Rachael Heyhoe-Flint in the commentary box at Wembley, in 1973. She is the first female television sports commentator    Getty Images
Rachael Heyhoe-Flint in the commentary box at Wembley, in 1973. She was the first known female television sports commentator Getty Images

Former England captain Rachael Heyhoe-Flint was born June 11, 1939. An exceptional cricketer in her prime, Heyhoe-Flint went down to become the driving force behind the inaugural Women’s World Cup, and played a pivotal role in helping women’s cricket evolve. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the person who revolutionised women s cricket.

Sometime in the 1940s, there was a group of boys playing cricket somewhere on a street in Wolverhampton. There was a girl among them, matching the boys with the bat, and often rolling her arm over.

Now, unlike in several South Asian countries, street cricket is not legal in England. So, when a policeman saw the incident, he hurried to the spot and noted down the names of the miscreants one by one. He did not bother the girl, though.

Inquisitive, the girl asked the reason.

“Girls don t play cricket”, came the curt response.

The derogatory comment ignited a spark somewhere: apart from being a champion cricketer, Rachael Heyhoe (who later became Heyhoe-Flint after marrying the Warwickshire leg-spinner Derrick Flint) went on to become the face of English women s cricket for the decades to come.

The achievements

Let us do some number-crunching first.

– Rachael scored 1,594 runs at 45.54 from 22 Tests with 3 hundreds. She held the record for most runs when she retired). Her fellow countrywoman Janette Brittin is the only one to have scored more Test runs.

– Rachael’s 179 was once the second-highest score in Test cricket, next to only Betty Snowball s 189. She has also played the second-most number of Tests (after Janette s 27), and also holds the record for the second-most number of fifty-plus scores (13) after Janette s 16.

– Of the 15 occasions when a captain has scored 200 runs or more in a series, Rachael has featured in 4. She had also scored over 350 runs in a series as captain twice (356 against New Zealand in 1966 at 71.20 and 350 against Australia in 1976 at 87.50, both involving three Tests); the only other person to have scored over 350 runs in a series was Shanta Rangaswamy, but her 381 came from 6 Tests at 42.33.

– Rachael had also scored 643 ODI runs from 23 matches at 58.45, remaining not out on 9 out of the 20 times she had batted. Her average is the highest in history with a 20-innings cut-off.

– She was arguably the first great captain of Women s cricket: not only did she win the first World Cup for England in 1973 a tournament that was organised two years before the inaugural men s World Cup, but she also led the English side from 1966 to 1978 remaining unbeaten for all four series and never losing a Test in the 12 Tests she has led (she also holds the record for leading England in most Tests and is next to only Trish McKelvey, who has led New Zealand in 14 Tests).

– Oh, and then there are the facts that she has represented England in hockey as a goalkeeper in 1964 and was Director of Wolverhampton Wanderers since 1997.

Despite all her achievements it is her contribution towards the development of women s cricket that Rachael is remembered for. When she grew up in the 1940s and 1950s women s cricket was typically scorned at by their male counterparts. The very fact that women s cricket is recognised at the highest level has a lot to do with Rachael s untiring efforts. She had helped break many a barrier, and gave women s cricket the support it needed at the right moments.

Early days and captain of England

Rachael made her Test debut at Port Elizabeth against South Africa in 1959-60 scoring 14 and 17 on debut. He scored 51 in the second Test at Johannesburg. Three years later, against Australia at The Oval, she scored 36 and 37* in a Test that England won, and hit the first six in women s cricket (a stroke which she refers to as ‘a hoick to leg ).

She was appointed the captain of England in 1966 in only her eighth Test for the home series against New Zealand. She began her career as a captain brilliantly at Scarborough, top-scoring with a brilliant 113 her maiden Test hundred in the first innings. She followed it up with a 59 not out in the second innings. She batted brilliantly in that series, and finished with 356 runs at 71.20.

She successfully defended the ‘Ashes (England had won it in 1963) in Australia in 1968-69, leading from the front with 269 runs at 44.83, and then shone on the New Zealand tour with 234 runs at 46.80.

