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Gouher Sultana's ten-year hiatus

The left-arm spinner stopped being picked by India in 2014. Now she is back at the highest level, playing in the WPL

S Sudarshanan
S Sudarshanan
Gouher Sultana bowls in her last series for India, against Sri Lanka in the 2014 T20 World Cup  •  Pal Pillai/ICC/Getty Images

Gouher Sultana bowls in her last series for India, against Sri Lanka in the 2014 T20 World Cup  •  Pal Pillai/ICC/Getty Images

Gouher Sultana is on the verge of playing top-level cricket after a decade away.
The left-arm spinner last played for India in 2014. She was dropped after the Women's T20 World Cup in Bangladesh that year, where India merely managed to secure qualification for the 2016 tournament. From her debut in May 2008 till her last ODI, she was the fifth-most prolific spinner in the format. In fact, in each of her last two ODI outings - against Sri Lanka - she returned four-wicket hauls.
She was 26 then.
It was not how Gouher wanted her career to end, so she focused on plying her trade in domestic cricket. She played for Hyderabad, Puducherry, Railways and Bengal. There were some compelling performances along the way, like when she was the joint-third leading wicket-taker in the Senior Women's T20 Trophy in 2019-20. Not that those showings put her in the reckoning for selection for India, or for the Women's T20 Challenge - the exhibition tournament that preceded the Women's Premier League and was played for four seasons.
In sport, we applaud the new, but it can also often be a country for the old. Selectors, especially in women's cricket, scoff at age, but birth certificates don't reflect what athletes feel within. That has been especially true of Gouher, and her desire to stay in the game and her relentlessness bore fruit in December 2023, when UP Warriorz raised the paddle to take her on board for WPL 2024. "I was not convinced that I was finished," she says.
At close to 36 years, she now has another opportunity in top-flight cricket, and is one of only two Indians in the competition - Harmanpreet Kaur is the other - to have made their international debuts before 2010.
"There was absolutely no communication [from the selectors]," she says of how her time in international cricket came to an end. "That's how it is done here; it is the system. When someone is dropped, they are not told what is wrong, or what areas need to be improved, and things like that. Because I got those wickets in my last [ODI] series, I felt that couldn't be the end to my career.
"There were times when I thought of quitting - seasons I didn't do well, my mental health was affected. But then even when I was about to give up, I was like, 'No, this shouldn't be the end. I want to end it the way I want it.' It was not to prove anything to anybody, but I enjoyed playing and I still enjoy playing. That's the primary reason I am still here."
The domestic circuit can make for an uphill trek for those who are close to the senior side; it is tougher when you are not even on the periphery. As the years ticked by, Gouher knew she had to be at the top of her game to make the cut.
"If I am playing, I don't want to be a burden to the team," she says. "I don't want people to think that it is okay to have me because I have represented India in the past and am a senior player. If I am playing for a team, I want to contribute to winning and want to be one of the best players. When that doesn't happen - and when I stop contributing to the team's success or growth - that is the time I will quit.
"The culture in India is that you are considered 'old for sport' even when you are 26 or 27. Once you are dropped, nobody is looking back and getting you back in. After 30, you put on weight. I did not want to give anyone a chance to talk about my fitness."
The face of the sport has changed since the time she was an India international. The average scoring rate in T20Is that Full Members played in the seven years between 2008 and 2014 was 5.80. Since January 2015, it is at 6.57. The spotlight on the women's game has increased manifold. Keeping up with the pace did take its toll on Gouher.
"There were a lot of self-doubts even before WPL came up, and that affected my mental health," she says. "There were a few years in which I was not able to land the ball where I wanted to. It was not because of lack of practice. It was because I put myself under unnecessary pressure - to make a comeback and play at a higher level.
"In 2019 I was playing for Bengal for the first time, and they were the champions of the Senior Women's One Day Trophy the year before. I did well in the T20 trophy for the team and we went to the knockouts, where we playing Baroda in the quarter-final. That was a televised game, and I was playing one after a very long gap. I was like, 'Okay people are going to watch. Now that I have done well in the league stage, this is the time I want to show and prove people wrong and perform.'"
