Of all obituaries, this will be one of the hardest to write, for seldom has a person influenced cricket to the extent Rachael Heyhoe-Flint had done. She was not merely an outstanding cricketer or captain. She was not merely the person who revolutionised women’s cricket, either. She was women’s cricket. No, cricket has almost never been influenced to the same extent by anyone else.
To understand Rachael Heyhoe (she married Worcestershire off-spinner Derrick Flint) you need to go back to the 1970s, when women’s cricket was on the verge of dying out in England. Nobody cared, not even MCC. And since most of the action took place in England, the decline meant a decay of the sport at global level.
Of course, Sir “Union Jack” Hayward was the person to come up with the idea. Hayward, benefactor of Wolverhampton Wanderers, was on excellent terms with Rachael. Pressed by Rachael, Hayward had earlier funded two women’s tours, to West Indies in 1969-70 and 1970-71. Now he came up with something bigger.
In 1971, Hayward suggested the idea of a Women’s World Cup to Women’s Cricket Association (WCA) President Sylvia Swinburne. He also promised £40,000 towards the cause. Prudential came forward as well, with £100,000.
These were the first ever Women’s ODIs.
This was Rachael’s chance. She worked relentlessly, leaving no stone unturned to make the tournament happen. The tournament was even telecast on television. England Women won the tournament with “four housewives, nine teachers, and one secretary.”
Of course, Rachael led England Women in the tournament. She had earned the mantle in all possible ways. In the final match (it was played in round-robin league format, without a final), she bowled last over. The match was already sealed (Australia Women lost by 92 runs), but Rachael, always an entertainer, she placed every single fielder — wicketkeeper included — on the fence.
Rachael finished the tournament with 257 runs at 85.67, a mere 7 behind her vice-captain Enid Bakewell, the top name on the chart.
But Rachael led from the front in more ways than one. She was aware of the fact that several of her teammates had put their jobs at stake by participating while she was given a paid leave herself. So she took it on herself to lift the morale up.
She marshalled the troops efficiently on field. Press coverage was not excellent, so she had to file reports for The Telegraph. The obligatory phone call to home came next. Then she showered, changed, and played the ukulele to entertain the team.
“She could make things happen — both on and off the field. She made you believe you could do anything she asked you to do,” Enid later told.
That was in 1973. The men’s version took off only two years after that.
Yes, Rachael Heyhoe-Flint was a pioneer.
But another battle, almost as big as the previous one, had to be won: the girls needed to play at Lord’s. It was harder than it seems today, for MCC were known for their blatant sexism.
But Rachael was not one to take ‘no’ for an answer. She appealed to Equal Opportunities Commission. MCC finally gave in after England Women won the World Cup, though the Test took three years to materialise.
As if to gear up for the occasion, Rachael dominated the Test series in emphatic fashion, with 110 at Old Trafford, 49 at Edgbaston, and 179 at The Oval.
The second ODI was scheduled at Lord’s. How did MCC react to this?
There was “some resentment from the elder gentlemen”, reported Daily Mail.
“There was some shaking of heads when members learned the ladies were allowed into the male-only pavilion,” reported Evening News.
Some of the members came out with rather strong comments:
“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.”
“I was praying for rain. I couldn’t believe this would happen in my lifetime.”
However, the match went on without much fuss. The facilities were the same, but MCC had arranged for something special: red roses awaited the ladies in the dressing-rooms.
England Women won the match, but that was hardly relevant.
Cruelly, Rachael, still England captain, was left out of the squad for the 1978 World Cup. The team was decided “with youth in mind for the future,” was the reason. True, Rachael was 39, but there were several members on the squad on the wrong side of thirty.
Rachael was recalled for the West Indies series of 1979. Playing under Susan Goatman, Rachael scored 162 runs at 40.50.
She never played again. She ended her 22-Test career without ever being on the losing side.
Then she was recalled out of nowhere for the 1982 World Cup by the same board that had adopted a youth policy four years ago. Even at 43 she was in outstanding form, getting 276 runs at 48, but England lost the final — and Rachael never played again.
But Rachael did not stop there. She made sure ten women (including Rachael herself) were made MCC members, in 1999. She was the first woman to be granted admission to MCC.
Five years later she became the first woman to be elected to the MCC full committee.
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