World Cup, 1973

In the early 1970s, though, women s cricket in England was generally on the wane mostly due to lack of interest, and lack of cooperation from MCC. The lack of participation in England led to a general disinterest on the global scenario as well.

Sir Jack Hayward (affectionately called The Union Jack for his love for anything English), the illustrious benefactor of the Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club and a local acquaintance of the English captain, came up with an idea that would go on to revolutionise the sport of cricket forever.

With virtually no official funding, Hayward had earlier funded two women s tours to West Indies in 1969-70 and 1970-71 on Rachael s requests, and was genuinely impressed by the performances. Hayward then proposed the idea of the inaugural Women s World Cup to Sylvia Swinburne in 1971, the President of WCA (Women s Cricket Association). He also contributed 40,000 towards the tournament.

Rachael later said “people like Jack Hayward don t grow on trees”. She worked tirelessly towards organising the tournament successfully. She was awarded an MBE for services to women s cricket in 1972.

When asked why he made the unlikely contribution, Hayward replied “It’s quite simple. I love women, and I love cricket and what could be better than to have the two rolled together?”

With Prudential also contributing 100,000, the tournament got undergoing in England. It was also telecast widely on television. There were seven countries, and the tournament was to be played in a round-robin format without a final. Other than the main countries, the tournament also had a Young England side and an International XI (which was basically Rest of the World), which had to withdraw the South African cricketers due to the vehement protest of the West Indians.

The England squad, as per the media, constituted of ‘four housewives, nine teachers, and one secretary . Rachael herself was a teacher of PE in the borough of Wolverhampton. She was also a part-time journalist for The Telegraph. Though she got a paid leave, some others weren t as fortunate. In Rachael’s own words, “There were instances of girls who actually taught PE who were given the option of either going on tour, or losing their job. There were of course enormous sacrifices.”

Rachael Heyhoe-Flint batting against International XI in Women's World Cup 1973    Getty Images
Rachael Heyhoe-Flint batting against International XI in Women’s World Cup 1973 Getty Images

England played in what was the second ever Women’s ODI. They defeated International XI at Hove and Jamaica at Bradford easily, but lost out in a rain-affected match against New Zealand at Exmouth. Rachael, who had a quiet tournament till then, finally found form with a dominant 114 against Young England at Ilford before England blew apart Trinidad and Tobago at their captain s home ground in Wolverhampton.

In the last match of the tournament at Edgbaston, England won the match by 92 runs and clinched the title, thanks to a 118 by Enid Bakewell and a 64 from Rachael. She bowled the last over herself, and recollected later: “I paced out my run, turned to bowl and found that every one of my England team had placed themselves at least 70 yards out on the boundary edge including wicketkeeper Shirley Hodges!”

Bakewell, the star of the final and the vice-captain, later said about her captain: “Rachael is a real character. She was always busy. ‘It s not the cricket that wears you out, it s entertaining the troops , Rachael used to say. She d come in at the end of the game, report to The Telegraph, ring home, have a shower and change; then she d get her ukulele out and entertain us in the evening. She could make things happen both on and off the field. She made you believe you could do anything she asked you to do.”

Princess Anne, who had turned up on behalf of The Royal Family of England, handed the trophy. With her reason always dominating her emotions, Rachael commented later: “I rather thought she was being rather gracious and diplomatic”.

The victorious team was invited to 10 Downing Street by Edward Heath, the British Prime Minister. Megan Lear, a member of the side, recalled “A known keen sailor, Heyhoe-Flint produced much laughter when she presented Heath with a cricket bat signed by all the players and said he might find it useful as a paddle if there was no wind when he was sailing.”

Taking a leaf out of the women s book, the Men s World Cup started two years later.

The 1976 Australians and the Lord s match

Once the World Cup had been organised, efforts were made to arrange a Women s Test at Lord s: the headquarters of cricket had always maintained a snobbish attitude towards women, and it took a threat from Rachael to bring the case in front of the Equal Opportunities Commission that made MCC give in.

After England won the World Cup, the MCC President Aidan Crawley finally told Rachael and her team “you have done enough to deserve a game at cricket s headquarters [Lord s]”.