A couple of tough years followed. That was when Nooshin Al Khadeer, India's head coach when the side won the first Under-19 Women's T20 World Cup, intervened. Gouher looked up to Al Khadeer, a former team-mate at India and then Railways, who insisted that she try speaking to a psychologist. "I was not very open about it because people don't understand," Gouher says. "And I was anyway not playing at the highest level at that time. I was like, 'I don't know if they will be interested in talking to me' but [the psychologist] was kind enough."
Al Khadeer herself provided valuable inputs. "Noosh has always helped me in my career in every stage," Gouher says. "I have had a lot of conversations with her, and she has always helped me with practice sessions or [work on] the kind of mindset I have. We still talk about how cricket is evolving. I try to take experience from her and put in the hard work required.
"That's when things got a bit better. I then started focusing on my process and not on the results. Since last year I have been much, much better, in terms of mental aspect, and even my practice sessions have been way better. I think my performance also got better."
Gouher's ten wickets in the domestic T20s last year were the joint most for Bengal, with Sukanya Parida. She returned to play for Hyderabad this season and took eight wickets in the T20s, the second most for them. "Even if you take the last five seasons, this has been one of the best seasons in terms of the ball coming out of my hands," she says. "The ball is in control. For a bowler, that is the best thing you can have."
The teams for the Women's T20 Challenge used to be picked by the national selectors, unlike the WPL, where it is done by auction. Gouher found no takers in the inaugural season, and so putting her name up for the auction for 2024 felt like more of a gamble, but it was one she wanted to take. In the auction she drew no bids in the first round but Warriorz chose her at base price for their final pick.
She was on the morning shift at her day job with the Indian Railways and kept an eye on the auction while at work. "After no one picked me in the first round, I was like, 'Okay it won't happen,'" she laughs. "Honestly, I was not expecting [to be picked] but since you have registered, you watch, and somewhere you hope. I wasn't expecting especially UP Warriorz, because they already had two left-arm spinners [Sophie Ecclestone and Rajeshwari Gayakwad]. Other teams at least had a vacancy in that department.
"I switched it off and went shopping. I was not feeling okay with all the anticipation. Then I got a call from Warriorz and did not know how to react. I was nervous and excited at the same time. Slowly it sunk in that I will be part of WPL 2024."
Despite the challenges she faced in her own career at various stages, Gouher's desire to help other cricketers develop has been a constant. A fine reader of the game, she has offered tactical inputs and insights into technique to team-mates and others. In fact, she says wanting to do that was one of the driving forces behind her return to Hyderabad ahead of the 2023-24 season.
She began her career with the side in 2006-07 and played most of her domestic cricket for them. Her performances there got her an India call-up, and she finished among the top three wicket-takers in the Senior Women's One Day Trophy in 2010-11 and 2011-12, and fourth in 2008-09.
"I want to make this team grow back again and be like how it was when we used to play," she says. "There were a lot of occasions when we were in the top three or four for quite a lot of seasons. There are a lot of young and talented cricketers in Hyderabad. I want to help these cricketers grow."
Gouher credits her mother, who she says has been her pillar, for this characteristic. "She has taught me at every step of life that before yourself, try and help others, and it will come back to you. If I can help others and it helps them even 1%, that makes me happy. Irrespective of how I was doing, I wanted to help young cricketers as much as I could, pass on knowledge and experience I had.
At Warriorz she will play alongside Gayakwad, who at 32 is no more a first choice in white-ball cricket for India. In fact, it was Gayakwad's rise back in 2014 that helped India move on from Gouher.
"We haven't played a lot of cricket together but we have a bonding," Gouher says. "Whenever we meet, playing against each other also, we have always greeted each other well. She has done a lot of good work for the country. She has contributed to India's success more than me. If I can learn a thing or two from her and Sophie Ecclestone, it would be great to add to my armoury."
And so, Gouher is back, almost ten years since she last played international cricket. She is wiser and has unfinished business. All these years she has worked in the trenches, away from the world's glare. Now every ball that comes out of her hand will be watched by hundreds of thousands, and be analysed by plenty. And she will have a shot at writing her destiny and getting the closure she desires.

S Sudarshanan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Sudarshanan7