The forgotten story of ... Betty Wilson and the women's Ashes
Along with a charred bit of wood, there are some very humble charms in the reliquary of Australian cricket. Think of Don Bradman’s golf ball, or Steve Waugh’s lucky red hanky, or Glenn McGrath’s legs. Alongside them in this rag and bone shop are two old cashmere stockings, each loaded with a cricket ball. They’re twin talismans of our greatest ever all-rounders: one belonged to a young Keith Miller. The other, strung from a high wire clothesline in Collingwood, was in the backyard of , the “Female Bradman”.
Wilson was a household name in post-bellum Australia, the first cricketer to ever make a Test century and take 10 wickets in the same match. It was a talent honed first on the cobbles of Melbourne, and like many legends in Australian cricket, the call up to the field was pure serendipity. On a night-time walk with her father they rounded the local oval, where the Collingwood Ladies' Club trained. A ball trickled to the boundary, and she returned it to the keeper’s gloves. A player asked if she could do it again, and when she did they asked her to join. She was 10 years old.
That spirit of improvisation and happenstance was part of her game from the beginning. Her father made her first pair of cricket boots by hand, her first uniform was an old dress sawn-off by team-mates. But when it came to practice there was no room for chance. She was obsessional. The stocking was the totem where she would practise endlessly, letting the spring of the material whip the ball back in from unpredictable angles.
Fielding was honed by chucking stones at lampposts, visualising them as stumps. She spun at a spot of cotton wool in the nets until she could drop the ball “within a sixpence”, and worked out different lengths based on the height of a batting opponent. Her preparation was so meticulous she even starched the brim of her hat, so it wouldn’t distract her by flapping. Soon she was much better than the women she was playing with and against. On her international debut against New Zealand, she made 90 and took nine wickets. From the first moment, the double was in sight.
It was a time where interest in women’s cricket was at its peak – emancipatory changes had led to hundreds of new clubs springing up in the 1920s and 1930s, and spectators followed. Dressing rooms and grandstands were suddenly crowded. Sometimes the response from the men’s game was supportive, but it could also be bewildered, or outright hostile. The English player and administrator captured the reaction from a press that watched cricket but reported wardrobe malfunctions:
“…the reputable correspondents … recounted what they saw, albeit sometimes with a smile. But the more lively journals, in their search for the sensational, were all too prone to happen on some graceless pose or some sartorial effrontery, which gleefully they splashed abroad as front page news, and took a deal of living down.”
Some male players did little to hide their adverse feelings. Len Hutton once remarked to the broadcaster Brian Johnston that he didn’t understand why women would try to play: “It’s just like a man trying to knit, isn’t it”. But Johnston disagreed, and he wasn’t alone in objecting. Wilson’s play was single-handedly responsible for modernising a few minds at the time. Bill Ponsford sent her an autographed bat in admiration. Bradman offered his compliments on her technique. And Bill O’Reilly reported on the third Women’s Ashes test in 1948-49 for the Sunday Herald:
"When Betty Wilson and Una Paisley were entrusted with the spin attack, I realised that if we men have any laurels we had better set about their defence immediately," he wrote, adding that “…from this time onward I shall steadfastly refrain from saying that 'so and so' batted or bowled 'like an old woman'".
It was her fluent batting that won the most admirers, specialising in hard, timed boundaries hit along the ground. She spent time practising her worst shots, working from the motto that “'there's no use standing there all day waiting for the ball you want to hit”. She averaged 57.46, once smashing a century against Yorkshire in 77 minutes. It won the game for Australia on the last ball, capping an innings described by the former England bowler Bill Bowes as the best he had ever seen by a woman.
Her final series – a Women’s Ashes – produced one of the greatest match performances of all time. Already 37, the trying conditions brought out the best in her, in a seemingly hopeless situation. Australia had collapsed on a pitch ruined by rain. . “England put us in to bat and we were all out for 38 and I was the top scorer with 12. England were killing themselves laughing.”
She then bowled them out for 35. One spell of seven for seven produced the first hat-trick in women’s international cricket, a milestone that would not be repeated until 2004. One of the wickets was taken with a kind of prototype doosra going the other way. When it was Australia’s turn to bat, she took the game away with an unbeaten century. Her career ended with a bowling average under 12.
Her career was both long and brief, in a time where war interrupted schedules, and there was not much Test cricket available for women. She played eleven Tests, and set records that lasted half a century, but there was a feeling her career had been abbreviated, and never quite got the press attention it deserved.
None of that made her obsession with cricket diminish in retirement. She was a mentor to young cricketers, offering advice with an acuity that never diminished, honed as a player and an observer. She died days after attending the Boxing Day Test in 2010, an event she never missed. In the member’s room, the MCC that had once denied her entry gave her an ovation. It was long overdue.