In the first of a series on the history of cricket, Penny Hopkins begins by looking back on the emergence of the sport in the 18th Century and how women got padded up
Part 1: Eighteenth century origins and early developments
The sport of cricket is steeped in history among the Commonwealth countries; namely England, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, South Africa and the West Indies, that continue to lead the way internationally in all forms of the game. Their dominance of the sport has never wavered in the men’s game and by extension also in the women’s game. It now enjoys a professional status for some and a growing recognition for women in critical aspects of sport such as global wide international fixtures, sponsorship, media coverage and athlete recognition. It’s fair to say that women in the 21st Century have emphatically marked the crease and the game is more robust than ever.
It is now a commercial commodity as well as an international sport with opportunities for players in all aspects of the game both on and off the field.
In England there is still the remains of a rarefied air surrounding cricket. The die hard cricket follower has historically been one who eschews more commercial sports, preferring the slower pace and traditions of this quintessential English game. Despite the competition among mainstream sports, there is more media coverage in England about men’s cricket than any other sport. The cricket of afternoon teas on the village green with the local vicar playing their part as umpire may still exist at club level, but modern cricket is as much a commercial commodity as any other twenty-first century sport.
So where does women’s cricket fit into all this? As in most traditionally male sports women are still playing catch-up although slowly but surely making significant progress. In the last five years the status and perception of the game has changed out of all recognition. There has been a sea-change in the professionalism of the sport, its popularity with the general public and its potential for media coverage and sponsorship. It is now a commercial commodity as well as an international sport with opportunities for players in all aspects of the game both on and off the field of play.
While the sport has its roots in commonwealth countries, over 100 nations now play cricket; from Denmark to Argentina and Japan to Morocco. Among the International Cricket Council (ICC) countries—of which there are 105 members—an average of one in three players are women.
Where it Began
The feature of the match was undoubtedly the fine ‘not out’ innings of Miss L. Poulett-Harris, captain of the winning team, who, going in first, carried her bat right through the innings for 64 runs.
According to the Reading Mercury newspaper in the south of England, whose writer was clearly impressed at the sight of women taking the crease, the first recorded game took place in Guildford, Surrey in July 1745 between Bramley and Hambledon: “The girls bowled, batted, ran and catched (sic) as well as most men could do in that game.”
Other southern counties of Sussex, Hampshire and Surrey established themselves as the cradle of women’s cricket where matches between villages became the norm. They even went as far as segregating games between single women and married women. Large crowds because a common sight, and there was a huge amount of betting involved.
According to the sport’s archives the inaugural county match, which was sponsored by two local noblemen, was held between Surrey and Hampshire at Ball’s Pond in Middlesex in 1811with the age range of the teams between 14 to 60 years.
Legend has it that overarm bowling was developed in the nineteenth century by a woman—Christina Willes, who practiced this new action whilst bowling to her brother John in the garden to stop her arm from getting tangled in her skirts. While this myth has its own charm, the reality is that the bowling style we recognise today was actually invented by Hambledon’s Tom Walker as early as the 1790s.
Although the southern counties fostered the beginnings of women’s cricket, the first women’s cricket club—White Heather Club—was formed in the north at Nun Appleton in Yorkshire in 1887. In 1890, the Original English Lady Cricketers toured England with the team playing to large crowds, until we read, their manager ran off with the team’s money and the team consequently folded.
The successful development of the game in Australia is largely due to a Tasmanian woman, Lily Poulett-Harris who founded and captained the first women’s cricket team. Influenced from an early age by her sporting brother, Henry, Lily founded the Oyster Cove Ladies’ Cricket Club in 1894. She also helped to establish the first league, which also comprised Atalanta, Heather and North Bruny.
Lily is a fascinating woman who was famous in her day with her sporting career extensively covered by the Australian press. One reporter noted; “The feature of the match was undoubtedly the fine ‘not out’ innings of Miss L. Poulett-Harris, captain of the winning team, who, going in first, carried her bat right through the innings for 64 runs.”
By profession, Lily was a school teacher who taught violin and music at the Ladies’ Grammar School and Kindergarten in Hobart, which was established by her older sister, Eleanor. Her achievements are even more remarkable when you learn that she was forced to retire from cricket due to ill health and died from tuberculosis at the age of 23 in 1897.
In part two we explore the sport’s development around the world and the beginning of international competitions, including the Women’s World Cup.
Photos: Commons Wikipedia / State Library of NSW / National Library of Australia