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Women's Cricket: Let us give Christina Willes and Mary Mitford their due
by Suresh Menon
Mar 04, 2013

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By Suresh Menon

Thanks to television commercials for the women's T20 World Championships recently, many who were not aware of it earlier now know that it was a woman who scored the first double century in limited overs cricket, about a dozen years before Sachin Tendulkar made one and that the first world cup in the sport was the women's world cup in 1973. It took the men two years to catch up.

Women have been pioneers at a more fundamental level too. The first 'bowler' in the modern sense was a woman, as was the first cricket writer. Although two men, Tom Walker and John Willes have been credited with bowling roundarm when bowlers still used the lob and other underarm variants to take wickets, it is generally accepted that there was feminine inspiration behind the change. It is unlikely that cricket would have grown into the world sport it has if bowlers continued to bowl underarm. Somehow a Dale Steyn lobbing a ball at a batsman does not conjure up an image of intimidation and fire.

Christina Willes is not a name that springs to mind when cricket is discussed. Sometime either late in the 18th century or early in the 19th, Christina, who played cricket with her brother John in Canterbury revolutionised the game by bowling overarm. Christina, like other women, found it difficult to bowl underarm because her skirt kept getting in the way.

The roundarm action produced a perplexing delivery that set her brother thinking. Both were ardent cricketers who practised even during winter in a barn. Soon enough, the joke gained ground that the Willes siblings and the dog they trained to field and fetch could beat any eleven in England.

In 1807, John Willes introduced roundarm bowling to first class cricket. As one writer put it, “It was met with strenuous opposition from those who considered it unfair and injurious to cricket, and also from sections from the crowd who may have found that it upset the betting.”

For 15 years, against staunch opposition but gathering supporters gradually, John Willes kept bowling roundarm till he finally did so at Lord's. He was immediately no-balled. Upset, he ran from the field, mounted his horse and rode away angrily vowing never to play cricket any more. When he died years later, his tombstone said: “He was a patron of all manly sports, and the first to introduce roundarm bowling into cricket.”

Willes died in 1852; it was nother 12 years before overarm bowling was legalised in that magic year of 1864. It was the year when W G Grace made his first class debut as a 15-year-old and also the first year of the publication of Wisden Almanack. Perhaps, 1864 was the year when cricket as we know it today was born. And Christine Willes's interfering skirt and her solution to the problem of that interference had a major role to play. Overarm bowling was, in the words of Don Bradman, “the greatest single change in the development of the game.”

The first eloquent prose writer on cricket was a woman, Mary Russell Mitford, who began writing early in the 19th century and was the first to place the game in its sociological context. Till then, the writing on the game had been in heroic verse – match reports didn't tell you who won or lost, where the games were played or indeed between which teams.

But as early as in 1823, Mitford was writing thus: “Everything is spoilt when money puts its ugly nose in.” Who would think, she wrote, “that a little piece of leather and two pieces of wood had such a delightful and delighting power?”

Mitford was educated on the proceeds of a lottery ticket bought in her name by her father. Our Village, her portraits of thr rural life and cricket, appeared in 1824 when she was criticised for her unladylike familiarity with the intricacies of cricket. Mitford's reaction was typical: “I wonder,” she wrote, “that painters and poets do not make more use of cricket, that picturesque and various game, so full of life and gaeity and good humour.”

Christina Willes and Mary Mitford – perhaps at the next women's world cup, these pioneers will get their due too.

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