Rachael Heyhoe Flint 1939-2017

A peer without peer

Clare Connor

Rachael Heyhoe-Flint at home with her family's pet labrador, April 12, 1973
Rachael Heyhoe Flint's commitment and desire to advance the sport went beyond just being brilliant at © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Rachael Heyhoe-Flint
Teams: England

She never knew it, but Rachael Heyhoe Flint once made me cry. It was 2015, and I was presenting plans for the Kia Super League to the ECB board, of which she was a member. It was a fairly radical idea at the time - particularly as we were moving away from the traditional county structure - and I had wanted, as usual, to discuss it with Rachael beforehand. She was always my go-to person for things like this; she would ask me questions, and provide suggestions that left me better prepared. This time, though, there hadn't been an opportunity to brief her fully.

When it came to the meeting, she didn't just say: "Oh yes, Clare, that's a good idea." She challenged me really hard. It put me on the back foot and made me realise we still had a lot to think about. It was a harsh lesson, but also a true mark of her character. While both of us wanted to promote the women's game, she wasn't going to give me an easy ride just because of our shared passion; she was robust, independent and professional.

I had got to know Rachael well after starting my job as the director of England Women's cricket in 2008. We worked closely together through the Lady Taverners - where her energy helped get thousands of girls playing cricket - and even more so after 2010, when she joined the ECB board. I came to appreciate her personality, humour and strength. She also had traits I think are common to all game-changers: rebelliousness, a taste for mischief, and a challenging streak.

Of course, I knew of Rachael long before I met her. I'd read about her and heard all the stories. She had been a supremely successful captain of the England team, their best batsman, their manager and their press officer. But her commitment and desire to advance the sport went beyond just being brilliant at it. She devised the first World Cup in 1973 - two years before the men's - she drummed up sponsorship, and she sold the tickets. She wrote the reports and the publicity releases. And in 1999, she was one of the first female members of MCC. In an era when women's cricket had little or no profile, she made herself a household name; she understood the power of celebrity in promoting a cause. And she did it all without a trace of selfishness or ego.

Rachael might have said she wasn't a feminist but, in my eyes, she was. She talked convincingly about equality, about women's cricket being accepted and included and valued. It was just that she didn't identify as a militant; she got her way with charm, persistence and intellect. She once said she would never chain herself to the Grace Gates or go on hunger strike to get what she wanted. She didn't need to.

She was an extremely busy woman, always charging up and down the motorway between the Midlands, where she looked after her husband, Derrick, and London, to work at Lord's - and the Lords. She also had countless charity appointments. But she always had time for you. When you see people with power or vast amounts of responsibility, they don't always talk to others as politely or as gently or with as much patience as they should. Rachael was different: she made everybody feel special.

She was ennobled by David Cameron in 2010, and once took me on a tour of the House of Lords, joking with everyone we met: the police, the cafe assistants, and the cloakroom attendant. Later in the day she introduced me to some senior politicians, and she was the same with all of them. I've seen her mix with children aged eight or nine from deprived backgrounds, and with Tony Blair or Gordon Brown in the gardens of Downing Street. By most people's standards she was posh, but she had that rare common touch.

She was deeply proud of where the women's game is now, and it gave her immense joy to watch the current England team play as fully fledged professional cricketers. I know for certain I wouldn't be where I am today without her hard work. And the players know they owe her a debt of gratitude, too. They will play in a World Cup this summer, 44 years after Rachael pulled the first one together. It would be wonderful to win it - of course it would. But, without her, they wouldn't even be taking part.

© John Wisden & Co