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Wicket maidens: the surprising history of women’s cricket

When Karen Smithies’ England team won the World Cup in 1993, she did not go in for false modesty. The success of the women’s team was in stark contrast to the fortunes of the men’s team at the time – England had just lost the Ashes on home soil under Graham Gooch – and the 24-year-old captain, standing in the shadow of the Lord’s pavilion, proudly boasted that the men “could learn a few things” from her side.

Nearly a quarter of a century on, the former captain, in joyfully candid mood, hides her face in her hands and cringes. “I was young and I thought: ‘I’m going to milk this,’” she laughs. Her team had, after all, been rank outsiders in the final, having collapsed pathetically against New Zealand in their second match. Yet a week and a half after that loss, England defeated the same side at Lord’s and she became the first England cricketer – man or woman – to lead her team to victory in a World Cup final.

Twenty years later the tournament is returning to England. England’s women have not won the trophy since 1993, but expectations will certainly be high this summer. Women’s cricket has changed beyond recognition since the days when players still bought their own kit; and in the past decade, under the oft-victorious leadership of Charlotte Edwards, the England team has led the world in professionalism.

Isabelle Duncan, author of a recent history of women’s cricket, admits that it is tempting, having counted the vast strides the women’s game has made, to imagine it only in terms of the recent past. “You tend to think women’s cricket started two minutes ago, but the depth of the history surprises everybody,” she says.

  • A women’s cricket team, circa 1875

One of cricket’s most famous pieces of folklore concerns Christina Willis, who used to play with her brother John – a Kent player in the early 19th century – in their garden. Her hooped skirt made it impossible for her to bowl the ball underarm, as was the norm, so she would deliver the ball from waist-high – a style that later became known as “round-arm bowling” and was the precursor of the overarm bowling that exists today. Her son Edward later wrote: “There was a saying that Willis, his sister, and his dog could beat any eleven in England.”

Women were involved in the game even earlier than this, however. A painting from 1344 – considered, by some, to be one of the earliest known records of the game – shows what appears to be medieval mixed cricket: a nun, holding a ball, apparently about to bowl at a monk with a stick. Four hundred years later, the sport had descended from these saintly heights and was a magnet for gambling, but even then women were central to the action: a game involving Sussex Women at the Honourable Artillery Company in 1747 had to be abandoned for the day after it caused a riot among the spectators.

The irony is that women’s cricket at this time was not only highly popular, but, for a short while at least, professional. In 1890 two Balham-based teams known as the Original English Lady Cricketers (OELC) toured Britain, playing exhibition matches to crowds of 15,000 or more. The first game played at Headingley (Yorkshire’s county ground and Test match venue) is thought to have been between the OELC’s “red” and “blue” teams.

“But it goes downhill from there,” says Duncan. “Women were practically locked up behind high walls at school, cricket wasn’t considered becoming for a lady, and the industrial revolution put a stop to the game among the working classes, because they were too tired to play. Everybody became prudish and it went completely backwards. There were still some very talented women, like WG Grace’s daughter, Betty, but then he himself stopped her playing. She left school never to play again – it was just criminal! But those were the prevailing attitudes.”

  • Betty Snowball and Myrtle Maclagan

It wasn’t until the 1930s that the first women’s international match was played. Myrtle Maclagan and Betty Snowball, England’s opening bats, were considered the female equivalent of Hobbes and Sutcliffe, the greatest opening pair in Test history, and their matches were keenly followed. After the men had lost the Ashes at home in 1934, the 23-year-old debutant Maclagan, who had taught herself to bowl off-spin, took seven wickets for 10 runs against Australia in the first innings of the first ever women’s Test match in Brisbane.

A mighty strategist, and true all-round talent, she finished the three-match series with 253 runs and 20 wickets, inspiring the Morning Post to publish the following poem:

What matter that we lost, mere nervy men

Since England’s women now play England’s game?

Wherefore, immortal Wisden, take your pen

And write MACLAGAN on the scroll of fame.

Snowball, meanwhile, put her wristy square cut to good use when England travelled on to New Zealand, and scored 189 runs in 222 minutes, the kind of fast-paced innings that would give Ben Stokes or Jonny Bairstow a run for their money.

  • Enid Bakewell, batting, and Myrtle Maclagan

Many of the players returned from that tour impoverished – they had had to fund the entire trip themselves, including the six-week voyage on the SS Cathay – and the women’s game was to rely for another 60 years on homespun fundraising, such as knitting drives, to keep it afloat. In the 1960s Enid Bakewell, one of the greatest all-rounders the game has produced, was selling chocolate on the boundary at Trent Bridge to raise money. Try to imagine a world-class male player doing the same.

Bakewell’s name is less celebrated than that of the woman who captained her, Rachael Heyhoe Flint. But the Nottinghamshire player, who had modelled her spin bowling action on the famous Tony Lock, was a major factor in England’s success under Heyhoe Flint, and had the same gritty, never-surrender spirit. She would bowl for two hours in the nets without ever stopping for so much as a sip of water and her hard-nosed, no-compromise approach caused her problems at home. When she joined her first England tour in 1968-69 she had to miss Christmas with her two-year-old daughter and leave her at home for three months; her husband once threatened to leave her if she didn’t curtail the away-games travel, and got as far as packing his bags, but “came back for Sunday lunch”.

The era of Heyhoe Flint and Bakewell is rightly remembered as a time of invincibility for England’s women. Heyhoe Flint was unbeaten in Tests in her 12-year reign, which began in 1966, and her stamina both on and off the pitch – where she was tireless in promoting the cause of the women’s game – was inspirational; over 22 years she made a record 51 appearances for England in all forms of the game. But not all the cricket her team played was exciting to watch. Heyhoe Flint famously scored the first six in a women’s international match, but she could also grind out a merciless draw.

