Episode 70: Seventy years of revolution in English women’s cricket

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.

Rafaelle Nicholson is the author of Ladies And Lords: A History Of Women’s Cricket In Britain. Having previously presented the highlights of the first six hundred years or so, she returns to share the dramatic events and big personalities of the next seventy, as the latest guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their regular cricket-themed podcast.

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She begins by outlining the social status of English women’s cricket in the 1950s. The exclusion of cricket from the postwar secondary modern state schools ensured that it was dominated as before by privately educated women from well-to-do families. It had a strongly amateur ethos and its administrators kept a close relationship with the MCC. 2-3 minutes

Like the MCC Establishment but for reasons of its own (as she explains), the Women’s Cricket Association was anxious to preserve its links with white South Africa. They planned a short tour there in the same winter, 1968/69, as the England men’s tour cancelled in the wake of the D’Oliveira affair: Raf describes the secret financial pressure, from Labour’s then Sports Minister, Dennis Howell, which forced its cancellation. 3-6 minutes Unknown to many who admire her pioneering and transformative work for women’s cricket (and will pass through her new gate at Lord’s) Rachael Heyhoe-Flint was a strong partisan of cricket links with apartheid South Africa. 6-9 minutes

Rafaelle contrasts her with another contemporary giant of women’s cricket, Enid Bakewell, daughter of a Nottinghamshire miner, who was introduced to cricket fortuitously through an enthusiastic teacher at grammar school. Enid was almost unique in being an avowed socialist and feminist and still proudly sports her Labour red rosette at public events. 9-11 minutes

Rafaelle explains the rather distant relationship between women’s cricket and the feminist movements of the 1970s, who were focused on workplace,  family and relationship issues and had little interest in women’s sport. The breakthrough Equal Pay Act 1970 and Sex Discrimination Act 1975 excluded sports such as cricket where men were deemed to have a natural advantage from strength; successor legislation still makes it lawful to pay male cricketers much more than women for the same activity. For their part most England women cricketers saw little reason to identify with the feminist movements, and tried to preserve the amateur ethos of playing cricket for fun – although their persistence in the face of official neglect and media mockery could be viewed as an expression of feminism. 11-14 minutes Official policy did not help women’s cricket: the Sports Council assumed that women in general had no appetite for team games and tried to channel them all into swimming, dancing and keep-fit classes. 14-15 minutes

Rafaelle analyses the tensions over a long period between the WCA and Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, especially over her personal efforts to raise money for women cricketers and her very public intervention in the struggle to secure the first women’s cricket fixture at Lord’s in 1976. Her critics resented her status as the face and the voice of women’s cricket and viewed her fund-raising activities as a threat to its amateur ethos. Her own amateur status became slightly problematic when she gained product endorsements and even more, when she filed reports for newspapers on matches she had captained. For no good cricketing reason, she was removed from the England captaincy in 1977 and not selected for the World Cup in India in 1979. More than forty years on, contemporaries are still reluctant to discuss these decisions. 16-25 minutes

In the late 1990s the WCA, under official pressure, dissolved itself and women’s cricket was subsumed into the England and Wales Cricket Board. Rafaelle examines the consequences of this giant step: women’s cricket gained huge new resources, which finally allowed top women cricketers to become professional, but its administration by women who knew it and loved it was replaced almost entirely by that of white middle-aged male strangers. 25-28 minutes

Around the same time, women finally broke into the bastion of the MCC, at the direction of an enlightened President, Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, the former Hampshire captain. Given the long waiting list for full membership and the need for networking to complete the selection procedures, she wonders whether the MCC’s gender influence has changed very much, notwithstanding the arrival of Claire Connor (a previous podcast guest) as the first female President.  Rafaelle points out that the Lord’s fixture list is still dominated by male matches. 29-34 minutes

Looking at the present state of English women’s cricket, she highlights the linked barriers of race and class that continue to make the game far more accessible to white privately educated girls  than to minority ethnic girls and those from low-income families in state schools. This is aggravated by the uneven distribution between rural locations and inner cities of opportunities for girls and women to play club cricket. She suggests that racial and cultural barriers which are belatedly gaining attention in English men’s cricket may be as significant in women’s cricket. 34-37 minutes

She hails the current coverage and spectatorship of women’s cricket, vastly increased since just five years ago and driven by a rise in playing standards and professionalism which have made it far more commercially attractive. 37-40 minutes The advent of T20 and “double headers” (men’s and women’s matches being played on the same day) gave a vital showcase for women’s cricket and convinced thousands of male journalists that it was worth reporting seriously. The multiplication of T20 franchise leagues has hugely expanded the profile and earning opportunities of leading women cricketers. However, she worries about the future of women’s Test cricket: always a priority for the old WCA and international women’s cricket administrators, it now barely figures in the present calendar (devised largely by men). 40-43 minutes

Asked whether the best women players might ever join a male professional team Rafaelle emphatically hopes not: rather than being isolated tokens, she would like to see them valued for their contributions to a thriving and respected women’s cricket scene. 44-45 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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