England Women captain Rachael Heyhoe-Flint leads her side onto the pitch for the first-ever women’s cricket match to be played at Lord’s © Getty Images
Rachael Heyhoe-Flint leads her side onto the pitch for the first-ever women’s cricket match to be played at Lord’s © Getty Images

The first women’s cricket match was played at Lord’s on August 4, 1976. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the historic day when common sense eventually managed to prevail over a discriminating tradition.

Rachael Heyhoe-Flint was no ordinary person. She had achieved superlative averages of 45.54 in Tests and 58.45 in Women’s ODIs and was an extremely successful captain, but her true contribution possibly lay in the fact that she was almost single-handedly responsible for the rise of women’s cricket from a nondescript entity to the global concept that it is today.

The inaugural Women’s World Cup was held in 1973 — two years before the first Men’s World Cup. However, even after arranging for, hosting, and winning the World Cup as captain, Heyhoe-Flint and her girls had still one goal to conquer: to gain access to Lord’s.

It was not an easy task. The perpetually conservative MCC opposed vehemently to the concept, but Heyhoe-Flint was adamant: she went to the extent of threatening them with a case in front of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

England captain Rachael Heyhoe-Flint (left) tosses the coin. Australian skipper Anne Gordon called correctly and elected to bat in the first-ever women's cricket match played at Lord's © Getty Images
Rachael Heyhoe-Flint (left) tosses the coin. Anne Gordon called correctly and elected to bat in the first-ever women’s cricket match played at Lord’s © Getty Images

That did the trick. MCC had to give in. Their President Aidan Crawley went on to concede to Heyhoe-Flint with the words “you have done enough to deserve a game at cricket’s headquarters.”

But that was 1973. Things moved very, very slowly, and it was not before 1976 that anything fruitful seemed like materialising. England Women had lost heavily in the first Women’s ODI at Canterbury, thanks to Lorraine Hill’s 106 and an English top-order collapse that had left them reeling at 75 for 6. The teams now proceeded.

After much deliberation MCC eventually decided to assign the second Women’s ODI of the series to Lord’s, provided Lancashire managed to defeat Middlesex in the second round, or, in case of a Middlesex victory, they would not be scheduled to play at Lord’s, in which case the match would have had to be rescheduled to Sunbury Cricket Club.

A group from Heyhoe-Flint’s team watched keenly as David Lloyd’s Lancashire pull off a heist against Mike Brearley’s Middlesex, thanks to a 101-run partnership between Harry Pilling and Frank Hayes, and some brutal hitting by Jack Simmons in the dying stages of the match at Old Trafford. The tourists were knocked out, and the women were finally granted access at Lord’s. The Glasgow Herald headline next day ran “Lording it, at last”.

The usual restrictions, however, were still in place: the cricketers were the only women allowed in the pavilion. The cricketers were allowed access to the same facilities the men enjoyed, including the dressing-rooms and — most significantly — The Long Room.

The move was not taken very well by some of the members. A member went to the extent of saying “Cricket is a game where concentration is very important, and women are the greatest distraction a man can have around.” As Evening News reported, “there was some shaking of heads when members learned the ladies were allowed into the male-only pavilion.” When the ladies reached the dressing-room, however, they were in for a pleasant surprise: the room was decorated with red roses.

Peter Curtis, an MCC member present at the ground, later admitted that he had been praying for rain so that sacrilege did not happen. Unfortunately for Curtis, it turned out to be a bright day. As the hallowed strip basked in the glory of the rare English Sun Anne Gordon won the toss and elected to bat.

The English fielders took field. The Glasgow Herald wrote of their attire: “The tailored mini-skirts, short-sleeved shirts, knee-length socks — irresistibly ‘upper fifth’ in effect, so that the umpires in their douce, straight skirts below the knee, and the finger-tip length white coats are inevitably school mistresses.”

Hill, the Australian star from the previous match, edged one from June Stephenson and the ball landed in Shirley Hodges’ gloves. The exalted English team celebrated, and kept on taking wickets consistently till the tourists were reduced to 41 for 5. Gordon later admitted: “I think we were nervous; the occasion was too much.”

Heyhoe-Flint changed her bowlers around, and the fielding reached excellent standards. The women flung themselves on the ground to stop every ball — perhaps better than their contemporary male counterparts, referred to as Dads’ Army, thanks to their speed (or lack of it) and inflexibility).

Despite all that, Sharon Tendrea and the debutant Wendy Hills set up fort as the runs kept on coming in a slow trickle after Hodges had dropped Hills when she was two. It was a 60-over affair, so there was no real hurry. Tendrea, however, put her feet on the accelerator, and drove and cut the ball extremely hard.

She eventually added 71 with Hills; there was another collapse and Australia Women were suddenly reduced to 127 for 9 from 112 for 6. Marie Cornish (nee Lutschini) then added 34 with Wendy Blunsden for the last wicket before the former was run out by Glynis Hullah, and Australia Women were bowled out for 161.

In response, Enid Bakewell and Lynne Thomas put on 85 for the opening stand before the latter hit Patsy May to Karen Price at mid-off. Bakewell had earlier done a commendable job with the ball, picking up 2 for 30; she now scored a composed 50, almost sealing the match. England Women lost both openers in quick succession when Heyhoe-Flint walked out herself to join Chris Watmough.

No more wicket was lost as the pair guided England Women to an emphatic eight-wicket victory, squaring the series. It was fitting that the captain was at the crease when Watmough hit the winning runs that also brought up her fifty. As England Women got closer the news got out and more people started to pour in, cheering every run scored by the hosts.

ECB, however, paid little interest to the match. They did not even bother to feed information to the Post Office for transmission about any cricket, barring the Gillette Cup. “The WCA, they said in effect, have nothing to do with us, so we don’t know about them,” ran The Glasgow Herald.

What followed?

– England Women claimed the series by winning the third match at Trent Bridge by an even bigger margin of 9 wickets.
– The next women’s match at Lord’s, however, was not played till 1987.
– It was not until well into the new millennium that women could watch cricket from the Lord’s pavilion.

Brief scores:

Australia Women 161 in 59.4 overs (Sharon Tendrea 54) lost to England Women 162 for 2 in 56.2 overs (Chris Watmough 50*, Enid Bakewell 50) by 8 wickets.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)