Women at the Wicket

Published: 2018
Pages: 156
Author: McKie, Adam
Publisher: ACS
Rating: 2.5 stars

Back in the late 1960s, as a very small boy, I must have watched Denis Compton bat, as he used to turn out for the International Cavaliers, whose matches were televised on BBC2 on Sunday afternoons. I wish I could remember, but sadly I can’t. The regret stems from something I do remember, that being the way cricket lovers of my father’s generation used to talk about Compo. Eyes would first light up and then glaze over at the mention of the name, and the way they talked about Compo’s batting made me long to have seen him play.

Compo was in his fifties by then, and what I do recall is seeing and hearing him in his role on BBC television and radio. An avuncular summariser Compo was seldom too critical of anyone, and his contributions rarely memorable or incisive and I do not recall seeing him very much after the mid 1970s.

My next memory of Compo dates from 1988 and a BBC documentary based around a dinner held to mark his seventieth birthday. Married three times, for the final time as late as 1975, Compo had five children. His first two marriages produced three sons (one of whom is Nick’s father) and the last one two daughters, who would therefore have still been children at the time the programme was made. In the closing interview the presenter asked Compo about his daughters and cricket. Compo chuckled and explained that whilst his daughters had played the game, girls’ cricket was ‘for the birds’.

There is no mention of Compo in Women at the Wicket, but there is a quote from 1899 that echoes his views, that cricket is not a game for women. That comment came from a man who looms larger in the history of the game even than Compo, WG Grace, and nothing much changed over the next decade and a half, until the Great War began. As we all know that conflict changed the world forever and, a century on from its conclusion, we live in a very different society even if, as Compo’s comment demonstrates, some attitudes took longer to change than others.

Adam McKie’s book is the result of research for a Masters Degree awarded by Royal Holloway University and funded by the ACS. The sub-title is A History of Women’s Cricket in Interwar England, so its mission statement is clear. Over those twenty years women’s cricket changed from a bit of fun occasionally indulged in by the wealthier classes, to a proper sport with international competition and, in 1934/35, the first ‘Ashes’ series. England won that meeting, and a return visit in 1937 resulted in a drawn series. Then it was War again, and after that McKie presents his conclusions, and a glimpse at what was to come.

There are some interesting statistics in that final chapter. In 1939 there were around 6,800 playing members affiliated to the Women’s Cricket Association. In 1945 the figure was, evidencing other priorities, not even 1,000, but by 1955 had recovered and advanced, the figure for that year being more than 9,000. Over the next thirty years however the trend had gone into a sharp reverse, and that following had fallen by two thirds by the time of Compo’s seventieth celebrations.

Frustratingly the participation numbers end there, but as we all know the women’s game has taken off in leaps and bounds in the last few years and has a much, much higher profile today than it did even five years ago. The men’s game could and hopefully will learn a thing or two, and what has been done so skilfully in recent years is certainly something that interests me. Unfortunately however Women at the Wicket does not deal with that, although it does contain an excellent foreword from Alison Mitchell.

So, bearing in mind its limited mission statement, does Women at the Wicket hit the spot? It certainly has one big advantage, that being that whilst such a history of the men’s game would comprise a beginning, middle and end that I was already familiar with, McKie had a blank canvas to work with. I suspect that much the same will apply to many of his readers.

There can be no doubting the amount of research that has gone into the book, but the finished product is not entirely satisfying. There is of course a difference between work put together for essentially academic purposes, and a book written to entertain. Thus whilst Women at the Wicket by and large held my interest it was heavy going at times, and for me was definitely a book to read one chapter at a time, the highlights being the well reasoned conclusion and Ms Mitchell’s foreword.

The appearance of the book is very much in keeping with the usual ACS style, although I must be getting older as I increasingly notice the font size, which might usefully be upped a notch or two. Definitely deserving of praise however are the photographs, and that of Betty Archdale on page 50 in particular. A couple of months on from first sight I am still trying to work out which exponent of the men’s game it reminds me of – one day a light bulb moment will occur and I will remember.

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