The lady Don
Answer this. Who's the first to achieve the double of a century and ten wickets in a Test match? Was it Keith Miller? Garry Sobers? Mike Procter, maybe? Or was it one of Imran, Kapil, Hadlee or Botham? If those were your choices, you'd be wrong every time. The cricketer who got there first was a woman: Betty Wilson.
Back in the 1940s and 50s when the names of Don Bradman, Bill O'Reilly, Miller and Lindwall featured prominently in the sports pages of Australian newspapers, Wilson was a household name, too. So much so that she came to be known as the "female Bradman".
The double was added to Wilson's already feather-heavy cap during the final series of her brief career. England had arrived in Australia for the 1957-58 series. The second Test was played at the St Kilda ground in Melbourne. The start was delayed by a couple of hours due to overnight rain.
Wilson was 37 years old at the time. She remembers it like it was yesterday. "I was still very active, still vital, still trying hard, and that was the best year of my career. England put us in to bat and we were all out for 38 and I was the top scorer with 12. England were killing themselves laughing. But they were all out for 35. I took 7 for 7, which included the first hat-trick in women's Test cricket." She followed that up with a century in the second innings and another four wickets to achieve the record.
"A lot of people my age don't even know what they had for breakfast, but I'm sharp for my age," says Wilson, her blue eyes smiling as she sips her orange juice on a bright Sunday morning. She is sharp, indeed, for an 86-year-old. She arrives at the stated time for the interview, and despite having undertaken a half- hour tram ride from her home in Clifton Hill to Southern Cross station, shows no signs of exhaustion - problem with bad knees apart.
Wearing a pale blue dress and a cream-coloured top coat, Wilson has an elephant's memory. She is feisty, and her youthful energy surprises me when she suggests we go to the Melbourne dock where she boarded the HMS Mooltan, which took the Australian team to England in 1951 for their second tour there. Eventually we end up in one of the cornershops, having decided against braving the stifling heat.
"I play lawn bowls. It is a very interesting game, where I need to use my brain to roll the bowl into place in the right position in relation to my opponent's," says Wilson, who found playing mind games a good way to stay on top of the opposition in her cricket-playing days.
Even if Wilson's was a short career, just 11 Tests, she scripted about a dozen records. Her first Test was against New Zealand in 1948, when she was 26. She made 90 and took 10 wickets. In her second Test she became the first Australian woman to score a century against England. She capped that with a nine-wicket haul.
Like millions she was robbed of her youth by the second World War. In any case, even when normal course resumed, matches were few and far between. There were only three international teams competing against each other - England, Australia and New Zealand. After Australia's England tour of 1951 there were no Tests played till 1957. But Wilson's legend was well established by then.
For her, though, it was not the records that mattered, it was her thriving passion to keep playing, improving, winning. For this daughter of a bootmaker from Collingwood it was always about taking the big steps.
|Wilson was 37 years old at the time. She remembers it as if it was yesterday. "I was still very active, still vital, still trying hard and that was the best year of my career. England put us to bat and we were all out for 38 and I was the top scorer with 12. England were killing themselves laughing. But they were all out for 35. I took 7 for 7|
At ten, Wilson impressed onlookers when she threw back the tennis ball from the fence at Mayor's Park in Clifton Hill, where the Collingwood Women's Cricket Club were playing. Soon she was playing with the adults at the club. "By 14 I was playing in the second Victorian team, the junior team. By 16 I was playing in the state team."
Wilson says it was her instincts that helped in her rise. Improvisation was the key. "I had the action of a medium-pace bowler, but I could put that ball within sixpence of where I wanted." As a batsman she did not neglect to run fast between the wickets in addition to her strokeplay. Her all-round skills attracted genuine appreciation, some of it from men who were cricketing immortals.
Bradman met Wilson when she became the first woman to be inducted into the Australian Sports Hall of Fame. "He said he saw me play and he was very impressed," she says. Once, Bill Ponsford saw Wilson play and gave her an autographed bat in appreciation of her batting.
Wilson thinks that since entry to their games was free, the women's game had considerably more support in her time than these days. And if anyone thinks there was a large disparity between the two genders, reports like the one Bill O'Reilly wrote for the Sunday Herald about the third Test of the 1948-49 series will put matters in perspective. "When Betty Wilson and Una Paisley were entrusted with the spin attack, I realised that if we men have any laurels we had better set about their defence immediately." O'Reilly wrote. He ended his appraisal with "from this time onward I shall steadfastly refrain from saying that 'so and so' batted or bowled 'like an old woman'".
Wilson herself had learned most of her cricket from the male players of the day. "I learned stuff by meticulous observation of good and great players. My heroes were from men's cricket. I liked the way Ray Lindwall bowled, the casual atmosphere of Keith Miller, and adored the late cut of Lindsay Hassett." Hassett it was who grilled into her that if you stand with your feet wide apart you cannot transfer your weight too quickly because you need to first transfer the weight to the foot other than the one you want to lift. And Bradman. "Bradman was unorthodox. He played beautiful shots, in addition to the shots no one could dream of."
Wilson herself always dared. During the England trip in 1951, Australia were playing Yorkshire at Headingley. "I was told it was a ground where Bradman always made a century whenever he took guard. I thought, 'If Don can do it, I can do it.' And I happened to crack the ton in 75 minutes. It was the last ball of the day I hit for a boundary that won us the match." Bill Bowes, the former England bowler, who was reporting on the game, went to the team hotel and wrote an article on what he thought was the most impressive innings he'd seen played by a woman.
Of course, Wilson didn't get the fame her heroes got, but she has learned to move on. "I don't speak much to the media anymore because the water has flowed under the bridge," she says. "Where were they [the media] when it was supposed to be written about?" She lives on her own, having given up the notion of having a family long ago - though she came close to marrying on two occasions.
As for the lack of an outstanding talent in the woman's game at the moment, Wilson thinks that's because "there are no standout performances now. I was always doing something and always seemed to get a headline." Those headlines would be diligently put into scrapbooks by her father's mates at the shoe factory where he worked. Everyone rejoiced in her feats.
For Wilson herself, the achievements themselves were a bigger incentive than money. She was never paid for playing cricket, and earned a pound, two pence and six shillings for doing secretarial jobs. But if she had her life to live over again, she would do nothing different, she says. Was it because she had a special talent?
"I can't accept that I'm as good as people make me out to be. That's because [what I did] came naturally to me," she says modestly.
Through her career Wilson played for the love of the game. When she took the hat-trick in 1958, she wasn't even aware that she had created history. "England needed three runs to draw level and there were three wickets to go," she remembers. "The first of those was an offbreak that bowled the batsman, followed by a wrong'un that shaped up well and got a stumping, and then a straight one that got an lbw. Halfway to the dressing room someone said, 'Hey, Betty, you got the hat-trick.' This sudden revelation caught me unawares and I started crying. I was just determined that they wouldn't get the runs."
That was the proudest moment of Wilson's career. She was Australia's 25th woman player but got her Baggy Green only three years ago. "I would've loved to have worn that when I was playing," she says, a smile flashing across her face.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo