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Women have probably played backyard cricket in Australia from the earliest days of the colony. The first recorded women’s cricket match was an informal one in 1874 in the Victorian gold town of Bendigo.
The first official organised women’s cricket match was between the Fernleas and the Siroccos, (respectively captained by sisters Nellie and Lily Gregory), on 15 April 1887 at the Association Ground, now the Sydney Cricket Ground. A crowd of 600 attended and raised money for the Bulli relief fund. Australian women have always been enthusiastic spectators at cricket matches and soon proved themselves to be just as keen players of the sport. From the last decade of the 19th century, teams and clubs for women and girls were formed and the first intercolonial, now interstate, matches were played.
Cricket’s popularity and its acceptance as an appropriate sport for ladies waxed and waned over the next few decades. In 1931, the Australian Women’s Cricket Council (AWCC) was formed in 1931 to promote and support the sport. In the 1930s the first international matches were played between England and Australia.
Early women cricketers and spectators
Lorna Thomas retired as a cricketer in the late 1950s after a long career playing district and interstate matches. In 1960 she took up team management and went on to manage five international teams including four overseas tours. In 1978, after almost a lifetime's involvement with women's cricket, she retired from her postion as manager of the NSW and Australian teams. She was awarded an MBE for services to cricket and was made a life member of Women's Cricket Australia.
Women’s cricket England versus Australia
The first international women’s cricket team to visit Australia was the English team, invited to tour in the summer of 1934-35 to play a series against an Australian team captained by Margaret Peden. Three Test matches were played against Australia and one against New Zealand – the first ever women’s Test matches. Although the English women had to pay their own way out, the newly-formed Australian Women’s Cricket Council, (AWCC), sponsored the tour, paying all in-country costs and retaining match profits.
The public and media interest in the English players was intense. Betty Archdale, captain of the English team, was praised in the press for being a fair and professional player. This was the first international tour since the controversial Bodyline tour of 1932, and Archdale and her team were conscious of the need to heal the cricketing rift between the two countries. The matches set crowd records at grounds across the country. Men in particular, were eager and curious to see the women play. The famous SCG barracker Yabba (Stephen Gascoigne) approved:
‘The ladies are playing alright for me. This is cricket, this is… Leave the girls alone.’
England won the series.
Note the hole in the front of her shoe.
‘I thought they’d bowl lobs, but by Jove, they can play.’
Australian women cricketers matches in England
The first time a team of Australian women toured overseas was in 1937. The Australian team had to raise their own funds to travel to England for the tour. Proceeds from many Australian matches during 1936 went to the Australian Team Fund. The commemorative programme below is from an interstate match between New South Wales and Victoria. It outlines the itinerary for the upcoming English tour, as well as the results of matches played against the English women in 1934/35.
Under captain Margaret Peden, the Australian team arrived in England in May 1937. The rules of the tour were strict: no woman was permitted to smoke or drink, or be accompanied by a husband or companion.
The team played matches all over England, including three Tests, of which England won two. The women were not permitted to play on the grounds at Lords, (and in fact no female team was allowed to play at Lords until the mid 1970s), but another famous cricketing ground was opened to the women – The Oval – where they attracted a crowd of over six thousand. Once again media interest in the team was intense. Many journalists and spectators expressed surprise at the level of skill displayed by the cricketers. Marjorie Pollard, a cricketing commentator who published her reports of the Australian tour overheard one man say: ‘I thought they’d bowl lobs, but by Jove, they can play.’
Women's cricket souvenir programme New South Wales v Victoria, 1936
The rest of the 20th century saw women’s cricket played at all levels in Australia and overseas at increasing levels of professionalism. One of the longest-serving players and administrators for women’s cricket in New South Wales during this period was Lorna Thomas.
Thomas retired as a cricketer in the late 1950s after a long career playing district and interstate matches. In 1960 she took up team management and went on to manage five international teams including four overseas tours. In 1978, after almost a lifetime's involvement with women's cricket, she retired from her position as manager of the NSW and Australian teams. She was awarded an MBE for services to cricket and was made a life member of Women's Cricket Australia.
A significant collection of papers collected by Lorna Thomas about women’s cricket is held at the State Library of NSW, including scrapbooks, correspondence, photographs, newscuttings and souvenirs.
Cricket continues to be played by girls and women from grassroots to international level. Although it does not enjoy the same high profile accorded to the men’s game, the public and media interest shown in the sport has increased in the past few decades. Australia is one of eleven countries competing in international women’s cricket. The national team, the Southern Stars, is consistently ranked number one in the world in both one day and Test cricket.