Rachael Heyhoe-Flint 1939-2017 January 19, 2017

The tireless champion of women's cricket liberation

Rachael Heyhoe-Flint was a larger-than-life personality who was never afraid to take on cricket's male establishment

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Women's pioneer Heyhoe-Flint dies aged 77

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.

Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, with the former England captain Charlotte Edwards alongside her © Getty Images

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.

Heyhoe-Flint and Shelly Nitschke at the ICC Awards © Getty Images

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Aslam on January 21, 2017, 14:50 GMT

    Sad to read about the passing of Ms Heyhoe- Flint. Excellent piece by Raf Nicholson and she has so ably captured the spirit and character of Ms Heyhoe-Flint, I bought a book written by John Scally; 'Great Sporting Wisdom', published 1996 where an extraordinary collection of quotes and gaffs made by sporting legends appear.Her wit was equally wise and sharp. Let me share a few of Ms H-Flints:"Professional coaching is a man trying to get you to keep your legs together when other men have spent a lifetime trying to get them wide apart." "A cricket umpire should be above all suspicion of bias, and free from all odours of the tavern." "If the crowd throw bottles at us, we'll hurl 'em straight back - unless they are full, of course." RIP. The ICC should name a trophy in her honour when presenting the annual awards for women.(If there isn't already one) Aslam Khota-Jo'burg, South Africa

  • Ashok on January 20, 2017, 14:44 GMT

    Great write up on arguably one of best women Cricketers ever! I followed Rachael from her early career & admired her batting prowess including her Heyhoe-heave Ho Six. I have even named my daughter after her!. She set an example to one & all that sports field is not controlled by the "Establishment" but by a democratic process. As it always happens changes are brought about by revolutionaries in any field. Mahatma Gandhi spread the message of Non-violent boycott which was practiced by Dr. King in the USA & Mr. Mandela in SA to bring freedom from injustice to their Nations. Similarly Rachael fought for Women's rights & won it after a long struggle. Today MCC is open to female Cricketers + Lords can be a venue for female Cricket matches. Sadly Rachael will not be here to see her dream become a reality but she will watch it from heavens. Rachael- a great Cricketing lady who fought for a cause & WON- three cheers. By the way congrats. on your Ph.D. in Cricket History. Well Done!

  • nachiketajoshi on January 20, 2017, 13:02 GMT

    Indeed, why not her name on that Lord's board? Kudos to this pioneer and her awesome skills as a cricketer. Thanks for writing this article! And love that delightful last name of hers.

  • Andre on January 20, 2017, 7:43 GMT

    "It is not a sad day for woman's cricket. It is a sad day for cricket." That phrase encompasses her legacy completely.

  • Steve on January 19, 2017, 19:29 GMT

    Don't know anything about Heyhoe-Flint, but after reading about her, her contribution to women's cricket becomes apparent. The game is not what it is today, but for these great souls who did lot of work without regard for money or fame. May her soul RIP. I hope Cricinfo will publish the life works of her contemporaries who also did their part, so women's cricket support may appreciate their contributions.

  • Trimzi Syed on January 19, 2017, 17:25 GMT

    this shows that cricket was such a conservative sport. Its because of these stubbornness on the part of administrators that cricket couldn't become a global sport. The next world cup would be two step backwards as only ten teams will play.

  • Paul on January 18, 2017, 23:45 GMT

    Her legacy is such that if you asked people in this country to name a female cricketer, RHF would still be at the top of the list.

  • rgould7336881 on January 18, 2017, 22:11 GMT

    Hi Raf. Yes, Rachael is on the Board at The Kia Oval. What a lady. Richard Gould.