It got so that I knew what was coming when I told someone I was researching the history of women’s cricket. “Aha! Rachael Heyhoe-Flint,” they would say. She was always – without fail – the name on people’s lips.
Sometimes they would ask, “Does she come into your research at all?” I scarcely knew how to answer. Did she come into my research? Of course she did.
When I tried to find other histories of women’s cricket, the closest I came was her wonderful 1976 volume Fair Play, co-authored with Netta Rheinberg. I was surprised, at first, to discover that there were two forewords, penned by Brian Johnston and Colin Cowdrey; I realised later that Rachael’s force of personality was such that they could hardly have resisted when she approached them.
Her autobiography, published in 1978, was endlessly informative but also, in keeping with the great lady herself, filled with humour. Feminism was one of the central themes of my thesis; RHF, in the preface to her autobiography, was pretty open about her own feelings on that topic:
“Challenging male supremacy…doesn’t mean I’m Women’s Lib. Far from it, because I value that bit of underwear they rush out and burn each week with a matinee on Wednesdays. I, too, believe in good support.”
In one memorable meeting with my thesis supervisor, in which I quoted from the Eric Morecambe-penned foreword to RHF’s book – “she rarely eats at home. In fact, her lonely husband has eaten so many frozen dinners that he’s been treated for a chilblained stomach and has had a gas heater fitted in his igloo” – my supervisor struggled to believe that it could have been written by THE Eric Morecambe. It was, of course.
When I went through the Women’s Cricket Association archive, there was an entire folder devoted to the euphemistically-termed “RHF Affair” – the occasion in 1977 when she was sacked from the captaincy and omitted from the World Cup squad.
When I looked for newspaper coverage of women’s cricket, she would inevitably crop up at some point. If the story wasn’t about her, it was written by her – like all those match reports in the Daily Telegraph in 1968/9. Looking for stories about women’s cricket was often like looking for a needle in a haystack; occasionally they would be there, but they were usually very hard to spot. Interviews with RHF, on the other hand, would be whole-page spreads. “Our busts don’t get in the way,” she told one Guardian reporter in 1973, when he asked. “We don’t have to cut them off.” Somehow she still managed to charm him.
Most recently – just last Monday in fact – I spent the afternoon in the library reading about her incredible innings of 179 not out at The Oval in 1976.
Did she come into my research? Always.
She was such an ever-present theme, in fact, always there in the background, that when she agreed to meet me to be interviewed for the thesis I was rather nervous. They say, after all, that you should never meet your heroes. Thankfully in this instance that adage proved far from the truth. She was interested in my PhD. She was warm, funny, and charming. It was one of the best afternoons of the entire research process. All I can say is that I feel privileged, now, that I got the opportunity to talk to her about her incredible, eventful life before it was too late.
“Let’s rest on 179 for now,” her last email to me, sent just after Christmas, ended. Not a bad final note to strike.