Cricket: Lord's ladies take guard

John Collis watches the MCC women's team make history
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The Independent Online
A PIECE of cricketing history was made on Tuesday at the beautiful Bank of England ground in south-west London. Shaiza Khan and her skipper Wendy Watson strode out to bat, sporting on their sweaters the uniquely bilious orange and gold colour combination of the MCC.

Head Office had turned out in force for this auspicious fixture against a Surrey Under-21 XI, among them the MCC president Tony Lewis, secretary Roger Knight and his deputy John Jameson, the MCC head coach Clive Radley and the former England captain Ted Dexter.

Just eight months after the historic vote to admit women to the MCC, the first step towards establishing a playing membership had been taken. It was a satisfying moment for the club's marketing manager Chris Rea, one of those who had been actively in favour of ending more than 200 years of male exclusivity.

"By the time of that last vote we were running a well organised campaign. The question that had to be addressed was - are we a gentlemen's club or a cricket club? At last we got the right answer. Of course, it would have been nice to have had the first women's game at Lord's, but it simply wouldn't have been possible this year with the World Cup on top of all the other commitments. We thought that the important thing was to get started as soon as we could."

Looking equally happy with events was the MCC's head of cricket, the former Australian international fast bowler Tony Dodemaide, who also played three seasons for Sussex. "Mainly bowling up the hill as I remember it," he said ruefully.

"Our job now is to raise awareness in the women's game, to encourage players to contact us," he added. "In the first instance we would look at their track record, their cricket cv. Among the men we have 1,500 playing members and about 400 fixtures, so it's straightforward to run a probationary system. For the women we have just four games this season. So there's a lot of work to do, building up a fixture list, assessing applications, trying to give each player enough games to see how they can perform. I think we would aim at a pool of around 50 players."

Out on the pitch, as what proved to be a suitably long and sociable lunch interval app-roached, Watson reached the MCC's first distaff half-century. Two hours later, after several let-offs from young Surrey hands perhaps a little numbed by the occasion - most of the fielders looked as if they would qualify as Under-21s for some seasons to come - she hooked backwards of square to reach a century. A few balls later she managed to spoon a dolly that no one could refuse, and walked happily off into the record books. As she approached the century, had she been overawed by the milestone? "No, I didn't think of it at all," she said. "I have often been out in the eighties and nineties, and I was still playing some risky shots. But now it's a piece of history."

Watson, who plays her club cricket with a men's second XI in Ambergate in Derbyshire, was more conscious of the significance of the day as a whole. "It's like man stepping on the moon. We have come forward very quickly. It's not so much been a question of changing prejudices as changing the mechanisms, to make it possible for this to happen. When England won the World Cup in 1993 we gained a lot of converts, and today has been another big step forward."

But with cricket dying out in too many schools, their playing fields long ago turned into executive-style housing estates, what of the future of the women's game? Barbara Daniels, an England international who is devoting herself this year to her new job as women's cricket organiser at the England and Wales Cricket Board, is optimistic. "Kwik Cricket has brought thousands of primary school girls into contact with the game," she said. "There are now more than 4,000 women playing in club and county cricket, so the state of the game has never been healthier."

Tony Lewis confirmed the MCC's support for the women's game in a lunchtime speech. "We have a reputation for being, in racing parlance, a little off the pace," he said. "But I assure you we are with it." It must be a couple of decades since the phrase "with it" was with it, but we took the point.

As for the match itself, the sun shone on the pioneering ladies as they meandered towards what seemed to be a pre-ordained draw. After all, this was an occasion to be savoured, not a real contest.

The MCC Women play Oxford University at The Parks tomorrow, Yorkshire WCA on 24 June and Tettenhall College on 7 July. Meanwhile, the national side are preparing for a Test and three one-day internationals against India later in the summer.