ACCORDING to The Ladybird Book of Cricket, women invented modern bowling. It was in a Kent garden in the 1870s that Christina Willies found her fashionable hooped skirt prevented her propelling the ball underarm to her brother John. She tried overarm, and a new style was born.
Many of the present England women's team still bowl with rather gentle, balletic movements - but they swing and spin the ball too, and are fiendishly accurate. That is just one of the refreshing aspects of their game - and it has helped them reach today's final of the women's World Cup at Lord's, where they will play New Zealand.
It was easy not to expect too much on arrival at Arundel on Wednesday for a qualifying round match between England and the West Indies. Some of the heftier-looking players were there in traditional skirts and long socks, more reminiscent of a convention of an out-of-the-way branch of the Women's Institute. There was a bit of drizzle in the air but they seemed desperate to take the field - another alien concept in cricket these days. A group of West Indies players in white trousers - they could have been a touring choir - were milling about as well. Two of them suddenly peeled off and, bats slung over their shoulders, took the field. The crowd was sparse. I steeled myself for a day of tedium and polite clapping.
From then on, I confess, I was utterly converted. Women cricketers may lack power, but not style or skill. All right, the bowling wasn't fast - Jo Chamberlain, the quickest, looked about the speed of the Warwickshire and England medium-pacer Dermot Reeve - most of the boundaries were swept past square leg, and the wicketkeeper tended to stand in that no-man's land about five yards behind the stumps, in true club third-XI fashion. But comparisons are odious, and shots, particularly cuts and glances, were perfectly executed, defence was refined, there were very few rank deliveries and the fielding was secure and enthusiastic. Several threw in at least 60 yards from the boundary straight over the stumps, which earned an appreciative ripple.
Various luminaries like the former Sussex captains Hubert Doggart and John Barclay were crowing with adulation, perhaps recognising the rebirth of a bygone era. A logo-less game of light bats, crisp timing, leg spin, ring fields and rapid over rates.
The England team have made it to today's final with a combination of expertise and ultra-commitment. Several players gave up their jobs to prepare for the World Cup; they utilised trainers and analysts, and despatched aficionados to spy on opponents. Basing themselves for the tournament in the grandiose surroundings of Wellington College, they have developed an effervescent spirit typical of men's teams, and the nicknames - Jibsy, Romper, Smiggles, and Wonker - are evolving.
Some, like the pugnacious all- rounder Debbie Stock, have substantial experience of men's cricket, and often turn out for local villages. As you might expect from 1990s sportsmen and women, they are on a low-fat diet, though that didn't prevent them having a good party after the win over the favourites, Australia, on Monday. They were so focused on their objective that day that they were blissfully unaware of the depressing events their male counterparts were caught up in at Headingley.
Women's cricket is influenced by the men's game, of course. Mike Gatting and Kevin Sharp, of Yorkshire, have advised on tactics and approach, and Jo Chamberlain, left-arm, tried a few yorkers from round the wicket a la
Wasim Akram. Batswomen punch gloves after a boundary, there's plenty of noisy geeing-up from the fielders between balls, and the odd batswoman doesn't walk. 'Sledging', however, is deemed unladylike and therefore off- limits.
No bowler possesses the strength to bowl a bouncer, so helmets and arm guards are conspicuous by their absence. They don't wear boxes. The ball, half an ounce lighter than the men's version, is polished vigorously in the small of the back or on the solar plexus. Doing this on a flap of the skirt would only result in it riding up, which I assume is the explanation. Various deliveries swung, mainly due to the bowlers' textbook, side-on actions. But it was the grenade-trajectoried spin of Carole Hodges and Karen Smithies that most perplexed the West Indians, as is usually the case, and they could only proceed at two nudges an over, despite vociferous support. This was silenced later by the expertly placed strokes of Hodges and Jan Brittin.
England will be guaranteed a strong following at Lord's, and because of the
position of the dressing-rooms high up in the pavilion, privacy from the snoopers trying to peer at them getting changed. The players will be allowed through the Long Room, but HQ will be anything other than an advantage to the English side. 'We'd be more at home on an artificial strip in the middle of a football pitch,' Hodges said.
After the final, it will be business as usual - a return to families and-or- work as van drivers, lab technicians or bank clerks. There was no sponsorship for the World Cup and the England players have had to pay to participate, and buy all their equipment, unlike the Australians and New Zealanders who are semi-professional. Maybe women's cricket is run by the Rugby Football Union.
Today's World Cup final is 60-overs- a-side, with play beginning at 10.45.
ENGLAND (from): K Smithies (capt), G Smith, J Brittin, J Chamberlain, B Daniels, J Godman, C Hodges, S Kitson, D Maybury, H Plimmer, J Smit, D Stock, C Taylor, W Watson.
NEW ZEALAND (from): S Illingworth (capt), C Campbell, T Anderson, L Astle, K Bond, E Drumm, K Gunn, J Harris, D Hockley, P Kinsella, M Lewis, S McLauchlan, K Musson, J Turner.
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