Wisden Obituary

Rachael Heyhoe-Flint


Rachael Heyhoe-Flint receives the World Cup from Princess Anne, Edgbaston, July 28, 1973
Rachael Heyhoe-Flint receives the World Cup from Princess Anne © The Cricketer International
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Players/Officials: Rachael Heyhoe-Flint
Teams: England

HEYHOE FLINT, BARONESS (RACHAEL), OBE, DL, died on January 18, aged 77. Rachael Heyhoe Flint did not live to see the match that best summed up her devotion to women's cricket: England's World Cup final victory over India in front of a packed and enthralled Lord's, and a vast global television audience. Next morning, the celebrations featured on five national front pages.

It was light years from the first women's international there, in 1976, when - after years of lobbying to use the ground - she captained England in a one-day international against Australia, and was unsure whether she would be allowed to lead her team out through the Long Room. When she eventually did, it was with an uncharacteristic show of emotion. Fittingly, she was at the crease when England completed an eight-wicket win - thanks to an act of self-sacrifice. "I got myself out so that she could bat," recalled opener Enid Bakewell. "I said, 'You've done so much to get us here you deserve to bat.' Chris Watmough, our No. 3, went mad at me."

In the tributes that followed her death, the word that frequently cropped up was "pioneer". Through her talent as a batsman and a successful England captain, but also via her relentless energy, engaging personality and flair for publicity, she became the world's best known female cricketer. Scyld Berry in The Daily Telegraph and Jarrod Kimber on ESPNcricinfo compared her impact to W. G. Grace. For some years in the 1970s, she ranked alongside Mary Peters and Virginia Wade as Britain's most familiar sportswoman, even while playing a game with virtually no public profile.

She led the fight to allow women to join MCC, setting the ball rolling when Tim Rice and Brian Johnston proposed her for membership under the name "R. Flint" in 1991. "I've played cricket all my life, I got to the top, and I just wanted to be a member of this club," she said. Against implacable opposition, she was prepared to play the long game. It was a campaign that encapsulated Heyhoe Flint. She was not strident, nor did she harangue those in authority; instead, she used charm, humour and gentle powers of persuasion. In the end, the ban was shown to be a ridiculous anachronism. It took two votes in 1998 but, at the second, almost 70% of members voted in favour of the change. She was among the first group of women admitted, and in 2004 became the first on the MCC committee. She still slapped down anyone who called her a feminist.

Sport had always been central to her life. Her parents were PE teachers, and she soon showed a talent for hockey (she won four caps as England's goalkeeper in 1964), netball and rounders. Saturday afternoons in the winter were spent at Molineux watching the Wolverhampton Wanderers team that won three League Championships in the 1950s. But cricket was confined to back-garden games with her father, brother and his friends. She was allowed only to field, useful for retrieving the ball from the jaws of the neighbour's dog and being "the preserver of the flowerbeds". When finally given a chance she batted for three days and totalled "about 380". She loved to tell the story of a street game that was abandoned when a policeman arrived to take down the names and addresses of the players. He ignored Rachael, who persisted: "But I was playing too. Don't you want to take my name down?" The officer replied: "Girls don't play cricket."

But girls could play cricket. In 1954, she was in a party from Wolverhampton Girls' High School that went to Edgbaston to see the touring New Zealand women take on Warwickshire & South Midlands. She was enthralled. "I came away with an image of an exciting, challenging life, travelling the world playing cricket, meeting people," she wrote. "It seemed everything I wanted out of life." She was fortunate that the new head of PE at her school was Mary Greenhalgh, a keen cricketer. A school team was started soon after the Edgbaston visit, and the first team photo featured two other future England players - Jackie Elledge and Ann Jago.

Intent on qualifying as a teacher, she went to Dartford College of Physical Education, where the England captain Mary Duggan was among the staff. Heyhoe - Flint was not added until 1971, when she married Derrick, a former Warwickshire leg-spinner - began to play for Staffordshire and other representative sides in the late 1950s, and took up her first teaching appointment. In 1960-61, she asked for leave of absence when she was selected for England's tour of South Africa. She enjoyed the experience immensely but, apart from a first international fifty in the Second Test at the Wanderers, her performances did not stand out. She also made little impact at home against Australia in 1963, although in the third match at The Oval she had the satisfaction of hitting the first six in a women's Test. She called it the Heyhoe heave-ho - and attributed it to an irritated groundsman, who had prepared a pitch at the edge of the square with a correspondingly short boundary.

