Sue Mott examines the importance of Rachael Heyhoe Flint in the history of women’s sport in a tribute to the former England cricket captain who died yesterday, aged 77
Rachael Heyhoe Flint must have been a shock to the male system. How many cricket obsessives had their world turned upside by the discovery of a woman with such vast and irrepressible talent at the game. At first they declined to believe it. “Girls don’t play cricket,” said a police constable witheringly after scolding the young Rach and her brother for playing cricket in the street.
Old fossils probably said a lot worse in 1999 when she became one of the first women allowed to become members of the Marylebone Cricket Club, the traditional guardians of the game, where women had been successfully banned for 211 years. There was terrible disquiet that conversations about curtains, and other female accoutrements, would get in the way of a day’s play. Of course, she knew more about cricket than they did.
She played for England for more than twenty years and, although stripped of the captaincy in controversial circumstances nearly four decades ago, her achievements rank her up there with the best. Heyhoe: her name was suggestive of a jolly comic-book heroine who thwacked balls to the boundary and ran foul of starchy schoolmarms disapproving of her vivacious temperament and vivid talents. In her playing days, she was the women’s sport answer to Roy of the Rovers.
She was the first woman to step on to the hallowed Lord’s turf in a playing capacity. “Hallelujah,” she admitted she wanted to shout as the Pavilion gate opened to admit her.
She scored 30 centuries during a career remarkable for its cavalier exuberance. She played in goal for the England hockey team, she was the rollicking, action-packed figurehead for the Lady Taverners’ charity, vice president of Wolverhampton Wanderers, and was eventually elevated to the Lords as a Baroness. “How would you like to be addressed now,” she was asked at the time by BBC Radio 5 Live’s Peter Allen deferentially (which was rare for him). “Oh just call me Rach,” she said.
During her reign as England cricket captain, she did not lose a Test and led her team to victory against New Zealand for the first time in a decade. She scored a century in her first Test as captain and a century in her last Test as captain – out, symbolically, to the last ball of the match.
The first Test of 1966 was played in Scarborough and this being the year that the England football team (male) won the World Cup, scarcely anyone took any notice. “Women’s cricket received very little attention then,” said Heyhoe Flint – sorry, Rach – in an interview in 1996. “Len Hutton [one of the all-time greats – a Yorkshireman] said it was a bit like watching a man knit. That used to gripe me so much. I played in that first Test as captain with about three and a half people watching. I scored a century and rushed out very immodestly the next morning to buy all the Sunday papers and read about myself. But I couldn’t find anything except a little lower case result at the bottom of the ‘Bowls Column’ in the Sunday Telegraph. Perhaps they thought we were still bowling underarm. It was that lack of coverage that made me determined to try and promote the sport.”
She did the job so thoroughly that by 1976 there was a body of opinion, stiffly held and dressed in tweed skirts, that Heyhoe Flint was rather full of herself. She had, after all, been nicknamed ‘Lizzie’ as a child after the precocious Violet Elizabeth Bott of Just William fame. Her brother used to sort her out by sucking her plaits up the vacuum cleaner. The women who ran the England cricket team in those days had no such recourse, so they sacked her.
It was just after a bravura Test-saving innings at the Oval when she scored 179 against all odds and the Australians, batting for eight and half hours to create a drama of such high tension that her teammate and Yorkshire all-rounder Jan Stephenson grabbed an old brush in the lockers and was obsessively sweeping every nook and cranny to distract herself from the play. “In the end it was so clean, the girls were throwing down sweet papers and fag ends to give her something to do.”
Rach saved the match and came off the pitch to acclaim, a kiss from her husband Derrick and a glass of beer.
Afterwards, that innings was hailed a “masterpiece” by her hero, Colin Cowdrey. He wrote with fulsome praise in The Cricketer magazine: “Rachael Heyhoe Flint’s technique and concentration, adopting a role foreign to her temperament, had the look of Sir Leonard Hutton or Geoffrey Boycott at their best.”
Did Boycott ever mention this accolade to her? “No,” she said, “He mostly recounted – with many four-letter words surrounding it – the couple of times Dennis Amiss had run him out.”
They did, actually, put up curtains in the Long Room at Lord’s – but that is far from her only legacy. She was also a swashbuckling pioneer for all the generations of women cricketers who came after her and who now earn a living from the game.
There was no such blessing in her day. They had to cadge blouses from Marks & Spencer and raise funds by playing men’s teams round the country. They even had to pay for their blazers and hats, a double injustice since the hats were mortifying. “Luckily, we first went to Australia by boat. It took weeks, but at least it gave us amply opportunity to chuck the bloody things over the side.”
It’s as good as image as any to remember her by. Windswept woman on the upper deck, laughing and leading a revolution. That’s Rach.
Watch an interview with Rachael Heyhoe Flint here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles