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The history of cricket is studded with women who never played the sport at international level, but had had their own contributions nevertheless. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the ladies whose names have been etched into cricket immortality.
The moment the phrase “women in cricket” is uttered the topics of discussion get divided into two parts: one, women’s international cricket and how they had surpassed men in several aspects (organising the first World Cup and scoring the first ODI double-hundred, among others); the other stream of discussion typically involves Wives and Girlfriends (WAGs) and various scandals involving male cricketers and women.
However, just like their male counterparts, there have been ladies who have become immortal in history despite not playing international cricket. Here’s to these dames who have graced the sport by their august off-field presence:
1. Christina Willes
If one creates a list of 10 people who have influenced the sport the most it will certainly feature Christina Willes. While playing cricket with her brother in the garden, Willes found bowling extremely difficult due to the roomy skirts with huge circumference that marked the era. She thus resorted to what we refer to as over-arm or round-arm bowling today.
[Note: Multiple sources suggest that Tom Walker of Hambledon was the first to bowl over-arm sometime between 1770 and 1790. However, despite Walker’s contribution, the style was forgotten till Christina, albeit unknowingly, rediscovered it.]
Her brother John, a Kent cricketer, took the cue and pioneered over-arm bowling in the bigger arena. So popular and devastating was John’s style that over-arm bowling was banned in 1816. Six years later, on July 15, 1822, John Willes was playing for Kent against MCC at Lord’s when he tried bowling over-arm. When the umpire called a no-ball, he threw the ball down, left the field, mounted his horse that was waiting outside, and disappeared, never to return to competitive cricket.
Over-arm bowling was legalised in 1864. Most cricket historians consider the date as the beginning of modern cricket.
2. Florence Rose Bligh (née Morphy) and gang
As is common knowledge, the term “The Ashes” was coined in a mock obituary by Sporting Times following the historic Test at The Oval in 1882. The obituary said:
When Ivo Bligh took England on the return tour six months later on SS Peshawar, he met the family of the Victorian dignitary Sir William Clarke; or rather, their family governess (music teacher, according to some sources) Florence Morphy, and Cupid played the role he has been playing for millennia.
During the tour, a small urn was presented to Bligh at Sunbury, Victoria by a group of Melbourne ladies including Ms Morphy and Lady Janet Clarke. The 11-centimetre terracotta urn supposedly contained the ashes of a cricket bail, and has two labels inscribed on it. The top label said The Ashes, while the bottom one was a verse:
When Ivo goes back with the urn, the urn;
Studds, Steel, Read and Tylecote return, return;
The welkin will ring loud,
The great crowd will feel proud,
Seeing Barlow and Bates with the urn, the urn;
And the rest coming home with the urn.
And thus the legend of The Ashes was born. Bligh and Morphy would tie the knots in 1884, and Bligh went on to become The Eighth Earl of Darnley in 1900 and inherited Cobham Hall. On Bligh’s death in 1927 Morphy, then the Countess of Darnley, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire presented the urn to the Lord’s Cricket Museum.
3. Mary Russell Mitford
Mary Russell Mitford was one of the fines female British authors with a characteristic style of her own. She could write across genres and styles, and though she was an excellent poet and playwright it was her prose for which she was known the most. Among other quality works was a series called Our Village.
Our Village is generally accepted as “the first major prose on the game (of cricket)”. The phrase was coined in Barclay’s World of Cricket. Her prose is eloquent and addictive. Below is an excerpt from the book, describing the two kinds of village cricketers:
“One of young men, surrounded by spectators, some standing, some sitting, some stretched on the grass, all taking a delighted interest in the game; the other, a merry group of little boys, at a humble distance, for whom even cricket is scarcely lively enough, shouting, leaping, and enjoying themselves to their hearts’ content. But cricketers and country boys are too important persons in our village to be talked of merely as figures in the landscape. They deserve an individual introduction — an essay to themselves — and they shall have it. No fear of forgetting the good-humoured faces that meet us in our walks every day.”
