A few Forget-me-nots cricketers (courtesy: The Australasian). From left: Nellie Falahey, Mary Kinnear, FV Billson (captain), Mary O’Brien, Ruby Gazzard (Hon. Secretary and Treasurer)
A few Forget-me-nots cricketers (courtesy: The Australasian).
From left: Nellie Falahey, Mary Kinnear, FV Billson (captain), Mary O’Brien, Ruby Gazzard (Hon. Secretary and Treasurer)

On March 27, 1897 a bizarre cricket match was played at Friendly Societies’ Park, Warrnambool. Abhishek Mukherjee a contest between two teams of surprisingly contrasting composition.

Women’s cricket was a novelty in 19th-century Australia. Chances are that you have not heard of the Forget-me-nots Cricket Club of Allansford, that outstanding women’s cricket team of the late 1890s, who regularly beat teams across genders, though, to be fair, their male oppositions were rarely the strongest sides.

In February 1897, for example, they comfortably beat a men’s side, Benedicts of Allansford (Disgracefully Defeated, ran the Argus headline). The match started in dramatic fashion, with a Forget-me-nots opener being clean bowled by her husband, but they scored 95. The lady dismissed by her husband now caught him. The men, bowled out for a mere 44, “were treated to afternoon tea and oceans of sympathy.” Some things have indeed not changed with time.

The Riverine Herald reported that “in all round play the ladies were infinitely superior to the men, who probably were the liberal-girth-and-white-waistcoat order of people. With proper surroundings, such as a nice, green turf, ladies’ cricket would soon become popular, and would be much more attractive to onlookers than tennis.”

The women were quite vocal as well, their remarks ranging from “back up there, Liz” to “well hit, old girl” to sledges on the lines of “now, show ’em how to play” or “do better dan dat if I was asleep.”

Argus took special note of the wicketkeeping of Mabel Gazzard: “[Jack] Blackham at his best would have envied the ease with which the lady behind the wickets — or more properly speaking, her skirts — stopped all balls that passed the batsmen.”

Forget-me-nots found worthy rivals in Seafoam, a Nirranda club. To quote Argus, one of their matches, at Nirranda the next month, had reasonable turnout: “People travelled many miles over bush tracks in order to witness the game, and they even preferred watching the ladies at cricket to the excitement of a race meeting in the district.”

The fans arrived in full supporters’ attire, too: male supporters of Forget-me-nots carried bouquets of the same flower, while the women placed them on their hats. Seafoam fans donned green ribbons and carried green flags, though it is not exactly clear why.

They got carried away a bit as well. Argus quoted Rev. ER Clough, who was highly disapproving of the crowd barracking, “stating that it was distasteful to all the players, and expressing his opinion that, if continued, it would kill ladies’ cricket. Applause was one thing and barracking another, and it was a great pity that the ladies could not meet together for a friendly game without being subjected to such annoyance.”

In the stands was Blackham, no less. The Prince of Glovemen was genuinely impressed by the glovework of Gazzard, whom he addressed as “my rival wicketkeeper”, emphasising on her brilliance against short balls that had forced men to retire.

The tickets were charged at 6p each. The attendance went past 2,000, more than what some international matches attract. The gate money went to the Indian Famine Relief Fund and a widow whose husband had recently drowned.

In another match, in April, the Forget-me-nots soundly beat the Belltoppers, a team of Warrnambool. The women scored 74, of which Ruby Gazzard (related to Mabel Gazzard?) got 25. They then bowled out the men for 32 in front of a thousand men. After the match a party was hosted by Mr and Mrs Gazzard (Mabel or Ruby?), who had featured in opposing sides.

The match

The contest in question was of a light-hearted nature, but the Forget-me-nots had their usual turnover of a thousand fans. The opposition was an all-male team, all of whom had to satisfy one condition: every single one of them had to be over 50 years of age or 15 stones (95.3 kg) in weight.

Eleven men were procured. “Most of them could lay claim to both qualifications,” reported The Maitland Weekly Mercury. Their wicketkeeper was not fifty but he weighted 18 stones (114.3 kg) and the long-stop 17 stones (108 kg). This is one of those rare instances when the body masses of cricketers, and not the names, were mentioned in newspaper reports.

The ladies took strike on the matting wicket. Bowlers were changed around generously; it surprisingly worked, and the ladies were soon reduced to 25 for 4. Then Lily Wilson (31) and Mary Kinnear (32) took charge.

Chimney Pots (that was the unofficial name of the male team) had a twelfth member in their side — a particularly swift canine who did the fielding. There have been canine fielders in the past, most famously in 1827 when Francis Trumper and his sheepdog beat two men.

Just like Trumper’s dog, this one fielded brilliantly as well, but there was a catch (a pun is intended here): once he got the ball he returned it to only his master irrespective of the latter’s position. This enabled the ladies to run more singles (this one is a sad pun).

Forget-me-nots were bowled out for 101. As the fielders left the ground, one of the men boasted: “We’ll soon knock up over 100 runs. We can hit their hopper-kickers away to the boundary.”Things did not quite turn out that way.

“A portly auctioneer and a well-known chemist” opened batting. Sure enough, they succumbed to some innocuous-looking lobs, and Chimney Pots were left reeling at 5 for 3.

At this stage the wicketkeeper (that giant of a man) walked out and got involved in something dramatic first ball: “He commenced by losing his balance, and falling over the bat, but had the presence of mind to roll over again, and by his agility in this way escaped being stumped.”

He eventually remained unbeaten on 7 as The Veterans crashed to 19. The women asked them to bat again, and this time they got 17, Wilson taking a spectacular 7 for 2.

Brief scores:

Forget-me-nots 101 (Lily Wilson 31, Mary Kinnear 32) beat Chimney Pots 19 (a 114-kg wicketkeeper 7*) and 17 (Lily Wilson 7 for 2) by an innings and 65 runs.

The sequel

The Chimney Pots were in no mood to accept defeat lying down (in a literal sense; the players, suffering from body ache, took their time to recover). However, they vowed revenge, and challenged the Forget-me-nots for a return match.

The men arrived in top hats, ten black and one white, accompanied by a brass band and followed by hundreds in buggies and bicycles. The men won the toss, but “with all the gallantry of a knight of the 16th century” (The Age) asked the women to choose. The women obviously batted, and Ruby Gazzard (25) took them to 74.

The men, still not having recovered from their exertion, “heaved turbulently while they wiped their perspiring foreheads with their bandanas” as they sipped on to afternoon tea and mountain dew (not Mountain Dew).

They were then bowled out for 32. Thankfully, it was a one-innings match. The 107-kg man who fielded at long-stop and was the second-heaviest in the side was last man in. His partner got out immediately, so 107-kg left with his bat held aloft, balancing his top hat on it.

There was little rest for the ladies; they now acquired a hat from the opposition and went about collecting funds from the crowd for an iron tank for the Allansford Mechanics’ Institute. Once that was done, they entertained their guests to a sumptuous dinner.

And just before the men began their journey back home, their top-scorer received a gift from Forget-me-nots captain FV Billson: “a big sausage tied with forget-me-not streamers”.

Brief scores:

Forget-me-nots 74 (Ruby Gazzard 25) beat Chimney Pots 32 (someone scored 17) by 42 runs.