Claire Taylor and Isa Guha March 3, 2009

Go-to girls get in gear

England have the top-ranked batsman and bowler in their ranks, and they are set to make a mark on the World Cup

Guha, a chemistry grad, works in a laboratory © Christopher Lee

I can tell you it can be unnerving to sit across from the world's No. 1 batsman and bowler. Halfway through the interview an errant ball from the nearby nets smacks our bowler full on the leg. A wince and a glare later the conversation is back on. Rattled at the thought that a few inches this way would have meant my leg, I lose my train of thought. But Isa Guha is unflustered; bruised but not shaken.

England's Claire Taylor and Guha lead the ICC women's rankings for batting and bowling respectively and with the World Cup round the corner, other teams must wish they'd be as gentle with the ball as they are with questions in an interview.

But that is not likely to happen. England are a team that Guha says has turned "just a little bit more ruthless" since their third-place finish in the Quadrangular Series in Chennai in 2007. Guha and Taylor have strong back-up in the side, and today, apart from the hosts Australia, England are the strongest contenders to the world title, which they last won in 1993. No one would have bet on that as recently as two years ago.

England returned from India - having lost six out of seven games - only to lose 3-2 to New Zealand. They were clearly uninspired as they headed to Australia for the Ashes. However, after an initial hiccup they transformed it into their most successful tour Down Under and haven't looked back since.

At just what point did they begin to peel away the rot that had set in? Guha agrees the Quadrangular was a turning point. "We went in to the tournament thinking we'd beat every team but we didn't, so we reassessed," she said. "We were getting into situations where it's the last five overs and we were losing the game. We realised we had to be mentally tougher."

Taylor pinpoints the final game in Chennai, where England beat India to take the third place, as the first time in a long time that they had played competitively for 100 overs. "Before that we were competitive for around 50 to 60 overs which is not enough," Taylor said. "I think we're getting better at touring abroad in the winter. This winter [2008-09] we got off to a very slow start in Australia. We lost the warm-up game but we got better through the tour and played really well in New Zealand on the fast tracks."

Since the Quadrangular, England have won six out of eight games in which Taylor has scored 40 or more. In the same period, of the 30 batsmen Guha has dismissed, 14 fell between 1 and 9 runs and nine were out for ducks.

"I joined a big multinational company and was working there for four years when I was told I had to cut back on the cricket and spend more time on work and think about being a better manager. In the end I took redundancy" Claire Taylor

Enjoying the form of their lives, the two say they feel a sense of invincibility when they are in the zone. "It's as if the bowlers are bowling where you want them to," Taylor said. "You reach a certain stage where the field is set just as you'd like it, the run-rate is where you need it and the ball pitches where you want it to."

Taylor's own performance turned for the better after her personal coach, Mark Lane, (now England's coach) returned from an assignment in Kenya in 2005 shortly before the Ashes. "I had a few sessions just before our series against Australia - I had a really good one-day series and then we won the Ashes. He is someone who concentrates on creating effective cricketers. I also went back to work and the balance in my life has been so much better since that time."

Guha thinks she arrived as a bowler in the Bowral Test in 2008, where she took nine wickets in England's six-wicket win. "From 2003 I have been working on changing my action. Toby Radford, the current Middlesex coach, helped me through that winter and summer. My action was mixed, which was making me inconsistent. So I had to learn how to transfer the consistency I picked up from the nets to matches, while also making it an unconscious one. Since that Test it's been about adding to my armoury, working on the slower ball - things that will be effective in an ODI."

What helped both do better was the decision to split the squad during the off season and get some of the players to play in Australia and New Zealand, thereby stretching the months of competitive outdoor cricket. This will be England's USP at the World Cup and their performance there could prompt other teams to try the experiment as well. "The effect of splitting the squad means some people can stay at home and work indoors with the coaches on their technique and it's up to the guys who go away to ensure they get the right coaching and play some good cricket," Taylor said. By the time the World Cup comes around, Guha, who left for Australia in November, would have had four months, along with other squad members, to adjust and familiarise herself with the conditions.

However, the longer they choose to play in a year, the less money they can earn - a paradoxical situation when seen through the lens of men's cricket. The England women have Chance to Shine contracts, where they get paid to coach 25 hours a week for a period of eight months. If they have other jobs, they can cut down on the coaching time, which means they get paid less. However, Taylor and Guha, who hold down jobs and don't avail of the Chance to Shine contracts, feel it is the next best thing to having central contracts like the men. "It's the most secure part-time job you can get, with a salary coming in every month," Taylor said. "So the girls can think about renting a house and have plenty of time over the weekend to train. The four months remaining are when we are supposed to be out touring, so there's plenty of time off as well.

Taylor's game took an upturn after some work with her coach Mark Lane in 2005 © Getty Images

"I work part-time and Isa works in laboratories. It's really tough for those who are just leaving university to make the choice between playing or [whether to] get a job and get on the career ladder or the housing ladder. Or someone like Beth Morgan who stood first in university but chose to make a commitment to cricket." Guha said she worked in labs because it was the career she wanted to pursue. "But a lot of the girls playing in Australia are doing a bit of coaching work."

Taylor was faced with the dilemma of whether to pick cricket over a regular job when she left university. "I joined a big multinational company and was working there for four years when I was told I had to cut back on the cricket and spend more time on work and think about being a better manager. In the end I took redundancy after four years and did what Isa is doing now - I went to New Zealand in the winter and played as a semi-pro cricketer. People do have to make tough choices, and when you sacrifice something you respect the game more."

Sticking it out has certainly helped. Today the merger with the ECB, working contracts, and sponsors have given the game in England a much-needed boost.

"All the teams are much fitter than they used to be, which will prove important when we play three weeks of intensive cricket during the World Cup," Guha said. "We got good coverage when we played a Twenty20 ahead of the men at the MCG." Point out that it was the game where Australia's Ellyse Perry hit her for a six into the stands - a feat not many had expected to see in the women's game - and she sighs. "Everyone keeps reminding me of that! But you know, it's good for the game."

"A couple of years ago we played most of the 1993 World Cup-winning side at Lord's for a charity event, and they were all commenting on how much harder we hit the ball these days," Taylor said.

As senior players, Taylor and Guha must take charge of England's campaign. Australia may be favourites for the tournament they will host, but England will make them uneasy. And leading the list of those they'd like to see the least are the world's best batsman and bowler.

Nishi Narayanan is a staff writer at Cricinfo