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How women changed cricket Published: 14 August 2013

Cricket match played by the Countess of Derby and other ladies (1779)
Cricket match played by the Countess of Derby and other ladies (1779)

In recent years there has been a concerted effort from the media and cricket's governing bodies to promote women’s cricket, giving the impression that women playing the game is quite new.

But the role of women in cricket has actually been significant since its origins.

The girls bowled, batted, ran and catched as well as most men could do

Women may have actually invented overarm bowling and could be the first cricketers to use a non-red cricket ball, long before the men's game sampled the white balls that we now see in one-day and twenty20 cricket.

So what evidence is there to suggest that women were involved in the playing of the game right from the start?

The two images below show women playing forms of cricket long before the modern game was formed.

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The first picture shows a woman about to bowl in a medieval sketch - taken from a comic strip called 'Focus on fact: Cricket, lovely cricket', that was published in the 1970s and used manuscripts from the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

The second appears to show monks and nuns playing a version of cricket together in the fourteenth century.

So women may well have played cricket from its very beginning.

The first recorded game, however, was in 1745. The Reading Mercury reported: “Eleven maids of Bramley and eleven maids of Hambleton, dressed all in white, the girls bowled, batted, ran and catched as well as most men could do.”  

In the years following the women’s game became quite popular. A game in Sussex in 1768 attracted a crowd of 3,000.

One of the better known facts about women and cricket is that legendary cricketer W.G. Grace was taught how to play my his mother.

Less well known is that women may have invented overarm bowling.  

It is claimed Christina Willes used to bowled overarm to her brother John, who played cricket for Kent and England in the early nineteenth century, to avoid getting her arm tangled up in her skirts. John then tried out the method at Lord’s, and the rest, as they say, is history.  

Whether this is true or not may never be known, but women have certainly been at the heart of the game’s development.

I was listening to an interview on the MCC audio archive between Ken Medlock, the former chairman of John Wisden & Co, and David Rayvern Allen, the cricket writer and broadcaster.

During a section when Medlock is discussing the making of cricket balls, the interviewer Allen suddenly drops in a comment about blue cricket balls being used for the women’s game so ladies wouldn’t be frightened by the red balls! 

A myth surely?  Like piano legs being covered up for decency’s sake in Victorian times.  I had to find out – and found evidence that they did exist almost straight away.

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A ball specially made for women's cricket, weighing 5oz and coloured blue.

According to an exhibition catalogue from a 1963 Exhibition of Women’s Cricketana: “The blue ball made specially by Alfred Reader at the request of Gamages Ltd. in 1897 to ensure that lady cricketers would not swoon at the sight of a red one, did not prove practical as it could not be seen again the background of grass and sky.

"Of interest is the fact that the weight of this ball, of which a limited supply was produced, is 5ozs., the same as has been used by women cricketers since 1926.  The ball on exhibit is the only preserved memento of this curious experiment.”

The above blue ball, on loan from the Women's Cricket Association, is part of the MCC Collections and is stamped 'A.W. Gamage Ltd.;'A.W.G.', Holborn, E.C.'.

It was commissioned by a department store in central London called Gamages, and made by A. Reader & Co, the famous ball makers from Kent.

So there you have it, the evidence to suggest that women may well have introduced overam bowling to cricket and played the first ever cricket game with a non-red ball.


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