Things did not materialise for another three years, though till Australia toured England in 1976. Rachael batted brilliantly in the Tests: she scored 110 at Old Trafford as Australia hung on to a draw; followed it up with 49 at Edgbaston; and then, with England trailing by 255 in the last Test at The Oval, she came in at 66 for two and batted for 521 minutes, scoring 179 (the next-highest was 39) and saving the Test. She finished the series with 350 runs at 87.50.

Australia won the first Women’s ODI at Canterbury before the teams headed for the second ODI at Lord s. Some of the members had still not accepted the decision: There was “some resentment from the elder gentlemen”, said Daily Mail; Evening News reported “there was some shaking of heads when members learned the ladies were allowed into the male-only pavilion.”

Some of the members had really strong opinions. One of them, named Brian Wijerane, complained: “I was quite shocked when I saw the women playing. Cricket is a game where concentration is very important and women are the greatest distraction a man can have around.”

Another, Peter Curtis, recollected: “I was praying for rain. I couldn’t believe this would happen in my lifetime.” Unfortunately for Curtis, it did not happen. Aug 4, 1976 was a bright sunny day.

Most restrictions were still there, though: other than the players no woman was still allowed in the pavilion. The cricketers, though, had been granted the use of the changing-rooms and The Long Room. The facilities in the dressing-room were the same as that for the men the only exception being the presence of red roses.

The Australians were shot out for 161, and after two quick wickets fell, Rachael walked out herself to join Chris Watmough with the score on 92 for two. She had dropped herself down the batting-order because she wanted to lead her team off the ground on the momentous occasion. The runs were achieved in due time without any further loss of wicket. England clinched the series with an emphatic nine-wicket victory at Trent Bridge.

Final days as a player

India had agreed to host the next World Cup in 1978. Surprisingly, Rachael, still English captain, in sublime form, and the mastermind behind the entire scenario, was dropped from the squad which was created “with youth in mind for the future”. She was 39 then. Seven members of the squad were in their 30s.

Furious at the treatment dished out to Rachael, Hayward withdrew his sponsorship for the India tour. With one wrong move English women s cricket lost their captain, ace batswoman, most popular face, and biggest sponsor, ruining all that had been built over a long period of time.

Fortunately, sanity was restored in the home series against West Indies in 1979 under Susan Goatman s leadership. Playing in her last series, Rachael scored 162 runs at 40.50, and England won the series 2-0. She ended her 22-Test career without losing a single match.

She earned a late recall, though, at the age of 43 (so much for the youth The Board had in mind for the future) for the World Cup in New Zealand. She batted well in general, scoring 276 runs at 47.83, but after England had been restricted to 151 for five in the Final (Rachael scored 29), Australia won the match by three wickets. It was Rachael s final international match.

Later years

Rachael had a brief stint as the England manager, but was once again replaced by the Board in a fashion she was sacked as the captain in 1978. After years of her campaigning, 10 women (she being one of them herself) were allowed as the members of MCC in 1999.

Fittingly, Rachael was one of the first women to be granted admission to MCC, and later, in 2004, she became the first woman to be elected to the MCC full committee after winning an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bradford in 2002. She was awarded an OBE in 2008 for her services to cricket (as opposed to her MBE, which was for her services to women s cricket).

England's Katherine Brunt (right) is presented with the Player of the Match medal and Champagne by Rachael HeyHoe-Flint OBE and ECB Board member during the 1st Women's NatWest One Day International match between England and New Zealand at the County Ground on July 10, 2010 in Taunton    Getty Images
Rachael Heyhoe-Flint (left) presenting Player of the Match medal and champagne to Katherine Brunt, 2010 Getty Images

Rachael was appointed to The House of Lords in 2010 as a Conservative Party peer. She responded with the words “I will certainly look forward to the commute from one Lord s to another Lords.”

In 2010 Rachael was the first woman to be inducted into ICC s Hall of Fame (the other inductees were Ken Barrington, Joel Garner, and Courtney Walsh).

She passed away on January 18, 2017.

(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)