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WOMEN'S CRICKET HISTORY

Women's cricket reached an important milestone in March 1998 when members of the Women's Cricket Association, for 72 years the sport's governing body, voted to become part of the England and Wales Cricket Board.

It was the first of several landmarks of the season, one other being Jan Brittin's Test runs' world record of 1,935, set in the third Test against Australia at Worcester.

Brittin had beaten the 1,594 record of Rachael Heyhoe Flint in the first Test at Guildford two weeks earlier. That mark was set in 1979 when Brittin made her debut.

Women's cricket has come of age in the past two years. In July 1996 England and New Zealand played the 100th women's Test worldwide. India staged the sixth Women's World Cup 15 months later when 11 teams, the highest number ever, took part.

Australia won the title for the fourth time in six tournaments setting fantastic new standards for the women's game. The subsequent challenge is for England, and the rest of the world, to catch up.

The action, at Guildford in July 1996, was a credit to the occasion. The match ended in a draw but the outcome was decided on the last ball with fortunes swinging between the teams on each of the game's four days.

Had New Zealand won, it would have been their first Test victory over their hosts. England, however, and in particular Sue Redfern and Clare Taylor, batted bravely for the draw and maintained their unbeaten record.

England have largely led the development of women's cricket form the very first Test - their defeat of Australia in Brisbane in 1934 - through World Cup triumph in the inaugural championship in 1973, to the appointment in 1996 of England vice-captain, Barbara Daniels as the WCA's first full-time Executive Director (now the ECB's National Manager for Women's Cricket).

She surely was among the first sportsmen or women to combine top class performance with their sport's highest administrative post.

Records of women's cricket date back to the 18th century when the winner's prize could be a barrel of ale or eleven pairs of lace gloves. Hambledon from Hampshire beat Surrey based Bramley by 127 notches in the first recorded match in 1745 at Gosden Common, Surrey, when games could lure crowds of 2,000 plus.

Pictorial evidence suggests women played as long ago as the 1300s, however, although the first club for women, the White Heather Club, was not formed until 1887. Matches were often between villages or teams of married and single women. They were boisterous affairs when betting on the outcome was popular.

Ball's Pond, Middlesex was the setting for the first county match between Surrey and Hampshire in 1811. It was sponsored by two noblemen to the tune of 1,000 guineas and players' ages ranged, reports claimed, from 14 to 60.

Christine Willes invented overarm bowling soon after to avoid tangles with her billowing skirt. But it was her brother who won credit for the innovation and he spent the rest of his playing days attempting to win official recognition for the action. His career was cut short when he stormed off after being no-balled while playing for Kent against MCC at Lord's. He jumped on his horse, rode away and never played again.

The game's popularity waned after that but was revived in the late 19th century when eight noblewomen formed the White Heather Club. Within four years its membership had risen from eight to 50 and the stage was set for large-scale cricket development.

The Original English Lady Cricketers, two professional teams who toured the country playing exhibition matches, put women's cricket on the national map. Their first game, in Liverpool, drew 15,000 spectators. While they lasted, they were successful but the group folded after two years when the manager did a runner with the profits.

The Women's Cricket Association was formed in 1926 by a group of enthusiasts after a cricket holiday in Malvern. They ran matches throughout England and, in their first season, staged 49 games and a cricket festival in Colwall which still runs today.

In 1927 there were 10 clubs, within seven years there were 80 and in 1938, 123 had been formed. At its peak, the WCA had 208 affiliated clubs and 94 school and junior teams.

England played their first game against The Rest at Leicester in 1933. The first international tour, to Australia and New Zealand, took place a year later with only two players unable to afford the £80 cost.

Tests were originally played over three days, extended to four in 1985 and now, occasionally, last five days. Sir Jack Hayward, who funded England tours to the West Indies in 1970 and 1971, also financed the first women's World Cup in 1973, prompted by then England captain Rachael Heyhoe Flint.

Sir Roger Bannister, chairman of the Sports Council, opened the World Cup, the first ever cricket championship for men or women. England beat Australia in the final by 92 runs and Heyhoe Flint went on to become a household name.

England won their second world title in 1993, beating New Zealand at Lord's when Brittin took the winning catch off Suzie Kitson's bowling. Brittin's fantastic batting record may never be beaten, not at least until England's newest prodigy, Charlotte Edwards, has been playing many years.

Edwards is amongst a crop of youngsters making bold bids for England places in the 2000 World Cup in New Zealand. That competition is part of a busy schedule for women's cricket which looks set to confirm the sport's place on cricket's worldwide map.

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