The All-Rounders of Batley
The Glorious team head to West Yorkshire to play ball with the empowered South Asian women and girls taking the rounders world by storm
By Annabel Herrick
Photography by Heiko Prigge
Owning the racial slur often thrown at niqab wearers, a 24-member club The Batley Ninjas are causing a stir in West Yorkshire by encouraging more South Asian women to join rounders teams. Formed in 2015 by Ready Steady Active, the idea was to empower women and girls from South Asian backgrounds – namely India and Pakistan – to get active. Starting as a small group, they began at the bottom of the league, now it’s a different story.
Played in England since the Tudor times, rounders is synonymous with a sticky British summer. Many people associate the traditional game with the period of the school year when teachers are looking to get children burning off energy in the sun. Fun, slightly chaotic and open to all, most would argue rounders has never been taken seriously as a competitive sport. For centuries, it’s been more about playground frolics than scoreboards. However, in a small Yorkshire market town with a largely South Asian community, The Batley Ninjas say otherwise.
A survey by Sport England shows that participation in sport for women with a South Asian background is as low as 21%. The Batley Ninjas team captain, 44-year-old businesswoman Sofiya Makda, who now considers herself an athlete, explains. “Many in the community don’t see sport as something women should pursue.” Setting out to change this perception, Sofiya and her peers are rallying as many women as possible to get involved, Muslim or otherwise.
With the launch of the programme, Ready Steady Active offered various sports, including football and boxercise, but the women took to rounders immediately, “It seems they get fun out of whacking a ball!” says Sofiya, who loves fielding. For women who find the gym intimidating, rounders is a good gateway to fitness, a chance to get outside and bond with members of the community. “We’ve become a family. I suppose you could say this is what a team is,” explained Sofiya. One player, Anisha Akhtar, aged 31, explains how she was immediately drawn to the sport when she became bored of her fitness routine: “You always see football and netball on offer – never rounders,” she adds, “People don’t see it as a proper sport but I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s a chance to make friends, have a play around and let off steam.”
Nationally, more than 80,000 adults play rounders regularly and approximately one million people have taken part in rounders sessions over the past year. So why rounders? Sofiya responds, “It’s good for beginners as an introduction to sport. But you do need a certain level of stamina.” Out of the six intergenerational teams, you’ll find businesswomen, full-time mums, students, and even grandmothers – all from various backgrounds. The Ninjas accept players of all faiths, whether they wear a hijab or niqab (like Sofiya) is irrelevant. When it comes to covering up, Sofiya urges that this depends entirely on the individual. “Some do and some don’t. It’s a cultural choice rather than religious. But there’s nothing in our faith to say women shouldn’t be involved in sport.”
Another teammate, Maariyah Kadia, aged 26, expanded on the limitations within their cultural community: “You don’t see many women playing sport but we’ve proven that we can still stick to our beliefs without crossing the line,” she explains. In fact, it was her husband who encouraged her to get involved in the first place: “He loves football and now I love rounders!”
In this small town, Sofiya’s reputation precedes her and most new members hear about the Ninjas from word of mouth, “People trust me with their girls.” Now, there are more than 3o players, aged between 12-51, who show up to weekly practice sessions, whether that’s to de-stress, get fit or socialise, “Some say rounders make them nervous, frustrated and excited all in one. Many say it gives them more confidence.” Sofiya recalls one player, Ruqaiyyah Diwan, who joined after suffering the trauma of a stillborn child and how rounders gave her strength to keep going. “She was a nervous wreck. Now she’s one of our strongest players,” explains Sofiya.
When Ruqaiyyah, aged 28, recounts this period, she credits her recovery to the Batley Ninjas: “I was heading towards depression but the team and their positivity prevented me from a downward spiral,” she continues, “Nothing can ever match the support the women gave me. I had suffered bullying from a young age and had no-one to talk to. Now I’ve got a second family.” In school, Ruqaiyyah wanted to pursue a career in sport but this is largely frowned upon in her culture: “Within Asian communities, women working in the sport industry is unheard of. Even though I was always athletic, I had to choose a different career path.” However, thanks to the Batley Ninjas, she has found a hobby that grants her the flexibility to bring up three children and keep sport in her life.
Rounders is reliant on each team member to contribute equally, which gives the women confidence to communicate and strategize together. “It gets them out of the house and helps with their anxieties,” says Sofiya. Since starting rounders, she’s become far more active herself, having joined a local gym – strengthening her arms is a priority to become an even better player, “It’s definitely brought out a competitive instinct.” They usually play 12 to 14 matches a season and Sofiya oversees an hour-long practice at a local park every Sunday.
The group is self-funded (membership costs £15 per month) and the women play all year round – in parks during the summer and in a community centre during the winter. Sofiya plays alongside her four daughters, aged 16-26. “They love it, as it’s the only place they’re allowed to shout at me,” she said with a giggle. One daughter, Tabby Makda, aged 21, says: “When I play I feel like I can forget about everything else for those 45 minutes.” Sofiya sees training as an opportunity for them to spend time together as a family. Soyifa’s youngest daughter, Habiba Makda, aged 16, explains how rounders has changed her attitude: “Play the game and have fun’ is my new motto. I love rounders because it forces me to come out of my bubble and gives me more confidence.” Her daughters also manage The Batley Ninjas social media accounts, where they share reams of team photos with eyes smiling and arms thrown around each other. “We want to show that women can play sports despite their beliefs,” explains Sofiya. Some of their best matches were played in the Leeds League, but Sofiya points out: “Our achievement is encouraging sportsmanship, regardless of whether we win or lose.”
As for the future of the Ninjas, it’s important to keep up momentum. A community grant from the Muslim Sports Foundation that works with Sport England to help ethnic minorities get into sport, allows Sofiya to put money towards coach or umpire training for the younger players. In fact, 12 girls are attending an intermediate umpire course next March. “They live and breathe the sport,” she says. Through support, they can turn their much-loved hobby into a viable career with the right qualifications. New member Anisha is keen to expand The Batley Ninjas to the nearby town of Huddersfield where her relatives are based: “Everyone thinks it’s just a school game but I want to set up my own team and get my family involved,” she continues, “I didn’t know anyone when I moved to Batley but we all became so close so quickly thanks to rounders.”
Due to popular demand, this year The Batley Ninjas introduced a sister team, The Ninjettes, of which there are 30 members and their first tournament is planned for January 2022. Don’t laugh at the name, Sofiya says chuckling, they chose it themselves.” For pre-teen girls who lack confidence, it’s a powerful move to name their first sports team with a nod to the racial discrimination their community has endured. Despite Sofiya’s giggle, she knows that the incredible impact the Ninjas will have on the future of these young girls – and how they navigate adulthood – is no laughing matter.