From a piece originally published in The Nightwatchman in the summer of 2014, Tanya Aldred tries to keep up with Rachael Heyhoe Flint.
Rachael Heyhoe Flint, 74, stands like a sportswoman, quite boxy, feet a couple of brick lengths apart, as if at any moment she might pull up her sleeves and start dismantling the roof.
We’re walking a semi-circle round Lord’s in its March spring-cleaning phase, past vats of washing-up liquid by the Tavern, to the avocado drainpipes of the Pavilion and in through its great green door. Heyhoe Flint knows the doorman, chats to the doorman, flirts with the doorman, as she will with everyone she meets in the next four hours.
She finds us a table in the yawning Long Room, with its lime-grey walls and magnificent chandeliers, and hasn’t been talking for long before a couple of young Indian men peel off from the back of a guided tour and beg for a photo on their smart phones, taking turns to pose with her, the Media Centre in the background. She is utterly thrilled and utterly charming “Really?! Oh yes, of course…” She hops up.
Does this happen often?
“Sometimes I’m on a train and people say, ‘It is, isn’t it?’ And I think, well, it used to be… I can still bend down and pick the ball up but I can’t remember what to do with it.”
Heyhoe Flint is a tiny person, not much over five foot in her sensible court shoes and frothy Princess Diana collar, but what a force of nature. Cricket has been the consuming love of her life – though she’s squeezed in a full picnic’s worth of extras – and over the years no woman has been more associated with Lord’s. Not so much for her magnificent playing career – though she captained England for 10 successful years from 1966 and finished with a Test average of over 45 – but for her pioneering work off the field.
She lobbied and won for England’s women a first match at Lord’s in 1976, and later, famously, spearheaded a nine-year campaign to persuade MCC to allow women to become members of their club. When that happened, she was first made an honorary member, then elected to the full MCC committee – the first woman of course – and subsequently served on various other committees and became a trustee. She is also on the board of the ECB and there have long been whispers that she will one day be MCC president, though she missed out again this year.
It is difficult to imagine quite how much of a hoo-ha women playing at Lord’s caused in the 1970s. Women were still 23 years away from being admitted as MCC members and single females were not allowed unaccompanied into the Warner or Tavern stands. The long-awaited one-day international against Australia was only scheduled to happen at the ground if Middlesex failed to make it to the Gillette Cup quarter-final, which they duly did. On August 4, a beautiful day, the England and Australia teams arrived in NW8. “I had never been more nervous,” Heyhoe Flint says. “There was a huge media interest, and seven and half thousand spectators, and I just didn’t want anything to go wrong, having spent years in effect trying to market women’s cricket.
“I won the toss and nobody had actually told me whether we could walk through the Long Room out on to the pitch, and when I came down the stairs with the England team behind me I thought, ‘Oh my god, do I go through or not?’ So I led the team instead out of that side door, and along the back before going on the pitch. Apparently everyone was inside waiting for us.” England won the game and the Pavilion walls didn’t fall – though the team are still waiting to play a Test at Lord’s.
Heyhoe Flint was long retired when, in 1998, the next great male bastion fell. She and her supporters administered a lot of “smooth palm and smooth talk” to get MCC to admit women, although 4,072 men still voted against the motion (and 9,394 in favour).
“I’m not a feminist,” she says, “but I just thought, ‘I want to be a member.’ Cricket is my life and always had been and it was that which drove me. I always walk through the Long Room on match days on principle, even if I’m sitting in one of the hospitality boxes. I consider it the greatest cricket club in the world and I’m just very glad to be part of it.”
As England captain she had waged a constant campaign to promote the game, bashing away at her typewriter, “without an erasing facility, I was always there with the Tipp-Ex,” trying to get free stuff for her amateur players. “Oh, what about someone letting us have free suitcases? Clothes? Marks and Spencer were excellent to us, they gave us new walking-out outfits. Some of the girls had to give up work to tour and I wanted us to look like a team. I wanted to market women’s cricket as a product and for people to know about it.”
In 1970, she wrote to Jack Hayward, Wolverhampton-born like her, and a wealthy philanthropist, asking if he could sponsor the England women’s trip to the West Indies. “He rang me up and said, ‘I’ve got your letter, I’ll become your patron. I love women and I love cricket and I’ve been reading all about your exploits in Australia and New Zealand in the Daily Telegraph.’ And that was me! A special correspondent! I couldn’t have a by-line as I was writing about myself.” The two became firm friends and, over an evening of brandy, cooked up the first cricket World Cup together, which took place in England in 1973 – a competition the men copied two years later.
There has sometimes been criticism of Heyhoe Flint from those who accuse her of self-promotion. But from here she seems a kind, irrepressible, pull-yourself-up-with-bootstraps barnstormer who likes people, very much. She’s not without a smidgen of vanity but, heck, why should she be?
