By Tessa McLaren

Women in Cricket

"What is human life but a game of cricket?" asked the 3rd Duke of Dorset, fervent cricket fan and supporter of the Hambledon club, in a letter to "a circle of Ladies, his intimate Friends" in 1777. "And if so, why should not the ladies play it as well as we?"

Unreliable though he was in most of his dealings with the female sex, the 3rd Duke was unfailingly generous towards women's cricket. He liked his women sporty and rangy, in the outdoor mode, and his support for women's cricket was only one of his many efforts to help women play the game, however much opposition they met.

At this early stage in the life of cricket there was little concerted opposition to women taking part in the game. The standard attitude was of ignorance, with a vague predisposition to believe that cricket was, as W. G. Grace still considered it more than a century later, "not a game for women, and although the fair sex occasionally join in a picnic game, they not constitutionally adapted for the sport!"

Even so, eighteenth and early nineteenth century women's matches were popular as freakish amusements and attracted large crowds, married women maidens being one of the favourites. On October 5, 1811, a Times reporter described a serious women's match at Newington, between a Hampshire XI and a Surrey XI, which lasted three days and was played for 500 guineas a side. It was won by Hampshire, by 15 notches (runs), and led to another match being fixed immediately, as there had been "some very excellent play and much skill". Nevertheless, it was the burlesque element which appealed most to the public, and "a great concourse of people attended to witness this singular contention", which they would not have done had it not been exotically singular.

Most women lacked the patronage, interest or incentive to play the game as the Newington ladies played it. Most kept busy in the tavern, prepared refreshments for the men on the field of play. Most preferred, or at least accepted, this state of affairs. However, female support sometimes extended beyond washing clothes and making tea. Women cricket writers have been a small and intermittent but talented minority since Mary Russell Mitford published her article "The Cricket Match" in The Lady's Magazine in 1823, then again, with great success, in her book Our Village in 1824. Just over a century later Marjorie Pollard completed her career in an era of enthusiam for cricket and for all women's sports by writing a regular cricket column for the Morning Post and London Evening News. There are one or two female correspondents today, enjoying being presented with press packs of ties and men's tee-shirts.

Before cricket writing had become as inflated an operation as it is now, the only way women who did not want to be tea ladies could participate actively in men's cricket was as teachers. John Willes of Kent, famous as the pioneer of round-arm bowling, is often said to have picked up the idea of this new "march-of-intellect system", radical and widely mistrusted all through his lifetime, from his sister. She is supposed to have started bowling round-arm when her voluminous skirt got in the way of her under-arm action. There is, however, no clear evidence for this, and Christina Willes, John Willes's daughter, knew nothing of it, though she took a lively interest in the game, as her cricketing aunt had before her. Martha Grace was an amazon among cricket enthusiasts, watching, coaching and commenting on her five sons' performances on the field of play. Three of them, E.M., G.F. and W.G., played for England in the first Test in England against Australia, at The Oval in 1880. The late nineteenth century was a high point of female efforts to improve men's cricket and a starting-point of serious women's cricket, played as a sport rather than being an amusing spectacle.

The White Heather Club, founded in 1887 and surviving until 1950, was the first women's cricket club, its members mostly Yorkshire ladies with enough money to pay their own expenses. Even after the Women's Cricket Association was founded in 1926, and women's cricket had enjoyed a flourishing decade in the 1930s, the game was still expensive for those taking part. It was no longer weird enough to attract big, curious crowds, nor well enough established to count as a major sport and so attract sponsors. It has, however, always had some distinguished male supporters, such as the 3rd Duke of Dorset, C. B. Fry, Frank Chester in the 1920s, and Jack Hayward, the outstanding patron of women's cricket in the 1970s. But a minor sport, with few women knowing anything about it, still less how to play it, is not a recipe for prosperity.

Cricket is fighting to keep going in boys' schools; it is almost non-existent in girls' schools. The WCA is, in the words of Cathy Mowat, its current chairman, "either staying static or holding its own, depending on how you look at it". The 1970s were high-profile years, with England's women under the captaincy of Rachael Heyhoe Flint and the patronage of Jack Hayward. Since then things have been quieter.Women's cricket clubs have to inspire and teach their own juniors, although the National Cricket Association provides qualified coaches, and the Lord's Taverners provide some funds. And in the last 30 years or so, women's cricket has been given more institutional help. Women playing for Oxford and Cambridge - sometimes with more will than skill are given only half-Blues, but Cyril Coote, the incomparable groundsman at Fenner's, gladly let women play there when I asked him, on behalf of Cambridge, in 1978. Similarly, women in the last 30 years have been allowed the use of the nets at Lord's and a growing share in the MCC coaching awards. Above all, England's women have been allowed the use of Lord's for Test matches since 1976, when Rachael Heyhoe Flint first persuaded MCC to let women tread the hallowed turf.

