Entry into MCC only the beginning, 1999

The year the citadel fell

Peter Hayter

What was a woman to think? Or a chap? The messages being thrown at women in cricket during 1998 were so confused and confusing that they made the head spin. In the early months of the year came three items of news that suggested that all the old attitudes were alive and well and living at Lord's.

In March, an industrial tribunal upheld a claim for sex discrimination by Theresa Harrild, a receptionist formerly employed by the England and Wales Cricket Board, who said she had been pressured and paid by the Board to have an abortion after becoming pregnant by a colleague.

Harrild's evidence - regarding the attitude of certain high-ranking Board officials towards women in their offices and in cricket at large - was damning. The ECB got into even more trouble when it denied her allegations after the hearing, having declined to contest them. This came only weeks after a case in which Geoffrey Boycott, one of the game's most public figures, was convicted by a French court of assaulting a girlfriend in a Riviera hotel room.

To the public, the conclusion that there was no smoke without fire was all but irresistible. Why would the man, or woman, in the street think otherwise? To them, all the available evidence, outside as well as inside the courtrooms, pointed to the same conclusion: the majority of men in cricket regarded women as simply fodder for jokes about maidens, tickles to fine legs and bouncers - or worse.

It was made all the more relevant because of events in the Marylebone Cricket Club barely a fortnight before the Harrild case. A blocking minority of the all-male MCC membership had voted against the proposal of their committee - pushed by the President, Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie - to admit persons of the opposite gender. They thus reaffirmed the club's 211-year-old position: not in here, madam.

By the end of the year, so much had changed that those of a cynical disposition might have been tempted to believe Rachael Heyhoe-Flint had been busy putting something in the gin-and-tonics at NW8. Ingleby-Mackenzie, having refused to take no for an answer, urged the members to think and vote again and, on September 28, they did, momentously. Just how influential in their final decision was the president's warning that no women meant no lottery money, who can tell? In the meantime, the Women's Cricket Association had voted to become an integral part of the ECB, thus establishing a single governing body for all cricket in the country. Women in MCC, and the ECB, as equals? Whatever next?

In the short term, some answers please, for those who play. Shirley Taylor, the manager of the England women's cricket team that was defeated 5-0 in their one-day international series with Australia but battled to draw the three-Test series 0-0, believes, that although some progress has been made, the road to real recognition will be long and arduous. "I do think we are being taken more seriously," she says, "but there is a lot of work to be done.

"You will still find the armchair critics with nothing better to do than have a go. Everyone who has taken the trouble to come and watch us play has been impressed, not only with our enthusiasm and commitment, but also with the level of skill we reach."

My own experience of the women's game was, until 1998, limited to one match at Lord's in 1987, a one-day game between England and Australia ruined by rain and by grim clich├ęs about naked ladies in the pavilion. But when I went to watch the 1998 Ashes Test at Worcester, I was enormously impressed by the quality of play. Clearly, the bowling is not as fast as in the men's game, but the batting, in particular, was of a high standard. Indeed, the thought occurred and then grew that, given the opportunity, almost all of the Australian bats, and many of the English, had the technical skill not only to survive in men's county cricket, but to prosper. Predictably, when I put that proposition to a current England Test cricketer (male), his reaction was: "Oh, yes, And how would they deal with the quick stuff?" It would be interesting to find out.

ECB figures suggest that interest, at least, is on the increase. They state that 3,600 women are playing, as are 475,000 school girls, three-quarters of them at primary school. There are more than 150 women's clubs, and women's sections in nearly 100 other clubs - 27 clubs or sections have been formed in the past two years.

All well and good. But the disparity between England's cricketers and their Australian counterparts is best illustrated by some other statistics. There are 80 women's cricket clubs in Melbourne alone, and Australia, with a third of the population, has almost seven times as many women playing: 23,000. At the start of the 1998-99 season, the cover of the big-selling Australian Women's Weekly proclaimed that a full list of Australian domestic and international cricket fixtures (male) was included. Admittedly, the magazine is owned by Kerry Packer, who has a vested interest. But it is hard to believe cricket would be used as a selling point in any English equivalent.

For the lot of the English woman cricketer to be significantly improved, it will not be enough for a few token members to be admitted to MCC. Nor is it enough for the Board - and their Test sponsors Vodafone who, for no obvious publicity benefit, pushed money the way of the women in 1998 - to repeat the dose and leave it at that. At the moment, it seems that women in cricket are themselves unsure how to pitch their campaign for recognition. To some, Vodafone's publicity gimmick to drum up media interest in the women's Ashes might have been considered retrograde in tone: journalists were sent a bunch of red roses with a card reading Eleven English roses playing cricket - watch this space. And even Rachael Heyhoe-Flint's comments in celebrating women's admission to MCC sounded peculiar: "Perhaps now," she suggested, "you will be able to buy MCC nighties and fluffy slippers as well as pyjamas."

If there is an inferiority complex at work here, it will only be shattered by strong women with confidence and belief in their place in the sport - separate, but entitled to equal respect and opportunity. That's why, the extraordinary nature of its events notwithstanding, 1998 must be only the beginning.

Peter Hayter is cricket correspondent of the Mail on Sunday.

© John Wisden & Co