Naomi Dattani on importance of pro contracts, and difficulties of mixing culture with elite sport

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Naomi Dattani
Naomi Dattani made her Middlesex first-team debut in 2008, aged just 14

In a year of uncertainty, for a select few, December 2020 brought the opposite.

Almost seven years after England women were granted the same, the opportunity now presented itself to the tier below.

“I still haven’t seen what my 100% potential looks like. That’s what is so exciting,” says all-rounder Naomi Dattani, one of those 41, who has also signed for London Spirit in The Hundred.

“I’ve always been told I’ve got ‘potential’, but I’ve never been able to just give everything. Education would get in the way, or cultural pressures, or work.

“The Kia Super League [which launched in 2016] was when we first got the idea that things were shifting. We started getting six or seven weeks’ pay. Each time I considered stepping away, it felt like the wrong thing to do.

“It was like, actually, keep going, there are going to be more opportunities coming. Carry on with the ride.”

“Obviously that ride was still quite difficult,” continues 27-year-old Dattani, who by then was working as a school coach to supplement her playing income, while also competing against England’s full-time professionals.

“For about the last five years, I’ve been trying to train like a professional athlete, because those were often who I was playing against, but also work 20 to 30 hours a week on top of it.

“And I’ve just been knackered the whole time. So when I say I’m loving life now, I really am. I’m loving the fact I can train and sit down in between and…” the all-rounder pauses.

“… and rest,” laughs Dattani.

“It’s true! That’s been the biggest thing for me. It’s probably the one fact that has made the biggest difference in my cricket – that I’ve had the opportunity to rest and recover.”

Naomi Dattani, second right, with team-mates at Middlesex
Naomi Dattani, second right, with team-mates at Middlesex

Turning professional hasn’t just freed up the time a job or studies would otherwise have taken up, either.

As one of only three South Asian women among the 58 full-time domestic and England professional cricketers, there is another challenge Dattani has often found difficult to explain: cultural pressure.

“It was the little comments,” says Dattani, choosing her words carefully. “Where people would say to you, ‘Oh, but you always have a wedding,’ if I missed a weekend match. And, well, yeah, because that’s… that’s part of my culture.”

“I come from an Indian Hindi family. We’re a very big family of probably more than 100 immediate relations and you get invited to loads of cultural social events that you are expected to attend. Especially as a woman.

“Stereotypically, boys could get away [with missing family events] a bit more. But for a girl to say she was [missing these gatherings] to go into sports, well, the lines get blurred. Your family are really supportive but at the same time it’s not an understood career pathway.”

Not only was it hard to justify an absence with indulging in an amateur hobby rather than a profession, there were the logistical challenges too.

“There’s always something on, always at weekends. And as an amateur, that’s when I was supposed to be playing cricket,” says Dattani.

“Sometimes, under pressure, I’d say yes to one event, try and squeeze it in before a match, or training, or work, but then you’ll be on your feet for 12, 13 or 14 hours, non-stop, and I’d never get a break.

“When I was younger, I thought this was what I had to do – try and do it all. Naively, I was like, oh it’s fine, it doesn’t matter what [my coaches, or selectors] think, I’ve just got to go to these family events [and miss cricket]. But then, over time, I’ve realised that actually, imagine how that looks from their perspective.

“Suddenly I had ‘commitment issues’. At one point, I probably screwed myself over a little bit by doing that.”

Earlier this month, another South Asian cricketer, Azeem Rafiq, said he had lost faithexternal-link in the investigation into his claims of alleged institutional racism at Yorkshire.

For Dattani, however, the barriers are more nuanced. “It’s not explicit racism,” says Dattani, who points out that with so few South Asian women playing at elite level, there are less likely to be obvious examples of overt discrimination.

The first, and last, South Asian woman to regularly represent England is BBC Cricket presenter Isa Guha, who retired almost a decade ago. Alongside Dattani, Sonia Odedra and Abtaha Maqsood are the only two other South Asian women in the country with professional contracts.

“It’s more of an understanding that everyone has different challenges, and they might not be the same as yours,” Dattani says.

“On the women’s side the stuff is a little bit different. There are really no role models for a South Asian to look up to in the women’s game. I believe it’s more of an education gap, where people need to help the younger Asian girls with what it takes to be an athlete.”

“The ECB are running various South Asian programmes, which I’ve been dipping in and out of,” beams Dattani. “Like ‘Chai and Chat’ mornings throughout lockdown, where they get mums and other women to join and understand what cricket is, for both them and their daughters.

“Now, when I’m coaching, it’s not just the dads taking an interest but the mums as well, staying near the nets, asking how they can support their daughters. That’s really encouraging.”

It all sounds great. It also sounds exhausting.

Dattani may no longer have a full-time job to juggle alongside her playing career but representing an ethnic minority seems just as demanding.

“I feel like a lot of people want to get a piece of me,” agrees Dattani.

“And yes, sometimes, I just want to go and play cricket and not have to do all of that. But then, you know, that’s part and parcel of becoming a professional – you’re a bit more in the limelight. And as long as I have my boundaries, and I’ve learnt how and when to say no, then that’s fine.”

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