Rachael Heyhoe Flint: Still knocking them for six

The former cricket star, now a member of the House of Lords, is right behind The Independent on Sunday campaign to build recognition for women's sport. Emily Dugan meets Rachael Heyhoe Flint

Sitting upright in her well-kept garden in pink chinos, a pink gingham shirt and with blow-dried hair, Rachael Heyhoe Flint doesn't look like the sort of tub-thumping feminist who has smashed through every gender barrier in her sport.

The image of a traditional Tory wife and mother is deceiving (even though, at times, the Conservative peer can be just that). The former England cricket captain has managed to rack up a phenomenal run of career firsts: she was television's first female sports commentator; the first woman to hit a six in a Test match; the first England captain at the Women's World Cup; among the first female members admitted to Lord's cricket ground's stuffy Marylebone Cricket Club; and one of the two first female appointees to the England and Wales Cricket Board.

Her style has always been to lobby from inside the establishment, using her sporting achievements to persuade, rather than throwing rocks from the outside. After a nine-year campaign to become a member of the MCC at Lord's she won over the club's grandees in 1999 and kept good humour in the face of the refuseniks.

Even now, there are still a few of those. She recalls: "Two summers ago, I walked through the Long Room at a Test match. This dear old codger looked up and he said: "Have you lost your way, my dear?" I thought, oh God, it's only nine years and he doesn't realise. I put my hand in my handbag and brought out my membership card and on it it says 'committee'. His friends were blushing on his behalf, but perhaps he didn't realise."

Her battle to join the MCC recalls this summer's debate about the men's-only Muirfield golf club being used for the Open. Some questioned why any woman would want to join such an old boy's club. But for Baroness Heyhoe Flint, the answer is simple: "I don't want to join a flower-arranging society or a drama club, because I'm not interested, but I adore cricket and I wanted to be part of what's perceived as the best cricket club in the whole world."

She rarely seems to have got angry in her battle to join, but that doesn't mean she never gets frustrated at the slow progress of women's sport. Flicking through the sport sections of the day's papers, she tuts at the acres of men's football coverage.

"Look at this, we have this deadbeat Suarez on the front. Is he really important?" she says, turning the pages with increasing ferocity. "Then it goes on, still all football, football, more football, oh, and here's some golf and some cricket stuck in the back here. It just seems out of all proportion. Almost all we've heard about all summer is 'Is Rooney leaving Manchester United? Is Suarez leaving Liverpool? What's Andy Carroll doing?' And you think, who cares? It's so dull."

The Independent on Sunday pledged this summer to make sure that it reports on the best of women's sport – a campaign Heyhoe Flint is supportive of. When sportswomen do get coverage, she says, it is often not in a match report. "What I don't like is 'Oh, let's get the team in for a fashion shoot, shall we?' That's what happened with the Great Britain women's hockey team in some of the nationals during the Olympics, and I thought, come on, give them a bit of coverage in the matches they're playing as well. I know it's an intrigue, but you don't get the men being covered only in fashion shoots."

She says she has a "sense of déjà vu" when the same questions about pay, sponsorship and coverage of women's sport are brought up as they were in her cricketing heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, England's women will be led out by captain Charlotte Edwards for the start of their Ashes bid at Wormsley Cricket Ground. Their matches will be broadcast on BBC radio, but only a handful of the games will be televised on Sky and there has been scant newspaper coverage in the build-up. A lot has improved, she says, but she fears "it always will be a struggle to get women's sport covered in the same depth as men's sport".

Like many women athletes, Heyhoe Flint had to squeeze in various jobs around sport, including PE teaching, marketing and, later, commentating and working for Wolverhampton Wanderers football club. She found journalism was the most flexible work while she was captaining England.

On a one-woman mission to make sure their international matches were reported, she would take the score book back to her hotel room and write them up for everyone, including the Telegraph, Express, Press Association and Reuters. "None of whom," she says, "knew I was working for anybody else – it was a little bit of moonlighting." For the team, seeing matches covered in the national press, albeit by their own captain, gave them a boost, she says. She worries that, four decades later, women's teams are still fighting the same battles for coverage.

"Media coverage acts as an inspiration and then you get more crowds coming in," she says. "It was so great to read about your own performances when we got more coverage for cricket. Mind you," she says, giving a sly grin, "half the time, I was writing it, so I made sure I got good coverage."

It was almost inevitable that Heyhoe Flint would be passionate about sport. Her parents met at a physical education college in Denmark, going on to teach PE in Wolverhampton and, in the case of her father, to steer Wolverhampton's physical education policy.

She has always had to fight against the assumption that girls don't play, though sometimes this has been to her advantage. One summer in the 1940s, she was playing cricket in the middle of the road, using two bins for wickets. "Suddenly, we heard 'Police!' and everybody scattered and hid behind the hedges. We were blocking the road up. They hauled my brother and all his friends out from behind various hedges and wrote down their names. Then I came out and said, 'Do you want my name, please, because I was playing cricket as well?' and the policeman said, 'Oh, no, girls don't play cricket', so he didn't take my name down."

She wants to make sure girls are given the chance to love PE as much as she did, but worries about the change in culture.

"There's so much emphasis on being the thin Victoria Beckham type of person," she says. But she believes celebrities such as Beckham could be the key to getting more girls active. "In fact, Victoria Beckham does actually run, and if we could get those types of celebrities to lead campaigns for young girls, that would be great. Rather than someone like Beth Tweddle or Jess Ennis, because people can say, 'Well, she would love sport, wouldn't she', because that's her living. Someone of a celebrity nature might persuade them."

Now 74, Heyhoe Flint no longer plays sport herself, but she is still an avid fan and says weekends "feel wrong" if she's not out watching a cricket match or at her beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers, where she is vice-chair. Today she will be keeping an eye on the fate of England's women as they start their Ashes matches, though she may want to look away. When asked to predict the score, her optimism falters: "I'm not going to do an Ian Botham 10-0 whitewash. At the moment, Australia are superior to England in all aspects of the game, so England would have to perform to their very highest level if they do want to win the series."

The current women's team may not quite match Australia, but the future of women's cricket in Britain makes her a lot more cheerful. "The majority of men's cricket clubs now will have not just a boys' section but also a girls', and probably a women's team, too. That's what I hoped for when I was playing. Now the mums and the daughters have their own cricket, instead of making cucumber sandwiches every weekend."

Curriculum vitae

1939 Born in Wolverhampton to PE teachers Roma Crocker and Geoffrey Heyhoe.

1950-57 Attended Wolverhampton High School for Girls, where she excelled at all sport.

1957-60 Attended Dartford College of Physical Education in Kent.

1960 Makes her Test debut (England vs South Africa).

1963 Hits first six in a women's Test match.

1964 Plays hockey for England in goal.

1966-77 Captains England cricket team and works as a freelance journalist, writing up her own matches.

1971 Marries Warwickshire cricketer Derrick Flint (during the closed season, in November), and takes on three stepchildren. The couple later have a son, Ben.

1973 Captains England in the inaugural Women's Cricket World Cup.

1976 Captains England at the first women's game at Lord's.

1999 One of 10 women to become first female MCC members at Lord's after a nine-year campaign.

2005 Appointed vice-president of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

2010 One of the two first female appointees to the England and Wales Cricket Board; first woman in the ICC's Hall of Fame.

2011 Created a Conservative peer.

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