She came of age after replacing Duggan as captain for the series against New Zealand in 1966, making 356 runs at 71, including her first Test hundred, in the opening match at Scarborough. In the winter of 1968-69, she took her team to Australia and New Zealand for a six-Test tour. It had been announced 18 months in advance to allow time for fundraising: Heyhoe was a one-woman PR machine, organising matches against men's teams, fighting for column inches and securing a sponsorship deal with Marks & Spencer for the squad's blazers. It was a four-month trip - spirits were kept up with teamsingalongs - and a successful one. England retained the Ashes after drawing all three Tests in Australia, then beat New Zealand 2-0, Heyhoe scoring 503 runs at 45. She had already given up teaching to become a journalist, and was writing regularly for the Telegraph. After each day's play she went back to her hotel room and filed copy, appearing as "A Special Correspondent". She did not tell them she was also filing for the Daily Express, PA and Reuters. "If I had a bad day, I didn't mention myself," she said.

She struck up a lasting friendship with the businessman Jack Hayward, a fellow Wulfrunian with shared passions in cricket and Wolves; he funded two non-Test tours to the Caribbean, which were beyond the meagre funds of the Women's Cricket Association. She was staying at Hayward's house in Sussex one evening in 1971 when he came up with the idea of a women's World Cup - and offered to provide the finance. Heyhoe Flint's memory was that several glasses of brandy were involved. Relishing the challenge, she organised the first tournament in 1973, two years before the first men's World Cup, selling tickets and putting up posters in the host towns. There were seven teams, including an International XI and Young England, and a round-robin format. Lord's turned down the chance to host the last game, which proved to be the decider, so it was held at Edgbaston. England beat Australia by 92 runs; Heyhoe Flint made a typically pugnacious 64, and put on 117 with Bakewell, before receiving the trophy from Princess Anne.

Her ambition of appearing at Lord's was finally realised in 1976 (earlier in the year she had, perhaps only half-jokingly, threatened to take MCC to the Equal Opportunities Commission). Australia were again the opponents. England won the one-day series 2-1, and retained the Ashes after three drawn Tests. Her leadership was always aggressive. "She was phenomenal," said Bakewell. "She was always trying to make something happen. If the batsmen looked set she would do something different with the field placings. You would think 'Why has she done that?' but it was just to make the batsmen think. Often it got us a wicket." In the final Test of the Ashes at The Oval, Australia scented victory but, defying her instincts, Heyhoe Flint made 179 in eight hours 41 minutes. The high point of her captaincy, though, was also the end of it. In 1977, the WCA replaced her with Mary Pilling, despite an unbeaten record in 12 Tests in charge. "No one has a divine right to be England captain, but after 11 years in the job I think I deserved a reason for my sacking," she said. "I've definitely not signed for Kerry Packer so I just don't know why." She not only lost the captaincy, but her place in the team for the second World Cup in India.

The outcry was such that the WCA were forced to call an extraordinary general meeting. Hayward withdrew his financial support. Heyhoe Flint believed some officials had become resentful of her profile and thought the good work of others was going unnoticed. She had been rapped over the knuckles for being photographed with her baby son at Lord's. Another suggestion - not made public - was that the money she earned from writing contravened her amateur status. The WCA were so desperate to avoid the taint of commercialism that Heyhoe Flint had to white out the manufacturer's green stripes on her cricket shoes.

In 1979, she was back in the England team, scoring 162 runs at 40 in a three-match series against West Indies, but it marked the end of her Test career. In all, she played in 22 Tests, scoring 1,594 runs at 45, with three centuries, and taking three wickets with her occasional leg-spin. It was not, however, the end of her international career. Aged 42, she was recalled for the 1982 World Cup in New Zealand, making 76 against the hosts, 61 against an International XI, and 29 in the final against Australia, which England lost. In 23 one-day internationals, she scored 643 runs at 58, with one hundred.

Retirement did not mean putting her feet up. She campaigned on behalf of women's sport, and became an award-winning after-dinner speaker, a director of Wolves, a charity fundraiser and a regular panellist on Radio Four. "My husband said it is like being married to a whirlwind," she said. She joined the ECB board in 2010, when she became the first woman inducted to the ICC Hall of Fame. The following year, she was made a Conservative life peer, and liked to tell visitors that she had the highest Test average of the six international cricketers to have sat in the Lords. After her death, the ICC renamed their Player of the Year award in her honour. The first winner was Ellyse Perry. Part of her popularity with the media was her gift for a soundbite. She said women referred to their boxes as "manhole covers", and cheerfully repeated the Duke of Edinburgh's question about whether her team wore coconut shells in their bras for protection. Women played three-day Tests, she explained, because "we get on with it more than the men". But the jokes did not hide her deep satisfaction at the development of the women's game. "Now the mums and the daughters have their own cricket," she said, "instead of making cucumber sandwiches every weekend."

© John Wisden & Co.