The tireless champion of women's cricket liberation
There will be a women's World Cup final at Lord's this year thanks to Rachael Heyhoe-Flint. The sad thing is that she will not be there to see it.
It was Heyhoe-Flint who first devised the idea of a world tournament, back in 1971. She stayed with millionaire Jack Hayward at his Sussex home during a weekend of women's cricket at Eastbourne, and the two of them remained awake into the small hours, discussing how best to advance the cause of the women's game. At that stage still small-scale and entirely amateur, with international tours limited by the empty coffers of the associations who paid to stage them, it was a sport clearly in need of a boost.
Between them they dreamt up the scheme. Heyhoe-Flint somehow convinced Hayward that he should spend £40,000 on bringing the best players from all over the globe to England. Even men's cricket had not yet conceived of the idea. It was big, brash and bold: Rachael to a T.
Two years after that initial conversation, she hit a half-century in the final, at Edgbaston against Australia, and lifted the first ever World Cup trophy. It was, she said later, "a great bonus" for the women's game. For her personally, it was also the pinnacle of a career in which she captained England for a decade, and went undefeated in Tests for the whole of her reign.
She was in so many ways a pioneer, on and off the pitch. It was she who hit the first ever six in women's Test cricket, against Australia in 1963: a favourite stroke, which she famously described as "a hoick to leg", also fondly known as the Heyhoe Heave-Ho. In 1976 at The Oval she batted tirelessly for eight and a half hours across the third and fourth days of the last Test, saving England from sure defeat in the game and the series. For eight years prior to her final international appearance, in 1982, she juggled cricket with the demands of motherhood, returning to competitive cricket within two months of giving birth to her son Ben in the summer of 1974.
Interviewing many of her team-mates decades later, I had it confirmed to me that Heyhoe-Flint was a person who "got things done". Between 1970 and 1975, she raised over £4000 for the women's game (a staggering amount of money at that time), through fund-raising matches against men's teams: throughout the season, she would take an England Women's XI, made up of the top female cricketers in the country, to play against a men's club side, who would guarantee a certain amount of money in return. She was famously involved in the 1963 match against an Old England XI in which Len Hutton declared that "women playing cricket was like a man trying to knit". He evidently had never seen Heyhoe-Flint bat.
For those who never had the pleasure of meeting her, it would be hard to capture Heyhoe-Flint's personality in words. The first women's cricket celebrity, she was unique, wonderfully charismatic and humorous: forever telling those who asked (many did) that, no, women did not wear boxes when they batted, but coconut shells.
Her overwhelming force of personality and her ever-increasing profile were always used for the good of the women's game. Prior to England's 1968-69 tour of Australia and New Zealand, she personally negotiated the biggest sponsorship deal the women's game had ever seen, worth over £500, with Marks & Spencer, who agreed to supply the official tour uniforms. Herself a freelance journalist, on that 1968-69 tour she would dash off at the end of an exhausting day in the field to produce copy, which was sent home and published in the Daily Telegraph.
Perhaps the hallmark of Heyhoe-Flint's life was that she was never afraid to take the most important people on. She lost the England captaincy in controversial circumstances in the summer of 1977, having, in her own words, failed to "endear myself to the […] establishment of women's cricket". After Lord's refused to host the final of the 1973 World Cup, she stated publicly that she was toying with the idea of hauling them before the Equal Opportunities Commission.
This never came to pass: by August 1976, Heyhoe-Flint had become the first ever Englishwoman to captain a team at the ground. In fact, her head-on collision with the men's cricket establishment did not come until two decades later, when, in 1991, she applied for membership of the MCC - still a bastion of masculinity - sparking in the process a wider campaign to force the club to let women in.
The initial vote went overwhelmingly against her, but undeterred, she continued to press her case, gaining support from famous names including Tim Rice, Dennis Amiss and Brian Johnston. By the time the final vote took place, in September 1998, 70% of the members voted in favour, won by Heyhoe-Flint's straightforward argument, outlined to me in an interview years later: "I've played cricket all my life, I got to the top, and I just wanted to become a member of this club". Two decades on, the MCC is transformed. Even that in itself would be quite some legacy. Heyhoe-Flint's, though, are myriad.
It is perhaps ironic that someone who spent so much of her career on the wrong side of the establishment ended her days as a Conservative peer in the House of Lords, but Heyhoe-Flint was, after all, one of a kind. Going to interview her two summers ago for my PhD research, I was overwhelmed by her kindness: amidst a ridiculously busy schedule, she not only agreed to meet me, but took me for tea on the terrace at the House of Lords. It was obvious that she had remained a formidable personality, telling me her intentions to thoroughly scrutinise the government's attempts to push through this, that and the other. We barely scratched the surface of all I wanted to discuss; there was just so much to ask her.
She was vivacious and witty until the end. The last contact we had was just after Christmas, via email: I was writing a piece on her innings of 179 not out at The Oval in 1976, and she told me to "research if my name is up yet on the Honours Board for century makers. And if not, why not?!"
Why not, indeed.
Raf Nicholson is an England supporter, a feminist, and has recently completed a doctoral thesis on the history of women's cricket. @RafNicholson