Cricket: Will it be Lord's, ladies and gentlemen?

Women's issue is as much about money as equality. Paul Trow reports
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The Independent Online
IT IS NOT known exactly how many of Marylebone Cricket Club's 18,000-odd members are Freemasons, but those who are should brace themselves for a further week of public opprobrium.

The indoor cricket school at Lord's on Tuesday evening is set to be the scene of either the most radical decision in this august body's 211-year history or a reactionary backlash which will leave the wearers of those infamous "ham and egg" ties in a financial pickle.

The cause celebre which has occasioned this extraordinary meeting involves an eight-word change to the MCC's constitution, namely that "men and women shall be eligible for membership". The proposal is being backed by the MCC's president, Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, and committee in the belief "that the benefits which lady membership would bring to the club's activities in support of cricket in the widest sense are incontrovertible".

However, Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, the former England women's captain whose 1991 application to join the MCC was roundly rejected despite the support of Sir Jack Hayward, Brian Johnston, Dennis Amiss and Sir Tim Rice among others, is not optimistic that the necessary two-thirds majority will have been achieved when the result is announced on Tuesday. "Many members aren't particularly interested in this issue and I think most of the ballot papers might not be returned, which is what happened last time," she said. "This is a shame because postal votes are expensive."

Ironically, expense, especially the cost of running and developing Lord's as a modern international sporting stadium, was the trigger which prompted the committee's apparent change of heart. Since rejecting Heyhoe-Flint, a veteran of 51 Tests, who went unbeaten during her period as England captain between 1966 and 1977, the MCC have been denied pounds 4.5m of Lottery funding on the Sports Council's recommendation.

"For the last big project at Lord's, the MCC went to their members to raise the money. But a lot more work needs to be done and I don't know how much longer they can keep going to the members," Heyhoe-Flint said.

The Lottery twist is, perversely, one reason why some members have marked "X" in the "Against" column on their ballot papers. One MCC member of more than 30 years' standing gave a blunt assessment of the club's predicament. "What's behind this is money," he said. "It's not a question of the two sexes. If it was then this ballot wouldn't even have arisen. The committee would have said to Rachael, 'Sorry, but this is a private male club.' What I object to is that we're almost being held to ransom. What's more, I keep hearing the vote will go the women's way, but I've talked to about 40 other members and I don't know anyone who has voted in favour."

One member who certainly has is the Rev Andrew Wingfield-Digby, sometime spiritual adviser to the England team, a former first-class cricketer with Oxford University and now the director of Christians in Sport. "I'm not campaigning personally and I won't be at Tuesday's meeting, but I've unashamedly voted in favour," he said. "Quite simply, there are many excellent women supporters of cricket who should have an equal right to be members of the MCC. The only argument against allowing women in is the pragmatic one that there's not enough room, but that's a secondary problem."

After a week which has seen the emergence of the Barbadian barrister Donna Symmonds as a radio commentator of genuine talent, it comes as a surprise to learn that at least two Test grounds in the West Indies - Trinidad's Queen's Park Oval and Sabina Park in Jamaica - operate pavilion bans on women similar to the MCC's.

Such thinking is anathema not only to Heyhoe-Flint and other women cricketers but to all female followers of the game such as Amanda Heathcote, the 24-year-old public relations consultant to the Professional Cricketers' Association.

"I accept the MCC are a private club but they also play a huge public role and can't have it both ways," Ms Heathcote, a former England under- 21 lacrosse international, said. "Not to allow in people who have played for England, for instance, is ridiculous. Rachael Heyhoe-Flint is a marvellous ambassador for the sport and if this vote is passed I hope she and 50 other women internationals are offered membership immediately. I know there's a 20-year waiting list, but players have always been able to jump the queue."

Logic suggests the MCC cannot afford to reject women any longer if they are to retain their influence. Not only are they the custodians of the rules but they also play a vital role in nourishing the game's grassroots - which, like rebuilding Lord's, takes money. "Apart from the financial side, letting in women will be good for the game in general," Heyhoe-Flint said. "We'd have a civilising effect on proceedings. When I go to cricket, I want to watch, not spend my time in the bar drinking G & Ts or with my head in the hamper looking for another bottle of Chardonnay."