Isa Guha: “I feel a responsibility to the game that’s given so much to me.”

When Isa Guha made her England cricket debut aged 17, she had no idea she was also making history. “It never crossed my mind,” says the celebrated pace bowler of becoming the first British Asian woman to represent her country in any sport. “It’s only later I actually discovered why it was a big deal. So there is a sense of pride there. But I also think: why did it take so long?”

Nearly two decades on, Guha can still recall her first Test match pretty much ball by ball. “It was like being a kid at Christmas,” she says. “Because I was 17, I had a restriction on the number of overs I could bowl in a day, and I just remember, on my last over, thinking: ‘I don’t want this ball out of my hand’. I just wanted to keep bowling and bowling.” She has no memory of being scared. “I guess it’s youthful exuberance,” she suggests. “You’ve not been tainted by defeat. You don’t have the baggage of a few losses.”

In the years that followed, losses would be in short supply, as Guha’s medium-fast bowling prowess helped power England’s women to victory in both the Ashes and the World Cup. “When I first got into the side in 2002, we were a very average side,” she says. “When the senior players talked about the Australians, I could almost hear the fear in their voices. So to win The Ashes for the first time in 42 years… That summer of 2005 was such a celebration for our sport, with the men winning as well. And then obviously continuing the journey to become the best team in the world, when we won the World Cup in Australia… They were such amazing moments.”

Despite this, in 2012 Guha retired from international cricket, aged just 26. There were “lots of different reasons” for the decision, she says. “I’d come to a point, in 2009, where we’d done everything – there was literally nothing more to achieve – and I’d got to a crossroads. Also, we were essentially playing for the love of the game. I was 24 and I wasn’t earning a living. So I had a choice to make: what was I going to do with my life?”

Initially, she chose to keep playing, while also studying part-time for a PhD in neuroscience, to add to her biochemistry and molecular biology degree. “And it just got too much. I was effectively training full-time, for what was a semi-professional sport, I was starting to have injuries… There were a number of different factors, but I finished in a place where I felt really good, and there were no regrets. Stepping out of that bubble was actually a massive weight off my shoulders. I didn’t realise how much it was consuming me.”

It’s quite a damning indictment of women’s sport at the time, suggests Weekend, that you could be a World Cup winner, and also broke. “I guess so,” she says. “But look at athletes. It’s really tough. Unless you’re Dina Asher-Smith, you have to have a job. It’s just the way it is, you never complain. Maybe that’s a female trait – we never push for more. But it’s great that the girls are now professional.”

As things turned out, cricket would still end up keeping Guha from her studies, only this time as a pundit and commentator for Sky Sports, India’s IPL and Fox Cricket in Australia, among others. “I’d never thought about broadcast as a viable career,” she says. “But the opportunities kept coming, and it kept pulling me away from the Phd. Eventually I had to settle for an MPhil. It took seven years, and I don’t recommend doing it part-time to anyone.”

In recent years, she has also been a regular voice on Radio 4 and Five Live’s hallowed Test Match Special and now, with cricket returning to BBC television for the first time in 21 years, has been chosen to front the evening Test and One Day International highlights – making her, effectively, the new face of BBC cricket. “It’s a huge honour,” she says. “Especially with cricket being back on the BBC after so many years, which is is a significant moment in itself. I guess I feel a responsibility, as someone who’s played the game – a game that’s given so much to me, to try to spread the word.”

It’s not lost on me that people look at me and see the colour of my skin and my gender. I obviously would love people to see me for who I am, but unfortunately that’s not the way of the world.

Isa Guha

There’s a part of her, she says, that feels hugely proud at being an Asian woman blazing a trail in an arena traditionally dominated by white men. But at the same time, that means the conversation is still about what she looks like, rather than what she can do. “It’s a constant battle in my head,” she admits. “I just want people to see me for the job I’m doing. But I also recognise the responsibility that I have. It’s not lost on me that people look at me and see the colour of my skin and my gender. I obviously would love people to see me for who I am, but unfortunately that’s not the way of the world.”

How did she feel when former TMS regular Geoffrey Boycott re-tweeted a Twitter post alleging he’d been dumped because he’s “white, male, Tory, straight and knows about cricket”? “I just ignore those comments, to be honest,” she says.

The visibility of women, both on the field and in the commentary box, has “improved beyond belief,” she adds. “The last live commentary I did was the T20 World Cup Final, which was played in front of 90,000 people in Melbourne, with Katy Perry opening the show. For the women’s game to get to that point was huge. But now, with all the focus being on getting cricket back on, and all the boards looking at the finances, I really hope women’s sport doesn’t get left behind.”

For her 30th birthday, Guha’s husband, musician Richard Thomas, gave her a Gibson guitar signed by Noel Gallagher, and she’s spent lockdown learning to play Oasis’s Champagne Supernova. Has she met Noel? “I have,” she says, suddenly sounding like a shy schoolgirl. “But it’s one of those… I would love to have a conversation with him but… These days, when I meet my cricketing idols, I don’t get nervous about them any more. But I definitely get nervous around musicians I loved when I was younger. So I just haven’t wanted to be too… awkward around him.”

Another lockdown project has been hosting a weekly Bengali cook-along on Instagram, using her late mother’s recipes. “Lockdown has given us all a chance to reflect,” she says. “I lost my mum 18 months ago. It was a really difficult time – she was just the most amazing human being, and she spread kindness and love through her cooking. So I wanted to get people trying her recipes, and to try to perfect them myself. 

“We’ve also produced a cookery book to raise money for some of the causes that were close to her heart. It’s something I know she’d be really proud of. And I’m proud that I can now actually do her recipes without looking at the book.” (Later, she emails Weekend a picture of the salmon with mustard and green chilli she’s just cooked for dinner. We can confirm it looks amazing.)

Like all cricket fans, the 35-year-old was relieved when, post-lockdown, England were able to resume play with the Test series against the West Indies last month (albeit with the first day delayed by – what else? – rain). “I guess summer is synonymous with cricket in this country,” she reflects. “For some, it’s that sound of leather on willow. For me, it’s the smell of freshly cut grass. It’s one of my favourite smells, because it just takes me back to when I was a kid, getting excited about the cricket season.”

She’d taken up the game as a child for no other reason than her brother played, and she “basically just followed him around and copied everything he did”. At eight, she was the only girl, and the only player of Indian heritage (her parents came to the UK from Kolkata, West Bengal, in the 1970s) in her local team in High Wycombe, Bucks. “The guys on my team always really supported me,” she says. “But sometimes the opposition and their parents weren’t too happy with a girl playing. But I really enjoyed that. They’d be so scared of getting out to a girl, so I really played on that.”

She was also an early convert to the joys of Test Match Special. “When we were batting, I’d often peel away and go sit in my parents’ car and listen to TMS,” she recalls. As such, she’s conscious that, for cricket fans, certain BBC luminaries are as legendary as the players on the field. But she’s not interested in trying to fill anyone else’s shoes. 

“I’ve never tried to be like someone else,” she says. “I’m not trying to be the next Richie Benaud. I just want to be as good as I can be – to be the best version of myself, as a person and as a broadcaster.”

Roma’s Recipes is available to buy or download here, with all proceeds going to Rennie Grove Hospice, the NHS and the British Asian Trust.

An edited version of this interview was published in Waitrose Weekend on August 13, 2020 (c) Waitrose Weekend

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