June 24, 2014

'India performing on the big stage will be good for women's cricket'

Former England bowler Isa Guha talks about the support women's cricket needs from national boards, being a role model to Asians in the UK, and the tough decision she made to quit the game early

What are the most pressing issues in women's cricket at the moment?
The main concern is that some countries will fall behind while others progress at a fast rate. In recent times, we've seen a huge amount of growth in women's cricket and, at global events, Sri Lanka, West Indies and South Africa are holding their own against the consistently stronger sides. However, with England going professional, which is an unbelievable feat in itself, other countries will have to follow if they are to keep up. That means more support from respective governing bodies. Currently, Australia are probably the closest to England when it comes to professionalism. There is also support for West Indies, South Africa, Sri Lanka and New Zealand but not to the same extent that the ECB supports their women's team.

If the BCCI are serious about their women's team performing on the biggest stage then improvements are necessary and that doesn't just include player remuneration. Rounded infrastructure support with regards to coaching, medical and physio accessibility, facilities and competitive fixtures will also be important.

What should administrators do to increase viewership for women's cricket across formats?
I think T20 cricket has become the flagship spectacle for women's cricket. For the last six years, the semis and finals of the global tournaments have been played on the same day as the men. It draws in the crowds and people who wouldn't necessarily watch women's cricket. These days there is greater depth in players with the ability to hit the big sixes, bowl bouncers or other variations as well as some dynamic fielding. You may be treated to all these skills in T20 cricket over the course of three hours, whereas during a Test it is spaced out.

Don't get me wrong. The most recent women's Test in Perth. It has to be one of the best matches I've ever seen, yet there was hardly anyone watching. There was no TV coverage either, although I was covering it for BBC/ABC radio. There is a Catch-22 situation where people don't want to advertise unless they've got people coming to games, but you're not going to attract big crowds unless you market them properly.

In England last year, the ECB held a standalone T20 at Chelmsford between England and Australia and it was a packed house. Essex Cricket did a really good job of marketing it and I think boards around the world could follow.

Will getting girls playing with boys from a younger age, at school and club level, help?
I think so. Certainly between seven to ten there's a real opportunity for young girls to mix with boys. It's only when boys reach the age of 12-13 where strength takes over. I'd even say that girls' skill levels are better at seven to ten, because they listen more at that age. Many England girls have grown up playing men's cricket and trained in county men's academies, so they've faced 70-80 mph bowling. So when it comes to the women's game you have a 75mph bowler who's not as tall and not getting as much bounce, you feel more assured.

Was it easy to find a women's team to be a part of when you were young?
At the start there weren't any girls teams around or my family wasn't aware of any, so my dad formed a girls team at High Wycombe Cricket Club, alongside another parent, Bob Lester, who has sadly passed away now. It was a really fun team to be a part of. I also joined Gerrards Cross women. Through that I was selected for age-group county cricket and eventually I was introduced to a Premier League team called Ridgeway, which then became Reading Ridgeway. That was my first taste of playing with international or former international cricketers so I was gaining experience from quite a young age. I think I joined them when I was 11.

Should women be playing with men more often at the higher levels as well?
England Women regularly play against Under-15 and U-17 county men's sides, which is great for the girls to take them out of their comfort zones. It's important to find a balance, though, because the way in which women's cricket is played is still very different. In men's cricket you are playing on the back foot more than the front and you are bowling different lengths to men than you do to women.

"I want to encourage young Asian girls to get involved in cricket, because there are so many opportunities. I feel very fortunate"

How sustainable are Tests in women's cricket, considering the growth of T20s for men and women?
I actually thought that women's Tests were going to die out because it was only England and Australia that wanted to play, coupled with the fact that T20 was bringing more viewership and money to the game. However, the introduction of the multi-format bilateral series based on a points system has taken a step towards saving women's Test cricket. I think it should be used for future series between other countries too.

What more should be done for the viewers or fans to say, that women's cricket is as entertaining as men's?
Shorter boundaries. I also think we need to see the best players playing against each other. India have really slipped in terms of the way they are competing at global events. They have so much talent in their side yet they are not performing. Now if someone could take them by the scruff of their neck and transform them into a world-beating side, it would be significant because women's cricket needs India performing on the big stage.