“That was the way they played,” says Duncan. “It was pretty boring, there was a slow over rate and of course the players weren’t trained so they weren’t so athletic. Heyhoe Flint was thought of as very successful because she didn’t lose matches, even if she didn’t win them. She would bat for eight hours in a war of attrition. But that was the style of the place, and the state of the pitches – it was often equally boring in the men’s game too.”

Heyhoe Flint not only instigated the Women’s Cricket World Cup – with the help of Wolverhampton businessman Jack Hayward, who backed it to the tune of £40,000 – but led her team to victory in its debut year. Bakewell’s century in the final round-robin game of the tournament left Australia with a mountain they were unable to climb.

It was also thanks to Heyhoe Flint’s indefatigable campaigning that the England women were finally allowed to play a match at Lord’s, in 1976, nearly two centuries after the ground was inaugurated. (They still weren’t welcome in the hallowed Long Room – it took another 30 years before Heyhoe was finally allowed into the Lord’s pavilion in her own right, as an MCC member.)

It was hard, when Heyhoe Flint retired, for her successors to live up to her forthright leadership. Both Carole Hodges and Jan Brittin, appointed during England’s lean spell in the 1980s, were introverts and, as Smithies puts it, “not natural leaders of people”. A succession of defeats caused antagonism within the team and a hard-bitten Australian side, under Chrissy Matthews, became the dominant force in women’s cricket.

Although the World Cup win in 1993 restored some confidence, the England women’s team were then expected to behave like professional sportspeople while juggling their unpaid training with the demands of family life and full-time jobs: Smithies, who had grown up in a Leicestershire mining community, worked for a bookmaking firm; Jo Chamberlain was a van driver; and Brittin was an air stewardess. Former player Sarah Potter called for change. “The sport in England staggers along in unnoticed crisis,” she wrote in the Times.

As the international scene grew, so did the kinds of problems the England women encountered. In 1986, India’s touring side demanded that vehicles in the car park – allegedly dazzling their bowlers – were removed. The umpires were toothless, the over rate slowed to eight an hour, and the match fizzled out to a draw, with England unable to knock off the final 25 runs.

And on a return tour in 1995, Smithies recalls, England found themselves confined to their rooms for two days before a match because, amid the general election fever in Guwahati, a gunman had allegedly threatened to kill the team.

It was a fractious tour containing many controversial umpiring decisions, and it made their dramatic Test victory in Jamshedpur – Chamberlain trapping India’s last bat lbw with the home team trailing by just two runs – especially sweet.

  • Claire Taylor and Isa Guha

Smithies recalls an earlier decision in the game: “It was the first game I didn’t walk – we were in a tricky position on the third day, and we felt pretty hard done by. I nicked one, and I remember Sue Metcalf saying to me: ‘Smithers, you hit the leather off that.’ I felt very guilty.”

In 1998, with English cricket undergoing a radical overhaul, it was recognised that the women needed more financial and administrative support, and the women’s team was finally brought under the same organising body as the men. The ECB made the promotion of women’s cricket one of its central goals, and the budding of talent like Claire Taylor, Katherine Brunt and Isa Guha was the result.

For Smithies, however, there were frustrations, not least that the professional coaches brought in to oversee training – including Paul Farbrace and Graham Dilley – did not realise that the women’s game was considerably different to the men’s. “We’d been aching for [a change] but I struggled with it because they had different ideas from what I was used to. It would wind me up when they made fielding changes that made no sense, because women don’t hit the ball as hard as men. The angles of the ball off the bat were different, too, because the bowling was slower. They didn’t grasp that early on.”

Smithies resigned mid-tour in 2000, having fallen out with Farbrace, and her vice-captain, Clare Connor, took over the reins. Five years later Connor led England to their first Ashes win in 42 years – the same year Vaughan, Flintoff, Pietersen and co landed their own historic victory against Australia. Under Connor’s canny leadership the side had mimicked the relaxed confidence of their male colleagues, soundtracking their drills to Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff and celebrating boisterously after each wicket.

It was a confidence that built over the next decade, thanks in large part to the unmatched talent of Charlotte Edwards, who made her England debut aged 16 under the captaincy of Smithies. “Lottie was always going to be a star,” says Smithies. “She had a good eye, and because she played with boys and men while she was growing up she had that belief in herself.”

Edwards also had the help of a prodigiously talented wicketkeeper, Claire Taylor, whose loves of hockey, chess and mathematics had given her a fierce tactical ability combined with preternatural spatial awareness. With Edwards at the helm and Taylor behind the stumps, England won everything there was to win: 2009 was their annus mirabilis when they retained the Ashes and won the World Cup and World Twenty20 tournament. Taylor, who in 2006 beat the highest one day international score at Lord’s – a record previously held by legendary West Indies batsman Viv Richards – also hit the winning runs in the 2009 World Cup. She was the first woman to be one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year.

England players now have full-time contracts, and with that opportunity comes added scrutiny – something the players have insisted they relish. The sudden sacking of Edwards last year, after two decades of service, was a demonstration of how ruthlessly professional the women’s game has become. But this summer there will be an even greater motivation for England’s players to win the World Cup – a newly announced prize fund of $2m. It’s a tenfold increase from 2013’s tournament – and a quantum leap from the 18th century, when women played for lace gloves and barrels of beer.

NatWest has supported cricket, the game for all, since 1981. NatWest are proud to be the principal partner of the England and Wales Cricket Board and the official partner of Chance to Shine, reflecting the bank’s own values and commitment to fairness and inclusion.