1934-35 January 19, 2008

No smoking, drinking, gambling ... or men

Over 70 years ago England undertook the first women's tour of Australia and New Zealand



England women check out their reflection on tour © National Library of Australia
 
Women were still nearly two centuries away from the vote when, in 1745, the first women's match took place, in the south of England, "between eleven maids of Bramley and eleven maids of Hambleton", according to the Reading Mercury. In those days cricket was a rough game, for gambling on and drinking over, but through the course of the centuries it acquired a more genteel outlook and finally, in 1926, the Women's Cricket Association was founded in England.

While White Heather was known as the first women's club, established in 1887, it was the WCA that allowed the women the opportunity to even think about a tour of Australia and New Zealand when the invitation came in 1934 from the Australia Women's Cricket Council, which had been founded three years earlier.

While the gap between the first matches in the respective countries was more than 100 years (Australia's first dig was in 1886, between the Siroccos, who incidentally wore cardinal and blue, against the black-and-gold clad Fernleas, in front of more than 1000 at the SCG), Australia were only five years behind England in establishing their own association - World War One having given women a voice.

And so the invitation came and England got ready to set sail, though their side was under-representative as they had to fund themselves - players were still contributing to tours and blazers until the WCA merged with the ECB in 1997 - and so some of the best, who could not afford the £80 for the six-month trip, missed out. These also included married women, as it wasn't considered fit for them to spend time away from home.

Those that could - a mix of seven teachers, two secretaries, two art students, a lawyer, an army auxiliary, and two who were ladies of leisure - left on October 1934 from Tilbury, the touring party cut down from 35 volunteers. They had to agree not to smoke, drink or gamble or "be accompanied by a man", although they made their own fun by playing deck cricket and posing for photographs.

But their pioneering tour did not meet with universal acclaim. The women's game struggled, as it still does, to be taken seriously. The Times was particularly ungracious about their departure: "It does not seem nice to think that they are future mothers charged with the responsibility of setting an example of gentleness, refinement and restraint to the coming generation."

It was only in retrospect that the women would be hailed as pioneers. The newspaper wasn't the only cynical party. It took a batsman such as Molly Hide to change their opinions. Wisden noted, "her batting had a strength as well as a style that astonished sceptical male spectators, many of whom in her era thought women's cricket was like a dog on its hind legs."

But the tour would prove a test for all three nations. Down Under, Australian cricket was in its infancy - while state cricket had been established for several years, it had only just been organised nationally. New Zealand, like Australia, had been playing for just under 50 years, ever since 11 Marahua girls challenged 11 Riwaka girls to a match "any time they like. Dinner and dance provided."



Molly Hide hit runs for fun Down Under © National Library of Australia
 

Although England were under strength they proved the strongest of the trio, but still Australia played their cricket tough. Centuries were hard earned: there were no boundaries and you had to run all your runs unless you hit a tree.

In the first Test in Brisbane, England, captained by Betty Archdale, "brought victory but no blaze of glory, for nerves and spin combined to make the cricket on both sides less good than it might have been", according to Nancy Joy in her book Maiden Over. Australia were bundled out for 47 as Myrtle MacLagan, a Scot, took 7 for 10, England replied shakily also. Australia then rallied to make 183, and England required 34 to win.

England also won the second Test. Australia's batting was a little dour - including a 47-minute duck for Essie Shevill - while England's response included another first for MacLagan. Having already taken the first wicket in a Test, she made the first Test century too, 119.

She was joined in an opening 149-run stand with another renowned player, Betty Snowball, and they were to form a strong alliance. Joy Partridge's six second-innings wickets left them needing another paltry target: ten runs, which were achieved for the loss of two wickets. The third Test, in Melbourne, was a draw - MacLagan making 50 and taking seven match wickets - as Australia improved fast.

Then on to New Zealand for what would prove to be the first of only 45 Tests for the hosts: they no longer play this form. Their first showing was fairly forgettable, too. MacLagan's five wickets rolled their first innings for 44 and four for Partridge reduced New Zealand's second innings to 122, with England romping to victory by an innings and 337 runs after big centuries by Snowball and Hide.

Also on the tour was Doris Turner, who not only made history as one of the players but went on to become the first female cricket umpire, eventually standing in two Tests.

England did not lose one match throughout, winning eight, drawing four and with two abandoned. Such dominance could not last.

Two years later, a wounded Australia arrived stronger and fitter, setting the tone for contests to come. They "paraded up and down the country", outplaying county sides at will. Hazel Pritchard's batting "graceful, fluent, flashing" was a revelation, according to Joy. "So were Antonio's legbreaks, and her cheeky 80s and 90s: the pace of Smith and Flaherty: McLarty's suicidal infielding: Pat Holme's 200 at Basingstoke, the steady run-getting of the middle batsmen and the skill and study behind Margaret Peden's captaincy."

All these, matched with England's skill, made this Ashes the equivalent of the 2005 men's - contests so closely fought that they were settled only in the closing overs. Australia won at Northampton at five o'clock by 31 runs, England returned victory in the second at Blackpool. The three-Test series fittingly ended 1-1.

There should have been a return to Australia in 1939-40 and the touring side was already chosen, but war got in the way, so the next tour was nearly a decade later. That story will be told in a fortnight.

Bibliography
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack
Maiden Over Nancy Joy (Sporting Handbooks, 1950)

Jenny Thompson is an assistant editor at Cricinfo