With women’s cricket bigger than ever and still on the rise, a true legend of the women’s game spoke to AOC about the game then and now.
Rachael Heyhoe-Flint is a true heroine of cricket. She played for England Women from 1960 to 1982, and captained the side from 1966 to 1978 (unbeaten in six Test series), a stint which included leading her country to World Cup glory in 1973. She also hit the first six in women’s Test cricket (“a hoick to leg” in her opinion), was made an MBE in 1972, was one of the first 10 women admitted to the MCC in 1999, and then elected to its full committee in 2004. She has been president of the Lady Taverners since 2001, was made an OBE in 2008, and in October 2010 she became the first woman to be inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame. That same year, she took her place in the House of Lords as a working peer. She took some time out of her incredibly busy schedule to talk to us.
When you played Rachael, there were no contracts. How did you manage to get time off work?
It varied really, I was very lucky that I taught PE initially, in the borough of Wolverhampton where my father was director of PE and he decreed that anyone who represented their country, at whatever level, would automatically get leave of absence with salaries! 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.
You were a spokesperson for women’s cricket, but was it difficult to make your voice heard at that time?
I very quickly moved from teaching PE to journalism, dealing a lot with sport. I quickly realised that if we wanted to get sponsorship, and we had nil in those days, we needed to market ourselves. I got permission from the Daily Telegraph that I could provide them with a match report at the end of the day. With no mobiles or laptops it involved four calls to London, dictating every word. So after a day’s play in Australia or New Zealand, I wouldn’t just go back to the hotel, I would grab the scorebook from the scorers, take it to the hotel and compose the story. That was my way of getting our voice heard I guess!
That sounds exhausting, were you captaining the side at this time?
Yes I was, but I just took it on. I resented the fact that people didn’t know about us. And we’d hardly lost any Test matches or ODIs, which were just coming in at the end of my England career. I just thought that we were never going to progress unless we got some sponsorship. As a result of sending stuff over, in 1970 we suddenly received an invitation from Jamaica; would we like to go play some matches over there? I wrote a letter to Jack Hayward, later chairman of Wolverhampton Wanderers, and I got a call from him two weeks later saying “I’ve just been reading about you in the Daily Telegraph”. The journalism had paid off and Jack sponsored us for five years, setting up the first ever Women’s World Cup in 1973, and paid for it entirely. When asked why did you sponsor them, he answered: “Well I love cricket and I love women”.
The tournament itself, how was it greeted by the general public?
It was very low key, obviously. But we did beat the men by two years! Their first World Cup was 1975. In ours, England beat Australia in the final at Edgbaston, and it was covered widely on TV; it’s what you get for working at the publicity. You work at it, and you make sure you gather media people as your friends.
You were one of the first women to be admitted to the MCC, what was the attitude of the establishment at the time to that?
If you set your mind to something, you will succeed, and that is how I felt about the MCC. It took nine years, but we were eventually admitted after three AGMs and one special meeting. There was a lot of opposition to begin with but I had people behind it like Tim Rice, Jack Hayward, Richie Benaud, Colin Cowdrey and so on.
Do you think it was a general change in attitude?
Yeah, that’s right, I don’t think I’ve done anything too odd since! I’m an honorary life member, and a trustee. So I’ve hopefully not put my foot in my mouth too many times along the way! I wanted to join the greatest cricket club in the world because I adore cricket, and it was worthwhile taking on the project.
And on the field, England Women have done brilliantly over the last year or two, it must make you proud; do you feel it’s something you started?
I’m not sure about legacy! It comes back to the ECB taking them under their wing. It’s so important to have the sport run professionally. It was just what was needed, all the expertise of the coaching structure, the travelling logistics, the marketing, the sponsorship, it’s all run by the ECB. Hopefully we can retain our position as the top team in the world for as long as possible. It’s thrilling and makes me very proud, but I think that I’m from too long ago to think that it has come directly from me! But I still get people come up and ask me: Are you still playing cricket?’ I’m 73! I say don’t be daft. I can just about bend down and pick the ball up, I certainly can’t remember what to do with it then!