As women’s cricket gets auditioned and observed at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games for a possible and permanent entry into the Games gigs – such as Olympics – the city once again finds itself at an important inflection point in the sport’s history.
Way back in 1973, seven teams had lined up, mostly donning the inconvenient short culottes skirts in white, to play in the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1973, the final of which between England and Australia was hosted at Edgbaston. This was a full two years before the inaugural Men’s World Cup.
Now, almost 50 years later, with women’s T20 leading the way into the Commonwealth Games, cricket is again on the cusp of something big – with Los Angeles 2028 Games inviting presentations from the sport, and 2032 Brisbane not likely to be averse to a sport that is taking its first ‘Games’ strides in Birmingham.
India 🆚 Pakistan. 𝗔 𝘀𝗽𝗲𝗰𝗶𝗮𝗹 𝗼𝗰𝗰𝗮𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗻. Edgbaston is buzzing.
— Edgbaston (@Edgbaston) July 31, 2022
It was neighbouring Wolverhampton’s Jack Hayward, a Midlands businessman, who was the first financial supporter of the women’s game, putting in 40,000 pounds for the Women’s World Cup to take off. A WWII pilot who flew Dakotas with supplies for the ‘Forgotten Army’ in Burma, or the multinational Commonwealth Fourteenth Army largely ignored for being far away from Europe, Hayward went on to pour his legacy business wealth into what was then yet an obscure cause – women’s cricket. He is famous for having said, “I love cricket. I love women. And women’s cricket combines both.”
But it was his enduring friendship with England captain Rachael Heyhoe Flint that got the boisterous Englishman, who moved to the Bahamas later, to rally behind the women’s game and ensure that the final went ahead in Birmingham.
“Jack Hayward’s contribution was huge,” says cricket historian Raf Nicholson, even as women’s cricket undergoes another round of auditions, though the financial benevolence is not expected to come from cricket boards and the ICC, beyond the CWG thrust. “He made it actually possible paying 40 thousand pounds, which in 1971 was a huge amount. He paid that much worth of costs in that amount to bring all these teams to England. And without him, they wouldn’t be able to have all that money and do all that. Without him, that World Cup wouldn’t have happened. So, he was a huge contributing factor to it.”
Cricket’s inclusion in the CWG, besides adding the extra medal for gender parity and filling up Edgbaston with families, is also being viewed as a pathway for the sport, which caters to IOC’s perennial question of ‘How do you solve a problem like India?’ with its huge population, and miserly medals.
“There’ll be plenty of people watching the Commonwealth Games. And within ICC, be it within ECB, within other cricket boards like BCCI, trying to see what cricket being included in other multi-sport events looks like. How it works, what does it feel like for the players? And also, does it actually genuinely lead to more exposure for cricket?” Nicholson says, adding, “And how will cricket respond to just being one amongst lots of other sports? So, I think the Commonwealth Games is in a way a testing ground for Olympic inclusion. Obviously, the Commonwealth Games is not as big as the Olympics, but it’s still a bit of an experiment whether it works for cricket to be included in a multi-sport event and whether the benefits are for the ICC to push on really with Olympic inclusion.”
The thronging of crowds at Edgbaston which witnessed the first World Cup final ever, is also seen as a win for the women’s game, to carve an identity beyond being an appendage to the men’s one. The 1998 CWG edition with men’s teams never took off thereafter. “Women at CWG is definitely very significant. And what it shows me is that women’s cricket doesn’t have to follow what men’s cricket does. It can lead the way as it always has been doing, like it did in holding the first World Cup. In that way, it shows that women’s cricket can sometimes go in new, interesting directions and doesn’t always have to follow what men’s cricket is doing. And actually, reinforces the fact that they are two separate sports. So, I’d say it’s very significant,” Nicholson says. A little like netball’s self-sufficiency.
Hayward was the first real benefactor of women’s cricket and the money that he put into it for those few years in the 1970s really helped women’s cricket grow much more quickly than it would have done otherwise. Because obviously, being a totally amateur sport, it was wholly reliant on those kind of financial donations at that time. It meant that they could have a World Cup. It meant they could have other tours. Before that, Hayward funded for them to go to the Caribbean. And he actually withdrew his financial support after Flint was sacked from the England captaincy in 1977. In the historical scheme of things, his financial support didn’t last that long. But it was very significant in the history of women’s cricket.
The MCC, which embraces women’s cricket now, and includes a bunch of notable ones as members, wasn’t very chuffed back in the 1970s, and had stated that women could train at Lord’s, but not play matches there. “The MCC regrets no dates are available,” had been the curt response. Edgbaston had stepped in happily. The folks at Lord’s had been apoplectic when the first membership request had arrived, in times when the women’s team would often play against old – senior – English teams, with Len Hutton turning up.
Seasoned journalists recall catty, lurid and sexist reportage following the women’s sport back then, with lines like “there’s a lovely fine leg’” and “a thigh pad might not be necessary.” One of the leading names of those times, having read reams of sexist tripe, though, shot back calling the protective box, a silly ‘manhole cover’.
Flint though began writing on the sport for different magazines, under various pseudonyms, to accurately tell an important story. A multi-faceted woman, it was said the only thing she couldn’t do, or bother with, was cooking. Her friend Hayward would stand like a rock in support of her.
The final of the cricket event of the Commonwealth Games is said to be already sold out. Obviously, Edgbaston ‘E’ isn’t anything like as big (25,000) as the MCG ‘G’ that the Aussies filled up for the last T20 World Cup final. “But obviously, it’s a phenomenal achievement assuming we do get that full house. It’ll be an absolutely fantastic day for women’s cricket,” Nicholson says. Fantastic and one that Hayward reckoned women players completely deserved.