Episode 60: The hidden history of a huge success: women’s cricket in Britain

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

The rise of women’s cricket is one of the biggest sporting stories in modern Britain – but behind it is nearly 700 years of history. That is one of many surprises revealed by Rafaelle Nicholson, a leading authority on women and sport, in her book Ladies And Lords: A History Of Women’s Cricket In Britain. She is the latest guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their regular cricket-themed podcast.

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Apart from being a fine book, Raf’s is a rare one. She suggests why not only male but feminist historians have been reluctant to write about women’s cricket and women in sport, and the belief among women’s movements in the Seventies that sports, especially team sports, were a male preserve. She notes that some major feminist thinkers had unhappy experiences of sport at school: Sheila Rowbotham actually hid from it in a broom cupboard. 2-4 minutes Such was historians’ neglect of women’s cricket that she herself discovered and read a cache of key documents in a cowshed. 5-7 minutes

She suggests that reclaiming the lost histories of women’s  cricket is an essential step in overcoming its long legacy of under-investment and perceived inferiority. 13-15 minutes

Raf describes the remarkable image (in the Bodleian Library in Oxford)  of a woman playing from 1344 – appearing to show some form of early cricket match between monks and nuns. 15-17 minutes But then the record goes blank for four centuries, until a Reading newspaper reported a match between women of two local villages. In the eighteenth century many such women’s matches attracted crowds, beer sponsorship  – and betting. 17-22 minutes

However, in the Victorian era women’s cricket was hampered by dominant male perceptions of women as women and homemakers, and admiring spectators of men in sport rather than participants. This was reinforced by spurious medical concerns over their supposed delicacy, including those of Britain’s best-known doctor, W G Grace, who ignored the early cricket he and his brothers received from their mother, Martha, and indeed the cricket played by his two daughters at school. 24-25 minutes

Victorian clothing, especially voluminous hooped skirts, was literally an obstacle to women in cricket, although Raf has found no evidence to support the persistent legend that a woman, Christina Willes, invented overarm bowling to overcome it and inspired her brother John, the first man to attempt overarm in a first-class match. 22-24 minutes

She traces the importance of Victorian independent girls’ schools in giving access to cricket, especially in the absence of any central organization to arrange regular matches for girls and women. In schoolgirl literature, she cites the cricket played in Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl series – where the girls regularly beat the boys. However, cricket did not figure strongly in the later expansion of state education for girls, which reinforced the image of women’s cricket as a game for women from affluent backgrounds. 25-29 minutes

She picks out some vivid personalities in women’s cricketing history:

  • The Prime Minister’s wife whose future husband fell in love with her when he watched her score a fifty 30-32 minutes
  • the leading campaigner for women’s causes, including “rational” clothing, who founded and led the Women’s Cricket Association in 1926 32, 44-45 minutes
  • the militant suffragette who threw stones at the windows of politically important buildings and her daughter, who supplied them and later became the first England women’s captain 32-33 minutes
  • the redoubtable and often unpopular Marjorie Pollard, a long-serving pillar of the WCA, fierce enforcer of conservative dress and deportment on women but with a modern appreciation of the power of media in building the women’s game. She was the founder and editor of the successful magazine Women’s Cricket and the first woman anywhere to give broadcast commentary on cricket. 40, 45-47 minutes

Raf describes the strong and lasting amateur and socially conservative ethos of the WCA. This was directed partly by the outlook of its founders but more importantly by the dependency of earlier generations of women cricketers on the goodwill of the MCC and the other male administrators of English cricket. Access to almost every ground in England was controlled by men. In dress and behaviour, women faced heavy pressures to conform to the expectations and images set by men for women in sport. 35-43 minutes For years these made it especially difficult for married women and mothers to play serious cricket (early tours consisted solely of unmarried women), and even today it is still much easier for men to turn their spouses into “cricket widows” or tea makers  than for women to offer the same choice to theirs.  48-50 minutes

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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