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Obituaries

Eileen Ash

At 110, Ash was the longest-lived Test cricketer of all

Eileen Ash rings the bell before the match  •  Getty Images

Eileen Ash rings the bell before the match  •  Getty Images

ASH, EILEEN MAY (ne´e Whelan), who died on December 3, aged 110, was the longest-lived Test cricketer of all, having made her debut for England against Australia at Northampton in 1937. A seam bowler from north London, she took four wickets, including Australia's top-scorer Nell McLarty in the second innings. She played all three Tests that summer, and four more in Australia and New Zealand in 1948-49; she finished with ten wickets at 23. On that tour, though she did little in the Tests, she followed a century against a Victoria Country XI at Ballarat with a spell of five for ten. "We were pretty fit," she recalled. "I probably bowled at 60 or 70mph, and could bowl 16 to 18 overs in a spell."
Women's cricket was in its infancy when she started. Much later, she told ESPNcricinfo: "They treat women as cricketers now, whereas before they treated them as… you know… odd!" The game was certainly frowned upon at her convent school in Ilford, where she was forced to play hockey. "The Mother Superior is the only person who's ever scared me," said Ash. "She was so frightfully strict."
But, having been given a bat when she was five, she did manage some cricket: "I used to play for my father's team because I was quite a good fielder - if they were one short, I'd play." Women cricketers, even internationals, had to pay their own way back then: while playing at home was open to most, long overseas tours meant big sacrifices (or private means). The cricketers largely stayed with host families on tour, and Ash's luggage for Australia included a ball gown and posh frocks for functions. At such an event in Sydney in 1949, Don Bradman signed one of her bats. Years later, she kept it by her bed in case of burglars - and, past 100 years of age, confronted an intruder with it in her garage.
Such exploits appeared to come naturally: she was seconded into MI6 during the war, and remained in military intelligence for 11 years; she refused to divulge details. Ash had started with the Civil Service: "They gave you time off if you played for England or your county. I thought it was a jolly good way of getting a couple of days off!"
She remained active after giving up cricket, taking up golf, squash, boules - and yoga, which she practised regularly almost until her death; she showed the England captain Heather Knight a few moves in 2016. "I've met teenagers who have a lot less energy," said Knight. "My pride - and a number of my muscle groups - are in tatters after being put to shame by a 105-year-old."
As the cricket world realised it had a remarkable centenarian in the ranks, Ash's renown grew. Behind the wheel of her trademark Mini ("I had four - I like a small car and it's quite speedy, the acceleration is good"), she appeared on a TV show about elderly drivers, and celebrated her 106th birthday in 2017 with a flight in a Tiger Moth, not long after ringing the pre-match bell for the women's World Cup final at Lord's, where she had been awarded life membership on reaching her century. Her portrait resides in the museum there.
Ash had long since surpassed South Africa's Norman Gordon, who died aged 103 in 2014, as the oldest Test player. "Her energy was incredible," remembered Isabelle Duncan, the author of a history of women's cricket, who sat alongside her as England beat India in that final. "She was drinking champagne in the president's box, and flirting with John Major." The England men's team wore black armbands in her honour on the first day of the opening Ashes Test in Brisbane.