“I en­joy be­ing one of the lads”

Re­tired Bri­tish crick­eter Isa Guha is rep­re­sent­ing the chang­ing face of the sport in Aus­tralia this sum­mer as a fresh new voice in the commentary box – just don’t ex­pect her to let go of her Pommy sym­pa­thies.

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - Photography DUN­CAN KIL­LICK Styling NI­COLE BONYTHON-HINES In­ter­view ADRI­ENNE TAM

sa Guha’s cricket ca­reer be­gan as so many cricketers’ do – in her back­yard. There were the req­ui­site milk crates for stumps, the shed that acted as a bound­ary, and the slightly dom­i­neer­ing big brother, who would de­clare Guha out af­ter a few min­utes of bat­ting – and then blithely change the rules to make her bowl to him for hours.

But in Guha’s story there was also a mother who no­ticed her daugh­ter’s skill, nur­tured it, and per­suaded her fa­ther to let her play with the boys at the lo­cal cricket club. And there was a fa­ther who, once con­vinced, was equally sup­port­ive of his daugh­ter’s de­vo­tion to a sport that, back in the 1990s, was con­sid­ered lit­tle more than a hobby for women.

Dur­ing her years play­ing for Eng­land, Guha wit­nessed the trans­for­ma­tion of women’s cricket. Now she is at the van­guard of an­other rev­o­lu­tion, this time in the commentary box. Over sum­mer, she will join some of Aus­tralia’s best­known cricketers in the Fox Sports commentary team.

For ev­ery­one in that box, and for cricket lovers across the coun­try, this is a big deal. For 40 years, cricket be­longed to the Nine Network. Its com­men­ta­tors’ voices were as much part of the sound­track of an Aus­tralian sum­mer as the chirp­ing of ci­cadas. But this year, cricket is chang­ing hands. As part of the new guard – and a woman at that – Guha knows she’ll be un­der scru­tiny.

“When you’re a fe­male in a male en­vi­ron­ment, in commentary and broad­cast, you do feel like you have to be

right on the money. Be­cause if you make the small­est mis­take, then peo­ple are af­ter you,” she tells Stel­lar.

“[But] I’ve never been in­tim­i­dated work­ing with a group of men, just be­cause I’ve played cricket with a boys’ team from a young age. I ac­tu­ally quite en­joy that en­vi­ron­ment. I en­joy the ban­ter, and en­joy be­ing one of the lads at times. What I’ve come to re­alise is we’re all pretty much in the same space now. [The men] have been in­cred­i­bly wel­com­ing, and there is a mu­tual re­spect there.”

One day in late June 2002, Guha was a 17-year-old school­girl liv­ing in High Wycombe, Buck­ing­hamshire, when she re­ceived a phone call that would change her life. The chief se­lec­tor for the women’s cricket team was on the line ask­ing whether she would like to play for Eng­land. For the cricket-mad teen, there was only one an­swer.

“I just re­mem­ber be­ing like a kid at Christ­mas,” the now 33-year-old re­calls as she sits down to chat with Stel­lar. “Com­ing from an In­dian back­ground, it was in the genes pretty much. It was such a great feel­ing to put on the whites, or the creams as we had back then, and re­ceive my first cap from Clare Con­nor, my cap­tain at the time.” When the news be­came pub­lic, one news­pa­per re­ported, “Eng­land picks a girl who bowls it like Botham”. She can still feel the thrill of those early days. “I re­mem­ber wak­ing up ev­ery morn­ing and go­ing, ‘ This is amaz­ing.’ Like, ‘I love this mo­ment.’ Back when you’re first start­ing out, ev­ery­thing’s a dream, you don’t have any pres­sure on your shoul­ders, you can just go out and do what you do and not have to worry about mak­ing mis­takes; just en­joy it, lap it up and be fear­less.” Guha’s par­ents em­i­grated from Cal­cutta, In­dia, but she is Buck­ing­hamshire born and bred. Some liken her story to that of Jesmin­der Bhamra in the pop­u­lar 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham – just re­place the soc­cer with cricket – but Guha’s story dif­fers sig­nif­i­cantly in that she never had to sneak around to play the sport she loved. “You don’t al­ways get that parental sup­port and I re­ally ad­mire those kids that are able to still fight through and do what they want to do,” she says. “But cer­tainly, I did have the sup­port.” Af­ter her test de­but against In­dia in 2002, Guha would go on to be­come one of the best women’s cricket play­ers in the world. Among her many achieve­ments, she helped re­gain the Ashes on English soil in 2005, a feat that hadn’t been re­alised for 42 years. She was ranked the In­ter­na­tional Cricket Coun­cil’s (ICC)

“If you make the small­est mis­take, then peo­ple are af­ter you”

num­ber-one women’s bowler in 2008, and, in one of her fond­est ca­reer high­lights, helped Eng­land win the 2009 World Cup on Aus­tralian soil.

Guha re­tired in 2012, but didn’t wan­der far from the pitch; she has been com­men­tat­ing for the UK’S Sky TV. This sum­mer she will sit along­side some of Aus­tralia’s most fa­mous cricketers – Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist and Ell­yse Perry among them – as part of the commentary lineup for Fox Sports’s newly ac­quired cricket broad­cast rights, which were wres­tled off Nine by a joint ven­ture be­tween Fox Sports and the Seven Network.

The new line-up al­ready has one fan – News Corp sports writer Jes­sica Hal­lo­ran. “For far too long women had been mostly ig­nored in the cricket TV commentary box in Aus­tralia,” Hal­lo­ran tells Stel­lar. “Not any­more.

