Julia Price stumps Clare Connor

Julia Price stumps Clare Connor in the first Test, 1998

Craig Prentis / © Getty Images


Let there be Ashes

How the fiercest rivalry in women's cricket got itself a prize

Raf Nicholson  |  

July 20, 1998 at Lord's was not a particularly auspicious day. A bit of sunshine, a groundsman rolling the pitch, two teams training in the nets. Eventually a group of about 30 people congregated in the Harris Garden with a miniature bat, some matches and a wok.

The bat was burned in the wok, the ashes were carefully gathered up and placed in a small wooden trophy. Afterwards everyone went their separate ways. There was little glamour and certainly no fanfare.

Ultimately this would turn out to be one of the biggest moments in the history of women's cricket. In the words of Charlotte Edwards, then 18 years old, "I didn't realise then what I was part of." Nobody did.

"We are not here for any Ashes but merely to play cricket," proclaimed Betty Archdale, the first captain of the England women's cricket team, when she stepped off the boat in Australia in 1934. For so long, she was right. Between Archdale's team's expedition to play the first ever women's cricket international, and July 20, 1998, when that miniature bat was burned, England and Australia had faced off in 34 Test matches. The two countries had met each other more than any other pair, fought tooth and nail over decades and eras, and in Sydney in 1992, played the only five-day women's Test in history. And yet, for all those years, there was never a trophy.

In part this can be explained by the early ethos of the English Women's Cricket Association (WCA). The original WCA constitution of 1930 proclaimed that "no member of any affiliated club shall take part in any cricket challenge cup or prize competition". That rule was abolished in 1966, and since then there has been the institution of a World Cup, otherwise known as the Jack Hayward Trophy, and there was a "St George Assurance Trophy" for the 1984 Test series against New Zealand. Yet, for this most important of encounters there was nothing.

It takes a fire to spark a change: all set for the symbolic bat-burning at Lord's

It takes a fire to spark a change: all set for the symbolic bat-burning at Lord's Craig Prentis / © Getty Images

The key question in 1998 was, why now, why after 64 years? None of the England or Australian players who were part of that 1998 series knows the answer. Mel Jones sums it up: "As players you just get told what you're doing and where you're going. You don't get told why." Even Clare Connor, the head of women's cricket at the ECB and the brainchild behind the recent multi-format, points-based women's Ashes, has few memories. "Of course, it was a very momentous occasion. But I don't remember being given an explanation about it."

And then I talk to Norma Izard, and everything falls into place.

Norma Izard is now 84 years old. She remains the longest-serving manager of any England cricket team, men's or women's. Her nine-year stint in charge of England women culminated in a World Cup win at Lord's in 1993. By 1998 she had served as president of the WCA for four years. But as it turns out, her legacy to the game is even greater than I had realised. It was she who decided the time was right for the women's game to have some ashes of its own.

"I was fed up," she remembers. "The Australians kept on saying, 'Why don't we have a trophy?' But they never did anything about it. So I thought, 'Well, I'll do it then!' I thought, 'Why shouldn't we do the same as the men? They've got Ashes, so we'll have some Ashes!' We can't do it exactly the same, but we had won the World Cup in 1993 here in England, and we were trying to get an equal position in cricket. I talked about it with the WCA committee, and they agreed it would be a good idea to create some ashes by burning a bat."

For Norma, it seemed exactly the right time. The year 1998 was a significant one for women's cricket. Four months before the bat-burning ceremony, at an Extraordinary General Meeting of the WCA, members had voted to merge with the newly formed England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). The 1998 series would be the last one played under the auspices of the WCA.

As a sign of the times, the same company that had sponsored the men's Ashes the previous year, Vodafone, agreed to support the women's series. Prior to the Tests, journalists were apparently sent a bunch of red roses with a card reading: "Eleven English roses playing cricket - watch this space." Vodafone would love the PR that went along with the creation of the women's Ashes, especially as the two sides had not met in a bilateral series in England since 1987.

Australia take the ODI series 5-0 at Lord's

Australia take the ODI series 5-0 at Lord's Craig Prentis / © Getty Images

Plus, for Norma: "It was my last year as President, 1998, and I thought it was quite a good way to go out."