The WCA's relations with MCC remain friendly, and it looks likely that the next Women's World Cup will be played at Lord's in 1993, as long as the WCA's money-raising efforts can find the quarter-million pounds, or thereabouts, required. Every player had to pay her own passage on the 1991-92 tour of New Zealand, and as John Featherstone, the WCA's secretary, put it: "Playing at international level means finding money for flights, clothing and equipment, perhaps taking unpaid leave of absence, or even giving up one's job. However, the cricketers are all amateurs, playing for the love of the game and the pleasure they gain from it. Long may it continue.

Cricket is doing particularly well in Europe, where England retained the European Cup at Haarlem, in The Netherlands, in July 1991, against spirited opposition from Denmark, Ireland and the host country. However, England is the only country where first-class women's games are umpired by women, without payment. Women also umpire a few men's games in the Lancashire League, and in local and village matches, as I know from nerve-racking personal experience. The present, outstanding chairman of the Association of Cricket Umpires is a woman, Sheila Hill.

The last decade has seen the emergence of a new breed of cricket career woman, driven by different motives from Miss Hill, not interested in playing or in working without due payment. Derbyshire, Kent, Sussex and Nottinghamshire county clubs have women physiotherapists, chosen from the big female majority of physio students. Sheila Ball has been the physiotherapist at Trent Bridge since 1985 and has been well treated everywhere, after initial problems gaining entry into the Lord's Pavilion with her team f. the 1985 NatWest final. Nottinghamshire are used to female physios: they started using them back in 1975, and they are proud of the excellent work Sheila does for them. "Oh yes, we're taking over these days", she told me cheerfully.

Women administrators in the upper echelons of men's cricket tend to provoke more unease. The game's administration is growing into a concourse of assorted secretaries, executives and managers, in which several women now occupy senior positions at several counties. Rose FitzGibbon was made the assistant secretary at Old Trafford in 1978, after starting as the principle private secretary. She is now the cricket secretary, which means, she told me with the weary humour of one who has to survive in this warren of titles, that one of her duties is to "deputise for the chief executive". She says she accepted by everyone at the club, though it has taken time and she still feel that she, like most women in cricket administration, has been given prominence but not proper recognition.

Lancashire's members have traditionally been a conservative lot, but debate at the AGM on December 9, 1989, on whether to admit women to full membership, won the club a brief flurry of improbable notoriety. The motion proposing that women be admitted was passed after one of the members "Mr Keith Hull (otherwise known as Stephanie Lloyd) advised the Meeting that by a legal technicality he was the Club's first full female Member".He had had a sex-change operation and so the club already had a women member. After some noble discussion including Mr John Treveloni's threat to alter his will if women were admitted to membership, and the Revd Malcolm Lorimer's support for "the preservation of tradition where it worth preserving . . . If the Church of England could move towards women Priests, if Eastern Europe could make changes as had been seen in recent weeks then Lancashire CCC could also change" - full membership for women was finally accepted by the necessary two-thirds majority. The club now seems happy with the arrangement, after its uncertain start. The next step, said Rose FitzGibbon, is ladies on the committee and "maybe, in time they will have a lady president".

Maybe. Rachael Heyhoe Flint stood for membership of MCC early in the summer of 1991 but was refused. Members at Surrey and Nottinghamshire feel they have benefited enormously from having women among their numbers and take a rather pitying view of MCC's members who chose to see the issue in terms of defending their traditions and, not surprisingly, voted for the defence. Lt-Col. John Stephenson, secretary of MCC, thinks that women will probably be admitted to membership in the end - possibly even before the end of the next century - but stresses that the decision lies with the members.

Diana Edulji, captain of the Indian women's team in England in 1986, took an angrier view of being banned from the Pavilion at Lord's when India's men were playing England there that summer. "I was shocked at the male chauvinism which has survived. I had to sit in the Tavern stand. The MCC should change their name to MCP."Women's cricket is extremely popular in India, where it was taught, maybe even introduced, at Kottanam in 1913 by an Australian teacher, Ann Kelleve, who made it compulsory in the school she set up. Mrs Gandhi was a strong devotee of women's cricket and it is widely played. When Young England toured there in 1980-81, crowds of 20,000 to 25,000 attended the major matches in some centres. In Australia it has always had more of a pioneering spirit. The sex war is a hard-fought inheritance in Antipodean cricket, and it was a great achievement when Peggy Antonio, the great lady spin bowler from Victoria, was christened "Girl Grimmett" by the Australian press after taking six English wickets for 49 in the Third Test at Melbourne in 1934-35. She inspired Neville Cardus to ask: "Suppose one day the greatest slow left-handed bowler in England is discovered to be a woman, will any male selection committee at Lord's send her an invitation?"

The 3rd Duke of Dorset would laugh in his grave if a woman played for England, flourishing against the odds.

"Mind not, my dear ladies, the impertinent interrogatories of silly coxcombs, or the dreadful apprehensions of semi-men . . . Go on, and attach yourselves to the athletic."

© John Wisden & Co