Why women must play more at Lord's

Mithali Raj top-scored for Rest of the World with 67 Getty Images

Some places are special without them even trying. To me, Lord's is one. Walking through the Grace Gates and catching my first glimpse of the red-brick pavilion always fills me with joy. I think I'm a bit in awe of the whole place, actually.

Lord's is also an enclave of history; it's hard not to sense that when I'm within its perimeters. But even so, when I went there last month to watch MCC Women play the Rest of the World Women, history seemed particularly alive - everywhere I turned.

It was alive as I walked round the ground before play, past the pavilion, and I was reminded very loudly by the imp that always sits on my shoulder whenever I see those bacon-and-egg ties of how recently I would have been excluded from that club, from that space, purely because of my gender. The year 1999 (when women first became MCC members) is really not that long ago.

And now MCC was staging this match as part of its 200th anniversary celebrations: the first time an MCC women's team has ever played on the main ground at Lord's, and the first time a Rest of the World women's team has ever been assembled. The best female players from all around the world had been flown in, business-class, to play.

History was being made, before my very eyes.

History was alive when the Rest of the World won the toss and chose to bat; and as team photographs took place in front of the pavilion. All I could think about was the fact that the first time the Women's Cricket Association asked the MCC for a women's match at Lord's, it was 1929, and the rejection was speedy and unequivocal.

They wrote again, in 1948, and the MCC wrote back: "The chances of being able to fit in a game for the Association are so remote that it would be best to abandon the idea at once."

It took 47 years of trying before they were successful in their request.

The MCC players ran out onto the pitch through the Long Room last month - not quite the same route England Women used to take, back when no woman except the Queen was allowed in the Long Room, but not far off. The WCA didn't abandon the idea, you see. After the success of the first-ever World Cup in 1973 - the WCA had requested the use of Lord's for the final, but their request was refused - the MCC simply could not deny the WCA their day at Lord's any longer (even though they could still deny them the privilege of walking out through the Long Room). On August 4, 1976, the dream of every woman cricketer came true, as England Women stepped out onto the field to play Australia Women at Lord's in a 60-overs-a-side one-day international.

The first-ever English woman to lead her team out onto the field at Lord's was Rachael Heyhoe-Flint. "My feelings as I actually walked on the pitch," she wrote afterwards, "were of elation, pride, misgivings and extreme nervousness. I felt goose pimples appearing as we walked out to the middle and I could have easily cried."

By all accounts, Charlotte Edwards, captaining the MCC side, was equally elated and proud to be playing in the first-ever match of its kind, having slept in her brand-new cricket jumper the night before. This may have been, effectively, an exhibition match, but by the look on her face as she led her team into their pre-match huddle, I'm not sure she saw it that way.

Much has changed since 1976, but it's telling that leading a team out at Lord's is still so special for a female captain. Since that first ODI at Lord's, England Women have played only 15 more times there.

The crowd were not disappointed back in 1976. Australia's middle-order batsman Sharon Tredrea - described by the Daily Telegraph as "batting as powerfully as a man" - made 54, enabling Australia to post a total of 161. England, though, delighted the crowd, as fifties from Enid Bakewell and Chris Watmough took them to a straightforward eight-wicket victory.

The English components of the crowd did not, perhaps, have as much to celebrate this time around: the Rest of the World triumphed by 41 runs. But no one can deny that watching Ellyse Perry (who made 49) and Mithali Raj (who top-scored for Rest of the World with 67) bat together is a rare treat to be savoured. And Sana Mir, Pakistan's legspinning allrounder, took 4 for 36; I doubt she'll forget her first match at Lord's in a hurry.

For eight of the players, in fact, this was their first time playing at Lord's. For them, too, history was in the making.

Will another MCC Women v Rest of the World Women match take place? There have been rumours. It is not an inexpensive undertaking, of course. But the answer matters.

It is often forgotten, or just not mentioned, that after that wonderful day in August 1976, England Women did not play again at Lord's for another 11 years. After that, it took another six years for a third match. The gates to Lord's may have been flung open but they were quickly slammed shut again afterwards.

Playing at Lord's is important for women's cricket. It can do, and has done, great things for the sport. That first ODI in 1976 was an opportunity for England and Australia to prove to the crowd, the MCC and the press that women's cricket was being played with great skill and demanded to be taken seriously. In 1987, the second women's game at Lord's was the first-ever women's ODI to be televised ball-by-ball live in the UK. The 1993 World Cup final was played there, and won by England, to a fanfare of press coverage and in front of 5000 people.

But seeing women play there is also important for less tangible reasons. One of the people in that 1993 crowd was Claire Taylor. "I was there that day," she wrote in Wisden in 2012, "sitting high in the Grand Stand, a bespectacled teenager in a floppy hat, watching my heroes achieve their dream. Fast forward 16 years and England were back at Lord's, beating New Zealand once more, this time in the final of the World Twenty20. I was lucky enough to hit the winning runs."

Taylor was herself playing for MCC last month in that historic match, and there were little gaggles of schoolgirls, from 20 local schools, watching excitedly from the stands. I well remember the first time my dad ever took me to Lord's, to watch a Middlesex match. A certain AJ Strauss made 48, and I spent the entire occasion barely able to breathe, I was so in awe. The difference for those schoolgirls, presumably at least some of whom had never been to Lord's before, is that they saw women on the pitch, not men; cricket, to them, has been seen and absorbed as something they themselves can do.

We need more opportunities like that. Because sadly, much as I love Lord's, it so often still feels like a male space. Lord's may be a little enclave of history - but it's a history of men. Just look at the paintings in the pavilion, or the statues around the ground, or the honours boards. It's no wonder that seeing women run out to bat on the hallowed turf still feels somewhat incongruous.

As the WCA put it, eloquently, in their report of the 1976 tour: "The Long Room seemed alive with ghosts of the past, trodden and inhabited by countless grandfathers, fathers, uncles and brothers but never by a concourse of grandmothers, mothers, aunts and sisters."

This is what has to change.

It is going that way. The MCC is unrecognisable from 15 years ago; perhaps one day soon we'll even see a female president. The MCC Young Cricketers programme has, since 2003, provided paid cricketing opportunities for some of the top female players in the country. And since 2008, England Women have played an ODI here every single summer.

Yet still Katherine Brunt said before play began: "Every time we get to play at Lord's we feel privileged." Should it be more of a privilege for women to play on the hallowed turf than it is for men? I was particularly struck last summer when I went to watch the men's and women's 50-over Varsity matches, which since 2001 have been played concurrently at Lord's. Every year the men play on the main ground, and the women are consigned to the Nursery ground. You won't see a more visible symbol of the marginalisation of women's cricket than that.

Winston Churchill once said: "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see." All the looking backward I did at the MCC v ROW game last month made me think about what the future might look like, too. Call me an idealist but I look forward to the day when there are Middlesex women's county matches at Lord's; when there is a statue of Betty Archdale next to the one of WG Grace; and when that last bastion finally falls and a women's Test match is played at Lord's.

How about it, MCC?