Close Encounter: Surely not a skirt in the slips?

JOANNA BRISCOE VISITS THE MCC WHICH HAS JUST LIFTED ITS 211-YEAR BAN ON WOMEN MEMBERS
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The Independent Culture
The gentle cricket green has become a gladiatorial arena, its viridescent haze now blood-splattered after this week's terrifying war of the sexes. On Monday night, the Marylebone Cricket Club voted to end its 211-year ban on women members. Hurrah for the chaps, I say. A flailing pterodactyl has been dragged into the 20th century.

After the vote, squeezed through in an "acrimonious" meeting a mere seven years after the subject was raised, there was both jubilation - "I am delighted and excited by the decision. Women are a very fine species," announced the Club President, Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie - and evidence of disgruntled, some might say curmudgeonly, grousing from the gin-soaked old buzzards (average age: 57) who still object to the filthy distaff penetrating their inner sanctum. "I think this new vote is appalling," spluttered a member who chooses to remain anonymous.

What exactly, we are pressed to ask, is the problem with allowing women into the MCC: part social club, part cricket club, part governing body? What precisely do the braying buffers fear? Menstrual emergencies on their leather seats? Jewels and other girl accoutrements scratching the panelling? Hoary Amazons bagging the best lockers? Baby showers in the club room? PMT fits at the wicket?

"With a fundamental change, there are always likely to be some people who are going to be opposed to that change," the MCC Secretary, Roger Knight, said cautiously. "Lord's has been accused of being the last bastion of male dominance. I don't see it like that, really. I just think that that may have been in some people's minds."

In the midst of all the commotion - the former women's cricket captain, Rachael Heyhoe Flint, shedding a tear of victory, TV crews, outrage in the shires - I was treated to a leisurely stroll through Lord's Cricket Ground, owned by the MCC, where I managed to control my oestrogen levels, my emotions, and my suffragette tendencies. I even managed not to cry or give birth.

We strolled about the stands. The sun came out. Ah, the shimmering green. The redbrick hush. The arches. The majestic pavilion. All now an equal opportunities zone.

My companion, Roger Knight, 52, a former headmaster and professional cricketer, was tall, pleasant and beetle-browed, equipped with that combination of the demotic and the autocratic that so marks the headmaster. With his old-fashioned yet enthusiastic stride, his strict yet fair approach to authority, he picked up a dropped plastic cup mid-stride with the practised swoop of a thousand headmasters.

On the explosive subject of those queer old boilers who wish only to hobnob with the boys, Knight displayed all the nifty legwork of a champion bowler.

"This is a major step forward," he said brightly.

On the matter that MCC membership involves a lengthy waiting list: "The waiting list at present is 18 years," he confirmed in solemn tones. On the historic vote: "The committee was very, very pleased."

But come, Mr Knight, there has been much muttering and a lengthy campaign to secure this week's 69.8 per cent vote in favour of women, as opposed to February's 56 per cent and 1991's 33 per cent. There have been accusations of "bulldozing", "railroading", of "communist state" strong arm tactics; cries of political correctness and sponsorship securing. With the evasive tact of a headmaster confronted with an irate parent, my spokesman for equal opportunities never faltered: "I think it's not a fundamental traditional change, but a fundamental change in the way in which things are going." Indeed.

I was then stopped and questioned by an alert member of staff. I was wearing a skirt, after all. Rescued by my prestigious companion, I came finally to the sticky question of the men's bar. As a teething rusk to see the nay-sayers through their suffering, a small men-only bar is planned. "I think it's not unreasonable to have an area where men who perhaps weren't in favour of the change can go and have a drink," said Roger.

But whence the frantic desire for exclusivity? Are we talking a leather bar here? Is the MCC a hotbed of homosexuals and Freemasons? You'd think they would be excited at the idea of the odd matronly wicketkeeper or firm-thighed filly to boss them about, give them a thrashing. Why, exactly, the need?

"They would have to answer that for themselves," said Roger. "But I do know that there is a view that an association of men watching cricket is a very acceptable group. And maybe the place that they should go is to the men's bar if they don't want to be in mixed company."

With that, I took my leave. I will have to wait until I'm 50 for my membership to come through: a tragic prospect. And by then, if the chaps aren't terribly careful, Lord's will be the new Greenham Common.

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