The 1998 series was big in more ways than one. England had walked all over their opponents in the 1993 World Cup, but five years down the line the Australians had assembled perhaps the greatest side in the history of the women's game. They were strong, aggressive, fit, and captained by Belinda Clark, fresh from becoming the first cricketer to hit an ODI double-century. Charlotte Edwards describes them as having "the best bowling attack I've faced in women's cricket: it just kept coming at you." That included Cathryn Fitzpatrick, still the quickest bowler the women's game has seen.

It was a side that had triumphed the previous winter, in the 1997 World Cup in India - a tournament chronicled by an English reporter, Pete Davies, in Mad Dogs and English Women. By the time the Aussies were on the plane to England the book had been published, and they spent much of the journey reading it. Of the many insults hurled by the English players behind Australian backs, perhaps the most memorable was the description of legspinner Olivia Magno as "looking like Morticia out of the Addams family".

Understandably, then, the Australians, arriving in England for their two-month long tour, were, in the words of Jones, "really revved up for that series. We wanted to make a statement."

They certainly did that. By the time of the little ceremony at Lord's, they had pulverised England in the first four of five ODIs. And up to that point, mixing between the two teams had been minimal, to say the least. Edwards remembers that she was "quite frightened of most of the Australian players".

For the first time that summer, they were brought together by the burning of the bat.

A painter captures the scene on the first day of the final Test, in Worcester

A painter captures the scene on the first day of the final Test, in Worcester Craig Prentis / © Getty Images

The event may not have been glamorous, but it took some planning. Izard was never one to let the grass grow under her feet. She approached a friend, Brian Hodges, the husband of the midwife who had, years earlier, delivered her youngest son. Hodges was a woodcarver.

"We were talking," Izard remembers, "and I said, 'Ever thought of making a trophy?' 'What?' 'Something in the shape of a cricket ball.' And he said, 'Well, I'll have a try', and it was he that made this trophy. I commissioned him in the end to do it." The trophy was produced from a 300-year-old English yew tree which had been blown down in the famous storm of 1987.

Lord's was the obvious location for the ceremony. The teams were playing an ODI there the next day, and it would fit in with the training schedule. Izard, though, was concerned. The MCC was embroiled in a controversy over the issue of female membership, following Rachael Heyhoe-Flint's seven-year campaign. Australia's wicketkeeper Julia Price recalls being shown round the pavilion on the day of the ceremony and getting told: "On the day of the match you will walk through the Long Room to get out on to the pitch, but technically you're not allowed in the Long Room, so if you could just hurry through…'" Would the MCC actually permit a "bat-burning" ceremony by the women?

Fortunately the MCC secretary, Roger Knight, was supportive of the women's game, and the committee was won around by the positive publicity that staging the event would bring. "So they said yes," Izard recalls triumphantly. "And they suggested that we did it at the Harris Garden, because it was where we always had our tour photographs taken." It was the MCC that eventually provided the miniature bat and the wok - "better than a frying pan, I suppose," jokes Izard. Knight attended the ceremony, along with both teams, lined up on opposite sides of the wok, glaring daggers at each other.

Despite the planning, it was a slightly frenetic occasion. The teams were supposed to have signed the bat in advance of the ceremony, but Jones recalls running back and forth between the Harris Garden and the print shop trying to get posters made, and having to make a "last-minute bolt to make sure I scribbled my name on it [the bat], right before it was burned!" As Izard, Knight, and the two captains, Belinda Clark and Karen Smithies, crouched beside the wok for the big moment, other problems emerged. "The bat wouldn't fit into the wok!" recalls Clark. "So it didn't entirely burn."

Norma Izard:

Norma Izard: "The Australians kept on saying, 'Why don't we have a trophy?' But they never did anything about it. So I thought, 'Well, I'll do it then!'" Eileen Langsley / © Getty Images

Eventually, though, the ashes were removed and placed into the wooden-ball trophy that Hodges had created. The event was captured by a TV crew and some photographers, but it nonetheless felt rather anti-climactic to the players. "It was quite a strange exercise really," says Clark. "It literally felt like we were in the backyard of someone's place, burning a cricket bat! It wasn't a big fuss, no press conference around it, no hoo-ha." While the England players were regal in formal touring uniforms, complete with blazers, the Australians attended the ceremony in tracksuits, having come straight from training.

