All Out Cricket: Heyhoe Flint, the pragmatic pioneer

With the death last month of Baroness Rachael Heyhoe Flint cricket lost one of its most conscientious and sparkling voices, writes Isabelle Westbury

It is rare in any era for an accomplished athlete’s achievements o the eld to outgrow what they did on it. But in the case of the former England captain Rachael Heyhoe Flint, who died last month aged 77, her considerable exploits with the bat – and as rst lady of England women’s cricket – were just the foundation upon which lasting change would eventually take place.

Here was a cricketer who did more to normalise women’s sport than she would ever want credit for, who staunchly refused to be labelled a feminist and who cheerily declared that men’s cricket was far more fun to watch than the version she played. She was right; and was used to getting her own way.

She dragged women’s cricket and women’s sport into the public arena not in the name of women’s rights, but simply because it was the right thing to do. An admirer and then friend of Margaret Thatcher, she would, one suspects, have had little truck with last month’s women’s marches protesting against the status quo, for Heyhoe Flint was a pragmatist, and a patient one at that.

She waited three years to be allowed to bat by her brother and his friends in the back garden, and eight years for women to be admitted as members of the MCC, from the time the idea was rst mooted. Never once was she tempted by populist statements of protest, recoiling even at the suggestion of it.

Instead she played the long game, using her wit and charm to beat her detractors.

Heyhoe Flint was in many ways a woman before her time; the game itself would take many more years, decades even, to catch up to the level of public interest that she had heralded in her prime. She wasn’t afraid to use everything she had at her disposal to succeed in any given task, and that included using her femininity. She was often an outrageous irt.

She could certainly hold her own in the male- dominated worlds of cricket and later football. She won powerful allies, not least in the guise of the millionaire Wolverhampton Wanderers chairman Jack Hayward, who funded her brainchild to host the rst cricket World Cup in 1973, as well as the lyricist Sir Tim Rice, an early accomplice in her battle with the MCC. Her forthright manner did have its critics however, and she lost the England captaincy after falling out with the women’s administration.

Not that she ever forgot the women who succeeded her, with many recent internationals crediting her as both a mentor and campaigner on their behalf. Clare Connor, director of England women’s cricket and a former captain herself, said: “Rachael was one of our sport’s true pioneers and it is no exaggeration to say that she paved the way for the progress enjoyed by recent generations of female cricketers. I will always remember and continue to be inspired by her fortitude, her deep love of the game and her wicked, wonderful sense of humour.”

There will be better cricketers, better journalists, and better campaigners. But whether one will ever excel on as many levels as she did is unlikely. Being the composite all- rounder is what made and defined her. Whether she would have been able to thrive in the constrained world of professionalism that she helped to build, we shall never know. Heyhoe Flint wasn’t just a great female cricketer – she was one of life’s great all-rounders. Who just happened to be a woman.

Isabelle Westbury is captain of Middlesex Women.

• A version of this article was originally published in All Out Cricket in their February 2017 print edition. 

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