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Australian cricket pioneers given voice in Bowl the Maidens Over

Bowl the Maidens Over, a new book from Louise Zedda-Sampson, gives voice to the story of the first recorded game of women’s cricket in Australia.  

The Bendigo Advertiser: Tuesday March 17, 1874. Image: Trove

Last year, fresh from their win in the T20 Women’s World Cup, the Australian Women’s Cricket team topped the list of national teams that fans felt an emotional connection to. It wasn’t a surprising result for anyone who was at the MCG on International Women’s Day in 2020. Of course, it hasn’t always been this way for women playing cricket. For one group of women, the twenty-two who played in the first recorded game of women’s cricket in Australia nearly 150 years ago in 1874, it was very much the opposite.

It’s this story that is at the heart of Bowl The Maidens Over, a new book from Melbourne writer Louise Zedda-Sampson. Using reports, letters and advertisements from local and metropolitan newspapers, Louise reconstructs the story of that historic game and the challenges faced by the women after news of their exploits reached beyond their local community. In doing so, Louise has breathed new life into a story that has long been forgotten or ignored.  

Bowl The Maidens Over is a valuable and important contribution to sporting history in Australia

The story begins with a local family: the Raes. John Rae, who also happened to be the headmaster of a local school, approached the organisers of the Sandhurst Easter Fair and pitched the idea of a women’s cricket game as a fundraiser for the Bendigo Hospital and Benevolent Asylum. John was ably supported by his wife, Emily, who was the school’s head teacher, but it was his daughter, Barbara, who seemed to take the most prominent position when it came to organising—and later defending—the match. She captained one team, while her mother captained the other. A second daughter, Helen, or Nellie as she was known, also played.

It seems likely, given their enthusiasm, that the idea for this match was probably that of the women of the Rae family. That enthusiasm wasn’t limited to the Rae women. Louise writes that advertisements in the local papers calling for players received 30 to 40 applications and two teams of 11 were easily fielded.

Reports of the game in the Bendigo Advertiser, transcripts of which appear in Bowl The Maidens Over, described the game as ‘unprecedented as far as Australia was concerned’. But these local reports were supportive, even going as far as suggesting that the women demonstrated that cricket was ‘alike fitted for the gentler as for the sterner sex’. However, this encouraging and favourable coverage wasn’t to last. When news of the game reached the metropolitan newspapers, they were anything but supportive.

Louise writes that one article in the Melbourne Punch ‘ridiculed the cricketers’, treating the game as a comical spectacle and writing about it as such. Another article, this time from The Herald, attacked the game and compared the women to suffragettes: ‘Let our women keep their own places in our homes in this day of growing disregard for the chimeric “moral” influence’. The Maryborough and Dunnolly Advertiser took their lead from The Herald, calling the game an ‘unbecoming spectacle’ and an ‘unfeminine trial of masculine skill’. When John Rae leapt to the defence of the women cricketers, he came under attack himself. The use of primary sources is quite striking and you can’t help but feel some frustration and anger on behalf of the women who played when you read the abuse and ridicule they endured.

For Louise, these newspaper reports, which she says lasted for at least a month, not only flipped on its head the idea that major cities were the home of progressive ideals but also illustrated the sustained attack the women experienced.

“The people in Bendigo had this wonderful thing happening. It was all really locally supported, there was huge community excitement, and then the ‘civilized’, you know, city people put the big damper on it all,” she said.  

“There were actually other articles as well that I could have put in there… there were more. The ones that I’ve put in there were strong samples and probably, you know, some of them were the worst.”

Melbourne Punch, 9 April 1874. Image: Trove.

In compiling these newspaper reports, Bowl The Maidens Over not only reconstructs the story of the game but also illustrates just how significant that game was. And why its significance is still relevant today, nearly 150 years later. The story of the Rae family and the women who played alongside them is a perfect case study for the ways in which women have had to overcome mountains of opposition just to play the sports they love. It wasn’t—and has never been—a case of women not wanting to play. They were prevented from doing so. Often by the kinds of social and cultural norms that informed the newspapers reports featured in Bowl the Maidens Over. It’s not a way of thinking that disappeared with the 19th century. We can see remnants of these ideas still coursing through sport today. Disparities in opportunity and access and resources. The overwhelming bias against women when it comes to mainstream media coverage. The fact that women are even now, in 2021, only just getting access to the same events at the Olympics that men have been competing in for decades.  

Louise, who says she is “not a sports person”, stumbled upon the story of that 1874 game while volunteering as a researcher for the Youlden Parkville Cricket Club.

“I actually just couldn’t believe that the story [of the 1874 game] hadn’t been told. And I think it’s probably one of those little things that because people didn’t realise the scope of the events it just sort of slipped through the cracks.,” she said. 

“And in all honesty—and I know this sounds really silly—I kept expecting someone else to write about it, because I thought there are so many passionate people out there on this topic. But no one did.”

What started as an essay for the Melbourne Cricket Club, published just in time for the T20 World Cup at the MCG in 2020, turned into a book when Louise discovered that she just couldn’t walk away from the story.

“No one really knew what they’d been through and how much on a personal level, this must have cost,” Louise said.

“These were real people… They’re not just the scores at the end of the game, if that makes sense. So, for me, it’s about really sharing as much as I could about what they went through and I think that just makes it, that makes it come home to a lot more people that these are real people doing real things.

“So even though I’m not a cricketing person, I really relate to these women as having had these enormous struggles as females. That needs to be counted, because they’ve done something significant.”

The Herald 25 April 1874. Image: Trove.

While a slim book, less than a hundred pages long, Bowl The Maidens Over is a valuable and important contribution to sporting history in Australia and in particular women’s sporting history. These stories matter. Individually and collectively. The women who took to the field in 1874 deserve recognition for their efforts. It doesn’t matter that they were playing a match ostensibly for charity and not competition. They created space where there hadn’t been before and that matters. Their contribution to the game of cricket matters. In many ways, the women who played in that 1874 game paved the way for today’s heroines to play on an international stage. More games followed that first one in Bendigo, including matches at the Sydney Cricket Ground and by the early 1900s, women’s cricket associations were launching across the country.  

“I think it was one of those steps that did help pave the way,” Louise said. “It’s like, they stepped into the fray coped all of this and like everything else, it’s you step in, there’s fuss and then the next time there’s not as much fuss because it’s all been said or, you know, each time it’s sort of the impact of it I think lessons a little bit so I think that they really were the pioneer cricketers.”

Bowl the Maidens Over will be launched in Bendigo on August 21 (we’ll share more details with you when we have them) but it’s available for purchase now.

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