ cricket team in the whole country and they have overcome so many barriers to be here and I couldn’t be prouder of them – they’re like my extended family now.
“I had James Taylor [former England cricketer] say to me ‘you’ve got a cracking bunch of girls here’, and he’s right and I think that’s why people are falling in love with their story.”
‘The Real Madrid of school cricket’
The girls cricket team at Carlton Bolling College are inspiring other youngsters to take up the sport.
Headteacher Adrian Kneeshaw is full of admiration for what the girls have achieved. “I’m immensely proud of what they have done against a backdrop of social and cultural disadvantages and it’s testament to their hard work,” he said.
“They are truly groundbreaking and pioneering and they are role models for the other students.”
The school is keen to tap into this and next month it’s opening a new cricket academy for all pupils, boys and girls.
Kneeshaw believes it can be the start of a new era. “We want Carlton Bolling to be the Real Madrid of school cricket. This isn’t the end, it’s just the end of the beginning.”