She admits to deciding to field when she won the toss in 1976 at Lord’s because she wanted to be the first female captain on the pitch, and to jiggling the batting order so she was last off the pitch as well. She drops the odd name, sitting in the committee room and explaining a DRS decision to the Queen was “a great thrill”, and wants to show me her portrait, commissioned by MCC – the first of a woman cricketer – which had been hanging in the Pavilion library.
The portrait (2010), by James Lloyd, has moved, though not far. I later discover it in the Museum where it is in storage as part of a major rehang for the bicentenary. It is in oils, and if it doesn’t quite capture the collie-like vitality, there is a brightness about the eyes and a life-well-lived look about the face, which is right. A gateman later tells me, “She’s not 21 any more but she’s a good-looking woman. It doesn’t do her any favours.” It is no surprise to hear that Heyhoe Flint had some difficulty being still for the sittings, gobbling bags of boiled sweets to try to sooth her agitation.
Our hour passes and she is soon busying off again, to the Nursery End, to another meeting, this time of the England and Wales Cricket Trust, the body that gives out money to grassroots cricket. Then a cab arrives. We’re off to the other Lords, the House, where she has been a regular since being appointed the Baroness Heyhoe Flint of Wolverhampton, in 2010.
As the taxi glides towards Whitehall, past St James’s Park and the riotous daffodils, she talks about Margaret Thatcher – her great heroine, if not much of a bowler.
“I was very proud to be at her funeral. Her PA was a lovely lady called Cynthia Crawford, who is a member of Worcestershire, and I often got the chance to go and see Margaret Thatcher and have a cup of tea. And when I was president of the Lady Taverners – what they refer to as the paramilitary division of the Lord’s Taverners – I could choose my own speaker, and she came. A wonderful woman.”
Heyhoe Flint travels down from the Midlands to the House of Lords, where she sits as a Conservative peer, two or three times a week. And it turns out, to no great surprise, that she seems to know almost everybody there – by their affiliation to football, rugby league or county cricket club.
“It is a great place to be in and people stop me every day to ask me the latest score,” she says, as she hangs her smart jacket with cricket-badge brooch in the peers’ cloakroom, where the pegs are marked with name-tags.
“The House of Lords is what you make of it. You could just turn up and not contribute but I like to be involved.
“Six international cricketers have been admitted to the House of Lords – Lord Hawke, Lord Harris, Lord Constantine, Lord Sheppard and Colin Cowdrey – and I have the highest batting average. I beat Colin Cowdrey by about 0.25 [actually, 1.48] in Test Cricket. Baroness Massey referred to it immediately after my maiden speech. How immodest am I!”
With a twinkle, she gives a quick tour – the Royal Gallery, the Robing Room, the Chamber. She has an enthusiasm for the tiny things, for the ornateness of the carpet, for the statues, for the mad little staircases and hidden doors.
Down in the River Restaurant, a humble canteen with a magnificent view, she entertains the staff, who that afternoon are entirely non-white Londoners – not a ratio you see reflected up on the floor of the House. After a chat about the hopelessness of the winter Ashes tour with the man sorting the cutlery, she buys a tea for me and a and special-edition dark KitKat for herself, which she snaps into line before the division bell goes and she is called in to vote on the Defence Reform Bill.
Sport has been her life. Both her parents were PE teachers – her father played amateur soccer for Denmark and her mother taught keep fit in the local college in the evenings while little Rachael kicked her heels from the vaulting horse. She played cricket with her brother Nicholas in the garden and then went on to train as a PE teacher herself. The double-barrelled surname came when she married Warwickshire leg-spinner Derrick Flint in 1971.
She has been a journalist, an England hockey player, the first woman sports commentator on TV, and has done PR for Wolverhampton Wanderers – her other sporting passion, where she was also on the board for seven years. She is now vice-president of the club, and still she campaigns.
“We have a women’s sport group [in Parliament] and at meetings we’re talking about the same thing that I was talking about in my day: media exposure, the percentage of space afforded to women’s sport in general, the spend in sponsorship terms. But it is improving and I’m thrilled by that. The ECB is so supportive of women’s cricket in general, it is wonderful that the girls can make a career out of it now.”
But life is changing. Derrick’s deteriorating health has meant she has had to cut back. She no longer serves on any MCC committees; the speaking circuit has faded away, as has the journalism; she hardly plays golf anymore.
“He is in his senior years,” she says, “has chronic arthritis and it is not possible to have the operations to replace the knees and the shoulder. He is just slowing down generally – which must be very frustrating for him with me rushing round like a whirlwind all the time. I just feel I need to be at home more. The wedding service words are in sickness and in health. Well, we’ve done the healthy bit and now we are dealing with the other part of the bargain.”
They go down to Spain a couple of times a year to the La Manga club, where they have a bungalow which looks over the first tee, and sit together and watch the golfers.
And then she’s back in the car, or the train, whizzing down to the House in her tracksuit bottoms, or to Lord’s, to the cricket. Always the cricket.