It took until the penultimate year of the last century for women to even be allowed to set foot in Lord's. Yet the home of cricket may, in the next few years, come to witness a great landmark in British sport, namely men and women competing on a level playing field. Two of the successful England women's team are set to break new ground this summer by playing for Sussex County Cricket Club's second team, and there is a widening belief it will be the next step towards a woman playing in the first-class game in England, the sport's elite level.
"It is not beyond the realms of possibility," says Clare Connor, a former England captain now running the women's game in this country. "Women in all sports are raising the bar, in skill level, athleticism, the time they can devote to their sport. The world of women's sport probably is in for a few amazing achievements in the years to come. It would be a wonderful story."
Sporting equality has been slow to arrive since Baron de Coubertin dismissed the idea of women competing in his reformed Olympic Games. This year's Open golf championship will be held at Muirfield, near Edinburgh, a club that does not admit women members. The London Olympics featured a record number of women, with each nation having at least one female athlete for the first time. But it remains very much a separation of athletic abilities; equestrianism, in which Charlotte Dujardin won two gold medals for Great Britain, is the only truly mixed event.
There have been flirtations over the years, notably in golf. It may be a reactionary sport, but physically it is possible for women to compete with men. None have managed it with any sustained success so far and the efforts of a number of women such as the former world No 1, Annika Sorenstam, to try their hand in men's events have often been poorly received by male competitors. Vijay Singh threatened to withdraw from a tournament in 2003 should he be paired with the Swede.
Many "athletic" sports have a general gender difference that is tricky to bridge for reasons of power or size. No women footballers have made an impact in the men's game (with the exception of Dorothy in Gregory's Girl) – while the increasing power used in men's tennis makes any switchover less likely. Which leaves cricket.
Cricket's reputation for fustiness, once so well deserved, has been redressed in recent years with England at the forefront of the women's game. Next month England's women defend the World Cup in India, having overtaken Australia as the team to beat. This rise has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in the numbers of girls and women playing the game. In some counties, such as Hampshire, the number of women's clubs has more than doubled since England won the World Cup in 2009.
It has led to marked improvement in standards and raised the prospect of women playing alongside men at the highest domestic level. England's coach, Mark Lane, has encouraged his team and opened the door for Sarah Taylor, one of the world's best female batsmen, and Holly Colvin, a spin bowler, to play for Sussex's second XI.
"It has raised quite a few eyebrows," said Lane. adding that Sussex seconds will not prove a glass ceiling either. "We are trying to push our players out of their comfort zone. It is an opportunity to push the game forward."
If Lane's prediction were to happen it would be a player of Taylor's ilk, a 23-year-old wicketkeeper and batsman, who was best placed to make the leap. Women's cricket is played with a slightly smaller and lighter ball, making it difficult for bowlers to switch. Then there is the question of pace – in the men's game bowlers are quicker.
Connor, who has played men's club cricket herself, says: "I've been involved in women's cricket all my life and Sarah Taylor is exceptional. What she can do sometimes – I still shake my head in disbelief. She has huge, unfulfilled potential."
A number of women play for men's clubs and none has had more success than Arran Brindle, another of the England side who departs for India tomorrow. The 31-year-old has played for Louth in one of the England and Wales Cricket Board's Premier leagues for six years, captaining the side for three of them. In 2011, she became the first woman in the world to score a century at semi-professional level in the men's game. "It's a totally natural environment for me," said Brindle, a classically correct batsman. "In men's cricket I don't try to move the field as much and, because of the natural pace of the bowling, it sometimes plays into my favoured shots a lot easier than women's cricket. In women's cricket you maybe have to adapt a little bit."
Brindle felt pressure to succeed in the men's game for fear of people " asking why girls were playing in a men's league". But she never experienced any opposition from male players.
Physically, it has become less of an issue for leading sportswomen, who are fitter and stronger than ever. Top players are effectively semi-professional. Craig Ranson, a physiotherapist who has worked for the ECB and UK Athletics, believes women can play alongside men. "Physically, there isn't any reason why female batsmen couldn't be successful against men in longer forms of cricket, where skill is the biggest determinant of performance," he says. "It would be more difficult in limited-overs cricket, as power to consistently hit boundaries is a pre-requisite few women batters possess. This is possibly analogous to golf, where few women can compete with men in terms of distance, although skill and touch might be comparable. However, there is plenty of scope for that to change in terms of talent identification and training methods."
Taylor, for all her abilities, may not make it – the odds are still against her – but if women's cricket continues to develop, expand and improve as briskly as it has over the past decade, the chances of female players breaking into the first-class game will rise. Connor adds: "As more and more players like Sarah Taylor emerge. … it will generate lively debate. If people are debating women's sport and the progress it has made, then that is great for women' s sport and great for cricket."
Crossing the line: Sporting women
Billie Jean King
Beat Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis contest in 1973, watched by a crowd of more than 30,000.
The only woman to win a race in the US IndyCar series – she also finished third in the Indy500, the highest placing by a woman.
In 1979, she was the first woman to join an NBA basketball team, the Indiana Pacers, but she never played in a game.
In 1938 she was the first woman to play on men's pro golf tour, missing the cut at the Los Angeles Open. In 1945, she played again and qualified for the tournament.
The England player scored the first century by a woman in men's semi-professional cricket, scoring 128 for Louth against Market Deeping in 2011.
The golfer played one tournament on the men's US tour in 2003 but missed the cut.
In equestrian events, men and women have competed as equals since 1952. At the London 2012 Olympics, Dujardin won individual and team dressage gold.Reuse content