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EXTRA CURRICULAR

Isa Guha (BSc Biochemistry, 2008, MPhil Neuroscience, 2017) returns to the hallowed turf of cricket’s HQ, scene of some memorable moments.

Words Lucy Jolin Portrait Julian Anderson

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In my first year, I lived in halls next to Gordon’s, behind the Chemistry department. The ‘99’ nights on a Monday were always amazing!

It’s 10am at Lord’s. From the media centre, which seems to hover over the hallowed turf like a spaceship, the unmistakable sound of bat on ball drifts up from the Nursery Ground. Below, the pitch is already teeming with groundsmen lovingly tending to every blade of grass. Isa Guha, the first Asian woman to play any sport for England when she was called up to the England cricket team at just 17, is in her element.

“I love coming here,” she says.

“It’s the oldest club in the world. All the greats of the game have played at Lord’s, so when you walk through the gates you automatically get goosebumps.” She proudly displays the small leather wallet that contains her honorary life membership of MCC – a club that did not allow female members until 1999 – granted to her this year.

Guha was already playing cricket for England when she made her university choices, and could have had her pick of sporting scholarships at the more specialised sporting institutes. But she picked UCL for both her undergraduate degree and MPhil. Why? The university’s academic excellence was important, of course – but also its proximity to the hallowed ground of Lord’s.

“During my undergraduate degree, it meant I could train up at the Middlesex Academy and play for Berkshire and Reading,” she explains. “I’d come to Lord’s to train but it wasn’t a regular thing. Then, after we won the World Cup in 2009, I’d pretty much achieved everything I wanted to achieve with England. I decided that if I was going to carry on training, I needed a job. That’s when I decided to do a PhD – which ended up becoming an MPhil due to time constraints – in neuroscience. I’d come to Lord’s in the morning and train until 10.30am. Then I’d have a shower and some food and go to the Royal Free for the rest of the day.”

Guha’s association with Lord’s goes even further back than her time at UCL – her father has always bought the family tickets for the first day of the first Test of the summer there. As such, it’s hard to pick a favourite Lord’s moment, she says, although the time her team won the International Cricket Council (ICC)Women’s World Twenty20 tournament in 2009 stays in her mind. “We’d just won the one day World Cup in Sydney and soon after had the opportunity to win a trophy on home soil. To progress to the final we played a momentous game at the Oval, chasing down a huge score against Australia.

“I remember walking through the grounds at Lord’s. Our changing rooms on that day were in the squash courts – back then, we were seen as a curtain raiser. It was incredible to walk through the Long Room on to the pitch and to feel that enormous sense of history. Not just because of the greats who have played the game but because of the old members who were sitting on the benches outside, wearing their ‘egg and bacon’ coloured suits, trying to give us words of advice!

“I walked out on to the pitch, looked out into the middle and visualised in my head how I might bowl. And just before I crossed over the rope… I turned right into the dugout to complete the rest of my 12th-man duties and mix drinks for the rest of the girls. I didn’t actually get to play that game!”

Balancing the demands of world-class cricket and a tough course wasn’t always easy, but Guha says it was important for her to have more than one area of focus. For her, she says, cricket and university complemented each other, helped by the support she received from UCL during her time there. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to join the UCL cricket club, but I always found time to socialise!” she says. “In my first year, I lived in halls next to Gordon’s, behind the Chemistry department. I remember the ‘99’ nights on a Monday where every drink was 99p. Amazing! Having time to relax was a big deal for me, because when you’re working and training hard, you need a release to have a good time with your friends and make sure you don’t burn out.”

That work hard, play hard ethic – forged both in the labs and on the pitch – has enabled her to build another successful career as a broadcaster, achieving yet more firsts: the first woman to commentate on a global T20 men’s fixture during the Caribbean Premier League, on an Indian Test Series (for Star Sports) and on men’s cricket (for Sky Sports). Guha was also one of the first female summarisers on BBC’s Test Match Special and in the subcontinent for the Indian Premier League.

“I’m often asked to talk about why there aren’t more Asian girls playing cricket,” she says. “They all love it. It’s ingrained in them. Cricket is in the genes in Asian families. They grow up loving it and watching it, but when they get to 15 or 16 they are channelled into their studies. My message? It’s very much possible to do both.”

Isa Guha was awarded 113 caps and helped England to victory in two World Cups, 15 ODI series, seven T20 series and three Ashes before retiring in April 2012. She is now a presenter and commentator.

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