For anyone aware of women's cricket history, though, it was a poignant event. As well as representing the beginning of the women's Ashes, it also marked an ending. It was the last gasp for the organisation that had run women's cricket in England for 72 years. It was not just the bat that Izard and the rest of the WCA executive agreed to burn: in the wok was also a copy of the WCA constitution and rulebook.

Izard is her usual unsentimental self when she talks about this. "It was the right thing to do. The WCA was finished and the constitution was no use to anybody anymore."

The ODI at Lord's the following day was a memorable one. Australia's Lisa Keightley became the first woman to score a century at Lord's. The Aussie bowlers then lived up to their fearsome reputation, running through the England batsmen to win by 114 runs and take the series 5-0. Could the Australians repeat their feat in the Tests?

Unfortunately for Fitzpatrick and Co, the pitch in Guildford, the venue for the first Test, was a road. England racked up 414 in their first innings; the Aussies achieved a world record 569 for 6 declared, including a double-century from Joanne Broadbent and a century on Test debut for Jones. The draw was inevitable.

Cathryn Fitzpatrick, who took 4 for 91 in the second Test, finds a perch on the balcony at Harrogate during the game

Cathryn Fitzpatrick, who took 4 for 91 in the second Test, finds a perch on the balcony at Harrogate during the game Ben Radford / © Getty Images

After just a two-day rest break, the second Test commenced at Harrogate. Here, the heroine for England was the late, great Jan Brittin. She had already broken the record for the most Test runs with a century in Guildford; now she hit 167 of her side's 326 first-innings runs. Even more remarkably, she did it while wearing a splint to protect a finger that she had dislocated and broken during the third ODI, in Hove. The match petered out into a draw.

In the final Test in Worcester, England got lucky: the third day was entirely washed out due to rain, leaving not quite enough time for Australia to bowl England out a second time. England had been thoroughly outclassed that summer. Yet the first women's Ashes was a draw, and Izard presented the new wooden-ball trophy to both captains.

For the players, there was no doubt that competing for an Ashes trophy had given the series added significance. "It gave us another reason to try and beat them," says England's Clare Taylor. "There was more than just kudos to play for now."

The impact is still felt. Recently Cricket Australia released an advert for the forthcoming women's Ashes. It featured a young Australian woman reciting the lines that played on the 1970s Lillee-Thomson refrain: "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust/If Perry don't get you, Jonassen must." It epitomises the legacy of what happened on that sunny July day, almost 20 years ago - a legacy that, looking back, all the players involved recognise.

"We were a part of where it all started from," says Australia's Karen Rolton. "You can see the fierce competition between the teams now, every time the Ashes are played."

For Jones, the tie-in with the men's game is significant: "It gives millions and millions of cricket followers an instant recognition of what this means: as soon as people say 'Ashes', they know it's huge." In short, the creation of the women's Ashes has done what it was designed to do: capture the attention of the public.

The mighty Jan Brittin bats on day one of the third Test. She finished the series with 450 runs at 112.50

The mighty Jan Brittin bats on day one of the third Test. She finished the series with 450 runs at 112.50 Craig Prentis / © Getty Images

But it was also about creating something specifically female, about the women having their own trophy, their own ceremony, their own historic moment. "You can piggyback on the men's stuff," reflects Price, "but women's cricket has got its own history. It's important to understand that, and it's nice to be playing for something of our own."

Yet there remains one unsolved mystery in all this. Because Izard's woodcarver friend Hodges had made two wooden-ball trophies. The first one contained the ashes that were burned on July 20, 1998. The second one had a slight flaw in the wood and remained empty.

It turns out that when the next women's Ashes series was played, in England in 2001, and won by Australia, they took back with them down under the second, empty trophy - not the one containing the remains of the miniature bat. The actual "women's Ashes", in fact, remained in the museum at Lord's.

A new women's Ashes trophy was eventually created, in 2013, with the wooden ball mounted in the centre of a larger frame. But there is confusion about whether the correct wooden ball was used in the new trophy. Meanwhile, somewhere along the line the other wooden ball went missing - nobody, not Izard or anyone at Lord's, knows of its whereabouts.

So was it the first wooden ball that was used to create the new women's Ashes trophy? Or the second, empty one? Does the trophy the players are competing for this winter actually contain any ashes? No one is quite sure. And for now, that will have to remain a mystery.

Raf Nicholson is an England supporter, a feminist, and has recently completed a doctoral thesis on the history of women's cricket. @RafNicholson