Guha excited by cricket’s chance to shine

Isa Guha has just arrived home following a stint commentating at the Indian Premier League. Since touching down, the former England seamer has taken her place as part of Sky Cricket’s team on their Royal London Cup coverage. In between her many commitments, she is championing the #ShowUp campaign, a partnership launched by Sky Sports and the Women’s Sport Trust to encourage people to back women’s sport by doing exactly as its hashtag suggests.

It seems fitting that Guha is speaking on yet another momentous day in women’s cricket’s recent past. The Women’s T20 Challenge, an exhibition match in Mumbai between the world’s top female players, has just drawn to a conclusion. The Supernovas, captained by Harmanpreet Kaur, and featuring England’s Danni Wyatt, triumphed in a game that stretched to its final delivery. The identity of the victors was immaterial, though. What mattered was that the match played as the curtain-raiser to the men’s playoff between the Sunrisers Hyderabad and Chennai Super Kings, means that a women’s equivalent IPL edged a step closer.

As Guha says, the women’s game has never been as popular in India as it is now – the result of a hugely successful World Cup last year, both for the game as a whole and for a new generation of Indian heroes. The Indian side reached a thrilling final, where they were beaten at Lord’s by England, but they showcased their skills in front of a worldwide audience of more than 180 million people.

“I feel that the IPL is the most natural progression from a women’s cricket point of view,” Guha says. “It just feels like we are in such a good place around the world, and the girls are obviously now professional. It makes sense from a broadcast point of view. It’s so easy – we’ve got the cameras there already. Why not just start the matches a bit earlier?

“The perception of the Indian women’s team has just risen incredibly. Two of the team, Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, have been playing since 2002 and are having biopics made about them.”

Having experienced the sheer thrill of cricket’s greatest carnival over the past couple of months, there can be few with a greater understanding of the IPL’s potential to take the women’s game to another level. “When it comes to the IPL, there really is nothing else like it,” Guha explains. “When you touch down on the ground, you walk off the plane and it just hits you in the face. Everyone is talking about it, it’s on all the TV channels, in all the newspapers, on all the billboards, it’s on every single night. People tune in after work and it essentially becomes their sitcom after a day’s work. They sit down, and they’ve got their heroes and villains on television, and they’ve got their loyalties to whichever team they’ve supported for however many years.

“At the grounds as well, the atmosphere created at the Wankhede Stadium, for instance, people stand up for most of the game; there is a DJ playing really loud music; and there’s no alcohol available at some of the stadiums. These people are just coming down to be completely engrossed by the cricket.

“It’s just one of the most incredible feelings, not just when you’re there at the ground, but also when you’re commentating. You just feel that energy coming through your earphones and it’s just an incredible atmosphere.”

It is in her role as commentator and pundit that Guha has thrived in recent years. Though Donna Symmonds became the first woman to commentate on men’s international cricket, Guha became the first to take the microphone at a men’s T20 franchise tournament when she began working for the Caribbean Premier League in 2015. It is a sign, she says, that the competitions hold – and appreciate – a vast female audience.

“They want to relate to that by having some representation in the commentary box,” she explains. “The IPL just realised that they needed to cater to all of their audience, and that is why they got four of us on board [Guha, Mel Jones, Lisa Sthalekar and Anjum Chopra]. It is really great that we’ve had the opportunity to do that.

“We’ve all done it together at the IPL, we all bring different things to the table, and we all massively respect the way everyone goes about their business. It does change the dynamic in the commentary box as well. With any work that you do, you start by trying to learn about the other people. Then when you feel comfortable, hopefully that comes across in the broadcast.”

Conversation switches back to the World Cup, where Guha’s role was all-encompassing – commentating, but also retaining a vested interest in the fortunes of many of her former teammates. The excitement is still there in her voice as she recalls last July’s final. “It was a completely different audience to what I’ve normally been accustomed to at Lord’s,” she recalls. “I think about 50 per cent of the tickets sold were to women, a lot of families were there. You just got this sense that everyone was gripped by the action. Nobody left their seats. I remember being pitch-side when England got over the line and the atmosphere was just electric on both sides.”

With England world champions, and the English game continuing to improve, the announcement of the much-maligned Hundred competition has surprised Guha. Much has been made of its possible effects on the men’s game. What has not, though, been quite so widely broadcast is the consequence of replacing the highly successful Kia Super League with a shortened format. As it stands, it would mean that England’s women would be expected to compete in T20 cricket internationally, despite having no domestic equivalent.

“I’ve always been of the belief that you need to be playing exactly the same format, and with the same conditions, in your domestic competition to give yourself the best chance of playing well internationally in that same format,” Guha says. “It’s not a huge amount of difference because, essentially, if it rains the game is shortened anyway. But I was a little bit surprised that they didn’t retain the Kia Super League and didn’t just shift it to when the NatWest Blast is being played.

“I don’t know what they’re thinking at the moment, but I hope there will be some kind of T20 competition, whether it’s among the counties. But the good thing about the Super League was that it was a bit more concentrated and there was better competition as you could attract the overseas players as well.”

Where she is not concerned, however, is in the new competition’s ability to move women’s cricket forward. “You look at all women’s sport – there is just a real shift in attitude around the world towards the women’s game,” she says.

“Here in England, there was a real push from the government to make sure that women’s sport was supported. We’re now seeing an incredible amount on television. Visibility is so important. It’s all about breaking the cycle. People aren’t going to show up to games if they don’t know about them. People aren’t going to know about the games if you don’t put any money into it and market and commercialise the game properly. It is all about breaking the cycle and that is where broadcasters come in, because by having that visibility you’re able to see those skills on show.”

There is a proviso, Guha stresses, on which the growth of women’s sport must be based. The sport has to be ready for its airtime and for the increased scrutiny that comes with increased publicity. “You have to get the timing right because you don’t want to showcase the game when the skills aren’t there,” she warns. “You need competition between teams as well. You just look at the netball final at the Commonwealth Games, which was just incredible; you look at the hockey final at the Olympics; the World Cup final at Lord’s. No matter who’s playing out in the middle, and no matter what the sport is, it makes someone tune into the action.

”It is why, ultimately, Guha is optimistic about the future. By her own admission, the women’s game has advanced further than she could have foreseen when she quit international cricket six years ago. At the same time she knows that there is a long way still to go. “We need to really seize on this opportunity while it is a hot topic and people are really giving it the support it deserves,” she says.

“That’s why these initiatives like the #ShowUp campaign are so important because they cross over all women’s sports and it encourages people to support any women’s sport that’s being played. We need to work together to keep it going and to keep shouting about it because people’s attention spans have got a lot shorter these days.”

Sky Sports and the Women’s Sport Trust have joined forces to encourage everyone to show up and support women in sport by watching, attending or playing this summer. Be a part of the campaign by sharing your experiences of women’s sport on social media using #ShowUp

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Friend graduated with a degree in Modern Languages from Durham University, where he was sports editor of the student newspaper, Palatinate. He has edited Sports Gazette for St Mary’s University since September 2017, and was runner-up in the 2018 David Welch Young Sportswriter competition. Nick, an ICC and ECB-qualified cricket coach and umpire, spent six months working as a coach for Cricket Argentina as part of his year abroad. In more delusional times he had set his sights on a career in professional cricket. Now he counts darts, ski jumping and snooker among his passions, with an unnecessarily in-depth knowledge of all three.  Nick’s latest articles

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