So, the next time you read any serious prose on the sport, remember that it was Mitford who had started it all.
4. Martha Grace
Eric Midwinter had written of Martha Grace in his illustrious son’s biography: “Until her [Mrs Grace’s] death she maintained logs and scrapbooks of all her sons’ doings.” Arunabha Sengupta has called her “a tall, strong, imperious woman who arguably knew more about cricket than the most addicted gentleman following the game.”
It is extremely difficult to visualise a young WG Grace; one can only imagine what Mrs Grace had been through to bring up the indomitable WG as well as EM, Fred, Henry, Alfred, and four other children. By the time WG had became a legend in Victorian England, so had Mrs Grace, as one of the most erudite people on the subject of sports in the country.
Despite being the mother of a person who had changed the general attitude towards cricket completely, Mrs Grace had carved out a niche of her own to an extent that a Championship match between Gloucestershire and Lancashire at Old Trafford was called off when news came that she had passed away.
Gloucestershire had scored 119 before Lancashire had managed a 23-run lead. The telegram came in when the tourists were 25 for one in the second innings (EM was the dismissed batsman while WG was at the crease along with William Gilbert, a cousin). ‘Monkey’ Hornby, the Lancashire captain, immediately consented to call the match off. It was the first such known instance.
Rather fittingly, Mrs Grace became the first woman to have a reference in the Wisden Obituaries section in 1915.
5. Ameer Bee
Ameer Bee was a national badminton champion in pre-independence India. She was, however, no ordinary cricket mother: had five sons, born in 1929, 1932, 1934, 1943, and 1945. After partition, however, the family moved to Pakistan, where Bee soon established herself as the great matriarch of Pakistan cricket, or perhaps, world cricket.
The third son, Hanif Mohammad, was the first to make his Test debut in the first Test India played; Wazir, the eldest made his debut in the third Test of the series; the second son, Raees, was an ace all-rounder who made it to the twelfth man in Pakistan’s first home Test; the fourth, Mushtaq, went on to become one of the underrated champions of the sport; and Sadiq, the youngest, was a fine opening batsman.
The legacy did not end there: Hanif’s son Shoaib also went on to become an opening batsman, while Wazir’s son Waqar had gone on to play for Warwickshire Under-19s. The Mohammads took things to the next generation when Shoaib’s son Shehzar took to First-Class cricket for Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) in 2009.
6. Frances Edmonds
Frances Edmonds could well have been another member of the WAG squad on England’s disastrous tour of West Indies in 1985-86. While England were dished out a humiliating 0-5 whitewash, Frances came out with the bestselling Another Bloody Tour, her account of the series. It was perhaps the only good thing to have emerged for England out of that tour; in fact, it was a book so good that people almost forgave England for their failure.
Frances soon grew in stature as a writer and a broadcaster, leading to Tim Zoehrer’s sledge: “At least I have an identity. You’re only Frances Edmonds’ husband.” Frances went on to write on politics, marketing, self-help and motivation; was elected as an Honorary Fellow of the British Association of Women Entrepreneurs; a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts; the Founder-Member and Fellow of the Professional Speakers Association.
She has also opened a jazz band called JazzBizz, “devoted to delivering powerful business messages through the medium of music and the metaphor of jazz”, and is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers and moderators. To think of it, it had all started with a cricket book!
7. Jane Speight
Jane Speight (1915 — 1978) had never appeared in international cricket matches; in fact, nobody knew of her cricket talents during her lifetime. It was only in the 1990s that she earned posthumous fame, solely to the efforts of a former Test cricketer. Thanks to him, it was generally accepted that she was a better batter, bowler, and fielder than most contemporary international cricketers.
The Test cricketer was the inimitable Geoff Boycott. Jane Boycott (née Speight) was, of course, the “moom who could play ’em with a toothbroosh” and perform several other on-field marvels the contemporaries could not.
Well, I know that was not a serious inclusion, but what is life without some humour?
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