The men's calendar is packed through the year. Won't it be tough to get broadcasters or sponsors for women's cricket?
The Indian channels are constantly filling with previous games. Star Sports have got four channels so there's always room to cover games, and in England there is plenty of space too. Certainly in India I know the viewership for World T20 was still better than any English Premier League football match. There is definitely a market for women and it just needs the support and people to actually realise that it is a viable product. Ten to 12 years ago you wouldn't want to watch women's cricket because the skill levels weren't there. Since then, it has improved substantially, the girls are fitter and stronger than ever, you've got maybe five or six players in a team now that can hit sixes and there are two or three bowlers who bowl in excess of 70 mph, alongside spinners who have several variations.

Do you support the idea of men getting more prize money than women for the same events, like the World T20?
It's something that we have learned to accept over the years. We have to be realistic as men's cricket has historically brought the spectators and money to the game. I don't think the girls are far off but until they can bring the crowds in on their own, equal pay won't happen. However, there is a real disparity between the pay, so it probably could be evened out slightly. In spite of that, this is the most the girls have ever received before so it is nice to see that it is gradually improving.

You played a lot of other sports while growing up. Do you think cricket has done enough compared to other sports to encourage women, or is it lagging behind?
In England, there was a real culture shift in perception of women's sport after that Olympics. Jess Ennis, Chrissie Ohuruogu, Vicky Pendleton and Laura Trott, to name a few, have acted as female role models in England. The government is also making a big push, and the media are now covering more women's sports. During the Women's World T20 the girls were on the front and back covers of leading newspapers. Sky and BBC are also getting behind women's cricket. Former and current international players are also taking the game more seriously, which speaks volumes for the direction women's cricket is heading in.

Compared to when you started playing, in 2002, how much sexism do you still see in the game?
Still a little bit. I used to get really frustrated, but then I kind of accepted that it is a male-dominated sport and you are constantly trying to prove yourself. I definitely think there's been a culture shift in the last couple of years and I think that comes from guys who are role models for youngsters, like international players and commentators.

The Women's International Cricket League may be played in Singapore. What immediate benefits will it bring for women's cricket?
Having been involved with the IPL over the last few years, I thought it would be a great idea to have a women's IPL. Shaun Martyn and Lisa Sthalekar have taken it on board full time making it their sole aim to get it off the ground. It was a shame to hear that the ECB and CA will not be supporting the tournament. However, these governing bodies have made great strides themselves to support the women's game. I'm not entirely sure what the ICC stance is but I think if the WICL is to go ahead then it will be important to gain their backing.

Do you think Asian women in the UK face greater challenges than men in making it to the top in cricket?
Yes. I was fortunate that my parents were unbelievably supportive of me. I don't know if a lot of Asian females in England receive the same sort of support. I just think it's a lot tougher with the traditional mentalities of Asian families who say it is much better to focus on your studies. However, the opportunities for the girls to become professional might change that mindset and the general perception of women in sport.

Do you see yourself as a role model for younger Asians?
I never used to. But the message I always try and get across is that it is possible to do both. I went to university and I still played cricket for England and actually quite a lot of the girls in the team have done the same. If I can act as a role model for young Asian women then that's great. I want to encourage young Asian girls to get involved in cricket because there are so many opportunities through playing. I feel very fortunate.

Talking about your own career, the England team won the World Cup, the World T20 and three Ashes in that time. How did England transform into this strong side?
It wasn't overnight. In 2005 we lost in the World Cup semi-finals to Australia but the belief was there that we could actually beat them. Then in that summer we were 2-0 down in the one-day series against Australia. We went to Stratford and we knew we had to win. We ended up putting 200 on the board, which was pretty much unheard of for the England team against Australia. And we narrowly won - the first time we had beaten Australia in ten years. That gave us the momentum to win the Ashes back after 42 years. In breaking their stranglehold we finally justified our belief that the number one spot was within our reach.

The introduction of lottery funding from 2002 meant more of us could spend more time training; strengthening conditioning coaches at the English Institute of Sport meant that we were the fittest we had ever been. When I first started we had John Harmer coaching us and he introduced a lot of biomechanics skills. Then we had Richard Bates, who introduced a lot of tactical awareness. Then Mark Lane, who allowed us to play with a lot of freedom - he'd encourage us to bowl the slower ball, and go out and play with no fear when we were batting. He made us ruthless too.

