Rachael Heyhoe Flint was a trailblazing sporting pioneer in cricket in an era when women were still viewed by some as second-class citizens. Unperturbed by the numerous knock-backs she encountered, she was prepared to take on the establishment, on and off the field, rand was ultimately victorious.
Described by one commentator as “the WG Grace of women’s cricket,” she enjoyed a sporting career that stretched over two decades and set countless firsts; she captained the England side for 12 years from 1966, leading them to victory at the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1973; she once scored a record 179 runs against Australia to save England; she never lost a one-day international as captain and went on to become the first global superstar in the women’s game, a tribute to her flair for publicity, given that coverage of women’s cricket was but a footnote in the mainstream media.
Off the pitch, after almost a decade of campaigning, in 1999 she became one of the Marylebone Cricket Club’s (MCC) first women members, breaching the 212-year old men only club; in 2004 she was the first woman to serve on the committee of the MCC, and also served on the England and Wales Cricket Board; in 2010 she became the first woman to be inducted into the ICC’s Cricket Hall of Fame.
Born in Wolverhampton in 1939, Rachael Heyhoe was the daughter of Geoffrey, a sports lecturer, and Roma, a housewife. The couple had met in Copenhagen at a PE college and were passionate about sport, something that rubbed off on their children.
A tomboy, Rachael played cricket with her brother, Nicholas, but he said, “Oh, girls aren’t allowed to bat.” When she finally was, aged ten, her competitive streak came out and she “scored 723 not out in back-garden cricket. Four runs to the house, six for the roof, 12 over the roof and into the street… they couldn’t get me out.”
With success in the 11-plus, Rachael attended Wolverhampton Girls’ High School where she excelled at hockey, netball and rounders. Her interest in cricket was sparked with a school trip to Edgbaston to watch the New Zealand women’s team in 1954. She showed a natural aptitude as a batsman and a school team was quickly formed. In the sixth form, she scored her first century and in the same match took six wickets for seven runs; she soon progressed to the Staffordshire County XI and also represented the county at hockey, later earning two England international caps.
She became a PE teacher at Wolverhampton municipal grammar school, but took leave when she was selected for England’s cricket tour of South Africa in the winter of 1960-61; she scored her first 50 in the second Test in Johannesburg.
With no regular women’s international fixtures, England did not play again until the visit of Australia and New Zealand in 1963. At the Oval, Heyhoe became the first woman to hit a Test six. By the end of that summer, she had scored her first century. She was appointed captain in 1966.
Shortly after, Heyhoe Flint switched careers to journalism, working initially on the Wolverhampton Express and Star before becoming sports editor of the Chronicle; she covered Wolves’ home matches despite being denied entry to the press box. In 1967 she began a 23-year association with the Daily Telegraph, sometimes covering her own matches under a nom de plume.
Players had to raise funds to play county cricket and especially to go on tour with England. With her energy and enthusiasm she raised the money necessary, through after-dinner speaking and her writing, to lead England on their 1968-69 tour of Australia and New Zealand.
During her fundraising Heyhoe met Sir Jack Hayward, a businessman. This friendship became useful in 1970. Asked to lead the England team in Jamaica, the Women’s Cricket Association (WCA) vetoed the trip due to costs. Hayward, who was based in the Bahamas, agreed to fund the tour.
In 1971, Heyhoe Flint was staying with Hayward and his wife in Sussex and “after supper we started having a little slurp of brandy, and as the level went down the bottle, Jack suddenly said, ‘Why don’t we have a world cup of women’s cricket?’ – and he said he would pay for it.” With his cheque book and her organisational skills, she put together the first women’s cricket World Cup in 1973, however, some original thinking was required to get the number of teams up to seven. England emerged as victorious, with Heyhoe Flint scoring 64 of England’s 279 for 3 in the final at Edgbaston, beating Australia by 92 runs.
With her newfound celebrity, jealousy and resentment were not far behind and in 1977 she was stripped of the captaincy by the WCA and dropped from the world cup team. Although downhearted, she continued to play at county level and was eventually recalled to the Test team against the West Indies in 1979. She played until the 1982 World Cup before retiring aged 42.
Then, with the same gusto with which she played, Heyhoe Flint set about the daunting task of persuading the MCC to admit women as members, not just kitchen staff, in a nine-year process. “It was no use going in with a strident attitude saying, ‘I’m a woman, I demand the right that after 204 years you have a woman member’,” she said.
Despite a number of failed applications, she continued with her charm offensive Finally, in 1998, 70 per cent of members voted in favour of women members.
She was awarded the MBE in 1972, OBE in 2008 and, after years of charity fundraising, was made a life peer in 2011, adding that “it was easier to gain admittance to the House of Lords than the MCC.”
Heyhoe Flint died after a short illness. She is survived by her husband, Derrick Flint, whom she married in 1971, their son, Ben, a stepson and two stepdaughters.