“The in­clu­sion of com­men­ta­tors like Isa and Mel Jones, and the con­tin­u­ing ex­cel­lent work of jour­nal­ists Neroli Mead­ows, Jess Yates and Sarah Jones on Fox Sports has done noth­ing but en­rich the cricket cov­er­age in this coun­try. That two of our best cricketers, Ell­yse Perry and Alyssa Healy, will also pro­vide commentary on men’s cricket – in Healy’s case pos­si­bly on her hus­band’s matches [Healy is mar­ried to bowler Mitchell Starc] – is just awe­some. I have no doubt their pres­ence on our screens, their voices, will in­spire an­other gen­er­a­tion of women to com­men­tate and play the game.”

Warne con­curs. “I’ve worked with Isa over the last few years with Sky in the UK. She’s a won­der­ful ad­di­tion to the Fox cricket team. She has a ter­rific cricket brain, she knows her stuff and brings a sense of fun to the commentary box,” the crick­et­ing great tells Stel­lar. “At the end of the day, as a viewer, I like to lis­ten to good commentary on any sports. It doesn’t mat­ter what gen­der they are, as long as they en­hance the pitches. And Isa does that very well.”

“If a young girl sees a fel­low Bri­tish- Asian play­ing cricket, then they think, ‘ oh, well I can do that’”

The com­men­ta­tors will not be the only ones un­der scru­tiny. The Aus­tralian cricket team is still reel­ing from the ball-tam­per­ing in­ci­dent that saw cap­tain Steve Smith and vice cap­tain David Warner banned from play­ing for a year, and Cameron Ban­croft for nine months. A review found the Aus­tralian team had evolved into a ma­chine that was “fine­tuned for the sole pur­pose of win­ning”.

Guha says it has been dif­fi­cult to watch the fall­out. “Steve Smith seems like a de­cent guy and he’s been vil­i­fied for go­ing out with his mates,” she says. “These guys don’t have a chance to be able to go out and en­joy them­selves with­out the pub­lic or the me­dia com­ing down hard on them. It’s the same in In­dia. It’s the same in Eng­land.”

Back in the days be­fore so­cial me­dia, play­ers could sort out their dif­fer­ences over a beer, she says. They can’t do that any­more. “These days the guys just go back to their room, they play on their com­puter games, or what­ever, and it’s just con­stant cricket. And they per­haps don’t have that re­lease, and so that could get bot­tled up, and then it might come out on the field,” Guha says.

“How­ever, they do need to be more care­ful about how they man­age them­selves and how they’re seen in the lime­light, be­cause, es­sen­tially, they are role mod­els.”

Be­ing a role model is some­thing with which Guha, who is of Ben­gali de­scent, is fa­mil­iar. She was the first Bri­tish-asian woman to rep­re­sent Eng­land in any sport, and is one of the few women of colour in the me­dia or commentary box. “When I first played for Eng­land, there was that men­tion of ‘first Bri­tish-asian’, and I never re­ally thought any­thing of it. I never put pres­sure on my­self in that way at all. But now that I’ve re­tired… it’s all about vis­i­bil­ity,” she ob­serves.

“So if a young girl sees a fel­low Bri­tish-Asian play­ing cricket, then they au­to­mat­i­cally think, ‘ Oh, well I can do that,’ and it’s some­thing they can aspire to be. I do recog­nise that now, and I try and give sup­port wher­ever I can, not just for Bri­tish-Asians, but just for fe­males in gen­eral.”

Guha isn’t just in­spir­ing girls to be cricketers; she’s in­spir­ing them to be sci­en­tists, too. She has an Mphil (sec­ond only to a doc­tor­ate) in neu­ro­science, fo­cus­ing on the de­gen­er­a­tion of the brain. “I fi­nally fin­ished last year,” she says. “It was the big­gest slog of my life. But I have put it to one side now, the sci­ence. I would like to com­bine the two at some stage.”

In Septem­ber this year, Guha ticked off an­other mile­stone in her life – she mar­ried Richard Thomas, who is song­writer for the band Brother & Bones. In one photo, the bride swapped her bou­quet for a bat.

It was a happy day, but there was sad­ness, too, as Guha’s mother was too ill to at­tend. “But we had her on Face­time through­out the whole day, which was lovely,” Guha tells Stel­lar. “The dream was to have her cook­ing at the wed­ding. Not her phys­i­cally cook­ing, but her food.” To bring her mother’s touch to the wed­ding cel­e­bra­tions, a book of her recipes was cu­rated by the cou­ple and given to ev­ery guest. “[Mum] was re­ally de­lighted. It was a re­ally spe­cial day. Rich has been in­cred­i­ble. We’ve been to­gether a while now, and he’s just been an in­cred­i­ble sup­port to me.” Thomas will likely be join­ing Guha for Christ­mas in Aus­tralia as the sum­mer cricket sea­son heats up. But de­spite her new role at Fox Sports and her love of hot Christ­mases, Guha’s crick­et­ing sym­pa­thies are firmly with Eng­land.

Yet fel­low com­men­ta­tor and for­mer cricket cap­tain Gilchrist doesn’t seem to mind. “I sense a small de­light in her mood as Aus­tralia stum­ble and strug­gle through these chal­leng­ing times – like most Poms,” he tells Stel­lar. “How­ever I be­lieve the Aussie au­di­ence will re­ally warm to Isa’s hu­mour, knowl­edge and hu­mil­ity.”

Even so, Guha vows with a grin: “I haven’t lost my roots.” Ev­ery Test, ODI, T20I, BBL match and Women’s In­ter­na­tional match of the Aus­tralian sum­mer will be live and ad-break free on Fox Sports’s Fox Cricket.

“Play­ers need to be care­ful about how they’re seen in the lime­light”

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PITCH PER­FECT (from top) Isa Guha with her fel­low Fox Sports cricket commentary team (from left) Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Mark Waugh in Perth last month; her Septem­ber wed­ding to Richard Thomas; with her mother Roma last year.

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