Ground-breaking and inspiring study of women’s cricket in history and today

Russell Holden
In the Zone Sport and Politics Consultancy | @russinthezone

Rafaelle Nicholson
Ladies and Lords: A History of Women’s Cricket in Britain
399 pages, paperback, ill.
Bern: Peter Lang Publishing 2019 (Sport, History and Culture)
ISBN 978-1-78874-293-1

With the Women’s T20 World Cup recently won by Australia in front of an audience of 86,174 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, one of the world’s most famous cricket stadia, women’s cricket has advanced substantially in the public consciousness. For those interested in sport this event marked a coming of age for a game that has long existed, though rarely fortunate to have been in the public eye. As regards the non-cricketing audience, the decision to stage this event on International Women’s Day, was a canny move in helping to magnify  the important role and place of women in leisure activities as well as the increased opportunity for female participation and self-expression. Yet another audience was captured by the decision of Cricket Australia to have American musical super-star Katy Perry performing in the post-match celebrations.

Though Melbourne is far removed from Lords, the headquarters of cricket for England and Wales, the significance of the events of March 8th is highly relevant to the fortunes of women’s cricket in Britain and the direction it may choose to follow. Rafaelle Nicholson, in her new volume on Women’s Cricket in Britain has capitalised on this, with her book performing a critical service in drawing together the origins, history and contemporary challenges confronting the women’s game at a point in which traditional sports are increasingly under a series of threats. These include new leisure past-times, an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, issues of cost and the impact of a decade of austerity that has severely reduced opportunities to taste and participate in a sport that some still perceive to be administered by those from a narrow privileged social class. Others have felt, and continue to feel excluded from the game as they are unable to lay claim to the route into the sport offered through family connection and history as Berry (2015) illustrates through his extensive research.

In this ground-breaking and carefully crafted piece of work Nicholson has managed to draw on a wide-range of new source materials including consulting player diaries, club records, and minutes of The Women’s Cricket Association to help understand how the game developed despite the obstacles in its path, both towards female sport as a whole, and in responding to male domination and power in both sporting and societal terms. In seven tightly argued chapters the author travels from the origins of cricket to the development of the Women’s Cricket Association, post-war opportunities, the impact of women’s liberation,  the slow progress of the 1980s and the pragmatic move towards merger with the men’s game in 1997. She concludes with a chapter exploring  the dawning of the professional full-time female cricketer with former captain Charlotte Edwards representing the link between two eras of development.

Utilising her skills as both an academic and well respected journalist, the volume reflects at length on why, when so much has been written on cricket from both literary and academic perspectives, the female element has been largely ignored.

What Nicholson lays claims to, and successfully achieves, is an attempt to use women’s cricket as a vehicle to explore social change since the early 18th century, and sadly, though realistically, she comes to the conclusion that fundamental on-going inequalities remain in terms of the quantity and quality of women’s leisure in modern Britain, despite the growth in participation and choice of past-times. As a female, she confronts the issue of women in sport history remaining a neglected field of academic research, whilst charting the place of feminist thinking in the development of the game and how women players and administrators chose to tread the delicate line between championing the sport as a key element of female empowerment, without at any time wishing to offend the men’s game. Evidence provided by Nicholson from a range of her interviewees confirms that many in the game fiercely rejected the feminist label. Had first and second wave feminism paid more attention to the value of sport as a tool for female advancement, prevailing attitudes within the women’s game may well have been very different and women’s cricket may not been cast continually as an outsider group.

Equally, the author draws the readers attention to a glaring weakness in the study of cricket both from an academic and broader perspective. The greater bulk of what has been published has been driven by concerns largely with the men’s game. Utilising her skills as both an academic and well respected journalist, the volume reflects at length on why, when so much has been written on cricket from both literary and academic perspectives, the female element has been largely ignored. This the author attributes to the failure to adequately address the imbalance in mainstream history of sport, and a challenge is offered to sport historians and to a lesser extent to sport sociologists to address and deconstruct the notion of male hegemony in the sporting arena. In respect of cricket, this means challenging the narrow view of the game which was originally instilled by the needs of colonial advancement and the preservation of male superiority in both sport and wider society.

Overall this new work provides a vital contribution to the existing literature on cricket, but equally has much to offer those engaged with sport history, sport sociology and leisure studies. Furthermore, it should encourage a wider engagement with women’s cricket offering ideas and suggestions to cricket administrators and journalists both within the United Kingdom and overseas. Ideally some role reversal would be appropriate, as within the United Kingdom there is much that the men’s game can learn from the success of the women’s team and its upwards trajectory since 2005, most notably the achievements of 2009 (Ashes victors and holders of the T20 and 50 over international titles). It is also to be hoped that journalists and commentators may read this volume so that they can infuse their reflections and writing on the game with a more holistic understanding of what is happening in women’s cricket and why.

This work should also inspire a drive to more original cricket scholarship which is geared to a multi-disciplinary approach offering a more comprehensive gendered analysis of the game, bringing to the fore the thoughts, actions and reflections of a new generation of female decision-makers and influencers who are working to shape the game at national and local level.

Copyright © Russell Holden 2020

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