In 2008 when we were 2-1 up in the one-day series in Australia, we had the opportunity to win the series, yet we lost that final game. In the dressing room everyone was still quite upbeat but I remember Mark Lane saying we had missed a massive opportunity to win in Australia and that we should be disappointed more than anything. He was completely right. Then we went to New Zealand and did exactly that, winning 3-1.

That was the beginning of an 11-game winning streak prior to hitting the World Cup so we were peaking at the right time. Even in the final, we had a bit of a batting collapse, but the two cool and calm heads of Nicky Shaw and Holly Colvin saw us over the line. It really was a tournament where everyone performed at different times and I'll treasure those memories forever, because it wasn't just the two weeks, it was a period of seven years to get to that point.

"Little did I realise but the constant pressure of wanting to be better was all-consuming and it was making me unhappy. Since retirement I've been able to experience many things that I neglected whilst playing"

What were the low points of your career?
In 2005 we had just beaten Australia and we went to India and ended up being whitewashed. So after such a high, we ran into a huge low. Also, I found it hard coping with pressure of being the No. 1 bowler. It was just a tag but I really let it affect me. I felt the pressure of expectations every time I went out to bowl and when things didn't go to plan I would get quite frustrated. It followed a real purple patch in my career including the Bowral Test match and successive games after that. I tried to rediscover those moments every time I went out to bowl and when it didn't happen I would try even harder. It also coincided with me not knowing what I was doing with my life. I was 26, it was 2009, we had won everything, and I didn't know whether to carry on or whether to stop after achieving so much and moving on to a proper career. There were other low points but it is how you cope with those situations that make you a better cricketer.

How difficult was it to manage a career like that along with education?
It was tough but I would never change it. It was always important for me to have something else to do. There are some girls who surround themselves with cricket and they absolutely love it but I needed to escape it every now and then. The reason I chose to do the PhD was because it allowed me to obviously prioritise my cricket but then in my own time I could focus on my studies.

How big a role did it play in your early retirement?
I wouldn't say that that was my main reason for retiring. I had already been thinking about retiring in 2009. I knew that I wanted to better myself as a cricketer so I carried on from 2010 to 2012. It was during this time that I started to find myself yo-yoing in and out of the squad. I captained the academy side against the England team. Although I was excited about the prospect of leading these young and talented cricketers through the system I didn't like feeling disconnected from the core England group so it made me strive to get back in.

We had just won the 2011 Quadrangular Series. Six months before, I had started to have problems with my back. At the end of the tournament I thought, "Is this the right time to leave the game, or can I actually keep going another couple of years?" The next goal was the World Cup 2013. I said I want to be a part of a consistent force of dominance for England.

So I went to India and spent six weeks there. I trained at the CCFC [Calcutta Cricket & Football Club] and in Pune at the Global Cricket School. That was a wonderful experience and by the end of that trip I felt the best I've ever felt bowling. I came back and went straight to New Zealand on an England tour where I didn't feature in the T20s. I was obviously knocking on the door for a place in the team before it came to the ODIs but I was not selected. Obviously I was upset and usually my instinct and motivation would take over to do everything possible to get back into the side, but this time it was different. I felt really good with my cricket, the girls were unbeaten in the series, and there were lots of talented youngster coming through. Georgia Elwiss was given the opportunity ahead of me in the ODIs and I was OK with that. I accepted that this was the nature of sport and it was testament to how well the girls were playing. I just felt I couldn't give any more physically and mentally.

Was that a tough decision, with less than a year to go for the World Cup?
It was very tough but that's another reason why I thought it was a good time to go. It gave England an opportunity to bring someone else in and give them an opportunity ahead of the World Cup. The hardest thing for me was telling Charlotte Edwards. I remember the conversation we had and I just broke down in tears because I didn't want to let her down, I didn't want to let the team down either. It was hard telling my parents as well and I think they struggled knowing they couldn't be out there with me. I look back at it now and I think that it was a good decision to make. Little did I realise but the constant pressure of wanting to be better was all-consuming and it was making me unhappy. Since retirement I've been able to experience many things that I neglected whilst playing. I'm also very thankful for the opportunities that cricket has brought me and I am excited by the future.

Vishal Dikshit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo