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The history girls: Fifty years after the first World Cup

Mar 11, 2023

The 1973 Women's World Cup was cricket's first limited-overs global tournament. Raf Nicholson's piece originally appeared in the 2023 edition of Wisden Cricketer's Almanack.

Wisden barely mentioned cricket's first World Cup, held in 1973. In his Notes, editor Norman Preston focused instead on the "end of the Illingworth era", changes to the County Championship, and preparations by Mike Denness’ team for the winter Ashes. Enid Bakewell might easily have been a Cricketer of the Year, having scored 118 against Australia in what amounted to the final, but it would be 35 years before a woman was among the Five. At last, near the back of the book, just before Births and Deaths, is a report of little more than a page and a half by Netta Rheinberg.

The Almanack's attitude to the pioneering endeavours of a small group of women, led by the dashing England captain, Rachael Heyhoe Flint, was a product of its time. (After the men staged their own version, in 1975, Wisden called it "the first World Cup cricket tournament".) It was all the more incredible, then, that these women – unpaid, unheralded and clearly undaunted – would change the sport for good.

The World Cup had been conceived in 1971 during a weekend of women's cricket at Eastbourne. Heyhoe Flint was staying with millionaire Jack Hayward, who had recently funded two tours of Jamaica. "I love women, and I love cricket," he said. "What could be better than to have the two rolled together?" After dinner, he asked her: "Why couldn't we bring every national women's team to England for a World Cup competition?" When she pointed out the likely expense, he airily agreed to pay. It would cost him £40,000.

Five years earlier, the Australians had proposed a global tournament at a meeting of the International Women's Cricket Council, only for the Women's Cricket Association, in England, to reject it on financial grounds. Hayward's offer changed everything: this time, the WCA had no objection.

Matches would be 60 overs a side, like the Gillette Cup; and in a landscape dominated by Test cricket, they would be the first one-day internationals played by women. England got a head start on the tactics during a practice weekend at Edgbaston's indoor school in January 1973, with coaching from Lancashire's Jack Bond. And while Hayward agreed to pay for travel and accommodation, the WCA had to cover publicity, printing and ground expenses. Special World Cup cloth badges, car stickers and key rings were sold, a souvenir programme produced, and a raffle held, with the winner announced during the final. First prize: a colour television.

The WCA wanted to take the game to communities which had never seen live women's international cricket. The fixture list became an eclectic mix of public parks, county outgrounds and club venues, including Kew Green, Bletchley, Dean Park (Bournemouth), Clarence Park (St Albans), Tring Park (Hertfordshire), Queen's Park (Chesterfield), Kirby Muxloe (Leicestershire), Bradford Park Avenue and The Saffrons in Eastbourne. The only first-class counties to make their grounds available were Sussex and Warwickshire, who offered up Edgbaston for the final – after a letter from the MCC secretary politely but firmly refused the use of Lord's.

Invitations were issued to every team then playing international cricket: as well as England, that meant Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago (West Indies did not form until 1976). To flesh out numbers, a Young England team were selected by the WCA, and competing nations asked to send extra players for an International XI. India, whose women's association were less than a year old, telegrammed a bid for inclusion, but they were too late. Despite that, 19-year-old Neeta Telang, one of the founders of the Indian Gymkhana team in Bombay, was invited to watch the final and join the IWCC's August 1973 meeting, when India were admitted.

Three months before the teams were due to arrive, the International XI almost threw a spanner in the works. They had been conceived partly as a way of including South Africa, who could not take part directly because of their isolation. The XI invited five South Africans to join but, when Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago threatened to withdraw, the WCA backed down. In her 1978 autobiography, Heyhoe Flint – who pushed for fixtures with South Africa throughout apartheid – wrote: "Unhappily, politics won again." A scramble for replacements ensued, and the International XI eventually consisted of four English players – including Audrey Disbury, the captain – four Australians, three New Zealanders, two Trinidadians and two Jamaicans. The biggest coup was New Zealand skipper Trish McKelvey, who had fallen out with her selectors.

Women's cricket was still amateur, so players had to negotiate time off work. Many were teachers; Aussie quick Raelee Thompson was a fingerprint specialist in the Victoria police; New Zealand included photolithographer Carol Marett (ne´e Early), and Jocelyn Burley, a swimming coach. Bakewell and her England team-mate June Stephenson, both with young families, had to organise childcare. Trinidadian Donna Carmino, recruited for the International XI aged 16, missed a month of school.

The emphasis was almost as much on socialising as on cricket. Australia had what the WCA called a "confrontation with an inquisitive rhino" at Longleat; Jamaica enjoyed fish and chips at Bradford; New Zealand toured the Whitefriars Glassworks in Wealdstone, and were given a crystal cricket ball; Trinidad & Tobago had "an early taste of Christmas pudding" at a London biscuit factory.

The highlight was a champagne reception at 10 Downing Street for all the teams on June 28, eight days after the competition had begun. Thompson spent much of the evening "chasing the waiter with the scampi tray", though she did fit in a conversation with Ray Illingworth: "He told us all about the John Snow incident in the 1971 Sydney Test, when the crowd were heckling him. We talked about it for so long that I missed talking to Virginia Wade." Heyhoe Flint presented prime minister Ted Heath with a cricket bat. Knowing he was a keen sailor, she joked he could use it as a paddle if the wind died; Thompson said he "laughed so hard his shoulders shook".

Heyhoe Flint was also the tournament press officer, which meant dashing off the field after play to file copy for The Daily Telegraph, as well as with the BBC, who had a personal interest: Chris Watmough, daughter of one of their journalists, was England's No. 4. Thanks to their reporting, public interest was high by the time the tournament began, launched by Roger Bannister, chairman of the Sports Council. My dad, at grammar school in Twickenham, remembers his chemistry master excitedly telling the class that the World Cup was starting down the road in Kew.

That first match – between Jamaica and New Zealand – was washed out, which proved ominous: the weather, glorious in early June, had turned. The tournament was a round robin, with each team playing the others once: of the 21 matches, five were rain-affected. The denouement of England's game against New Zealand at Exmouth, already reduced to 35 overs a side, was described by Heyhoe Flint as "a farce" when rain arrived after 15: "At a moment's notice, our target was cut from 106 in 35 overs to 46 in 15, by which time we had mustered only 34, and so we lost the match – or rather the weather won the contest by a technical knockout."Elsewhere, games went largely to form. The two Caribbean teams, playing their first official internationals, suffered some big defeats. Trinidad & Tobago, for instance, were dismissed by England for 59 in 45.5 overs, though they did beat Jamaica at Ealing, thanks to 50 not out from captain Louise Browne, and both managed wins against Young England.

Lynne Thomas, a proud Welshwoman, nearly missed out altogether after being selected to tour the West Indies with Wales's hockey team. But when the WCA discovered the clash, they insisted she put cricket first. It proved a good call. England walloped the International XI at Hove after Thomas made 134, having put on 246 with Bakewell (101 not out) – still the highest opening stand at a women's World Cup.

The Internationals redeemed themselves a week later with a two-wicket, last-over win against New Zealand, which must have been sweet for McKelvey, who finished the tournament with more runs than any of her compatriots. Rheinberg, the Internationals team manager, wrote: "Despite their very different backgrounds and upbringings, [they] became, during the six weeks, a capable and well-knitted bunch of cricketers." They were helped along, apparently, by the creation of a team song.

For the hosts, it was an exhausting time. Most teams were put up in hotels but, to save money, England's players travelled home between matches. "It was manic," says wicketkeeper Shirley Hodges, then a PE teacher. "It was the summer term, and I’d drive to a match, practise for a day, then play and drive back home again. As soon as you arrived at school, everybody was at you because they wanted reports written. And then you’d have to drive somewhere else – all round the country."

Meanwhile, Bakewell was stopped en route from Nottingham to Exeter. A policeman wanted to see her tax disc, but it had been stolen a few days earlier. "He said: ‘You’ll have to produce your papers within three days.’ I said: ‘I haven't got time! I’m going to train, and then play in a World Cup.’ Fortunately, I’d got my England blazer on the back seat, so he let me off."

There was no final as such. Instead, the last match would be between England and Australia – felt to be the strongest teams. The organisers were right: the winners would be world champions. For the first time in the tournament, England were put up in a hotel, only for a fire alarm in the small hours to trigger a full-scale evacuation. "Raelee Thompson came out carrying her cricket stuff, just in case," says Bakewell. After a few hours’ sleep, the teams headed to the ground, bleary-eyed. In the England camp, debate was raging as to what Heyhoe Flint should do if she won the toss. Her husband, Derrick, a former Warwickshire professional, wanted her to field. But Watmough disagreed. "I said: ‘Put the pressure on them.’"

Heyhoe Flint – who did call correctly – agreed, and England amassed 279-3, the competition's highest total. Thompson said Bakewell batted "like a smiling assassin. All I seemed to be doing was either bowling to this really broad bat, or chasing the ball to the boundary." Heyhoe Flint contributed 64, after taking four overs to get off the mark (unable to stand the tension, Derrick went for a stroll around the ground). Australia faltered in reply: Bakewell took 2-28 with her slow left-armers, held a catch and pulled off a run-out. With the result beyond any doubt, Heyhoe Flint brought herself on for the final over: "I paced out my run, turned to bowl and found that every one of my England team had placed themselves at least 70 yards out on the boundary's edge (including Shirley Hodges) – such was their confidence in my bowling talent!"

The crowd, reportedly several thousand strong, watched as Princess Anne handed over the trophy, a Georgian silver chalice. Jan Southgate, then 18, and a future leader of the senior side, had been chosen to present the princess with a bouquet. "About ten minutes before, someone in the crowd managed to drip chocolate from their ice cream over my cream dress," she said. "There was a mad panic to clean me up, but I don't think she noticed. I was more concerned about getting my curtsy right." Back in the dressing-room, England celebrated with a glass of champagne, provided by Hayward.

The final was not televised live, but highlights were shown in London and in the Midlands on ATV (Associated Television), for which the WCA received £125. Next day, England's women were splashed across the back pages – a rare occurrence in the 1970s. The WCA's official report on the tournament concluded: "The doubting Thomases can be forgotten, for the ability and prowess of the international players who took part earned the respect of all who saw them in action. The general public, especially those who had never seen women play cricket before, were surprised and delighted with the skills displayed… The most important factor, however, was the way in which the media did accept women's cricket at national level as a serious game, worth watching and reporting."

A welcome but unexpected by-product was a change in attitude from MCC, widely derided for refusing to host the final. Frank Keating in The Guardian wrote of the "patronising greeting from the Lord's hierarchy, who in their mind-boggling male chauvinism say there is nowhere there to use as a changing-room". In the Daily Mail – never a bastion of feminism – Ian Wooldridge labelled the decision a "wretched discourtesy". He added: "This is Lord's Cricket Ground, headquarters of the world game and stately home of the Misogynists’ Cricket Club." MCC president Aidan Crawley finally bowed to pressure, and wrote to the WCA: "You have done enough to deserve a game at cricket's headquarters, and a date should be reserved there for a Test between England and Australia in 1976." In the event, they had to settle for a one-day international. They are still waiting for the Test.

The World Cup was not a financial success, partly because of the weather. Gate receipts totalled just £747 and, despite Hayward's generosity, only £1,000 entered the WCA's coffers. There was no prize money, and it would be three years before England could afford to host another match. The lean decades of the 1980s and 1990s, in which press coverage fell away and the Sports Council labelled women's cricket a "dying" game, lay ahead. As the ECB would discover in 2017, a one-off win in a World Cup final, even at home, would not by itself lead anywhere quickly. Yet the concept had triggered something. In January 1978, a second women's World Cup was staged in India; later, the event would become crucial for growing the game.

In many ways, the whole thing was a monumental gamble: cricket (and many other sports) had never held a World Cup. Who knew if it would work? Half a century later, a calendar is unthinkable without one. Not a bad legacy for a group of women who were lost in the back of Wisden.

Raf Nicholson is a women's cricket writer, the author of Ladies and Lords: A History of Women's Cricket in Britain, and editor of

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Wisden Almanack 2023 by Raf Nicholson 1973 Women's World Cup 2023 edition of Wisden Cricketer's Almanack