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Sport: Women's Ashes top 20: Players as organisers, a big investment and high stakes — this was the first women's Ashes

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Mary Spear was part of the English women's team which arrived in Australia in 1934. (Supplied: State Library of NSW) © Provided by ABC Grandstand Mary Spear was part of the English women's team which arrived in Australia in 1934. (Supplied: State Library of NSW)

Peggy Antonio was only 17 years old when she stood in the middle of the Brisbane Exhibition Ground in December 1934. One could forgive the teenager for feeling overawed by the occasion. It was the maiden women's Ashes, after all.

She might have been young, but Antonio was a clever bowler with an eclectic bag of tricks.

With England's Betty Snowball at the crease, sitting on 15 runs and seemingly ready to settle in, she'd need them.

But then Snowball erred in response to Antonio's ball. She hit it high — skied it. Essie Shevill was waiting underneath it and Peggy Antonio had written her name into the history books: the first Australian woman to take a Test wicket. By the time the Ashes were over, she'd have 12 to her name.

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While today the 1934/35 Test Series is firmly established as the beginning of the women's Ashes, at the time neither the English nor the Australians were interested in embracing the word.

English captain Betty Archdale told reporters at the time that she "would much rather the term Ashes was not used".

A suggestion to burn the stumps after the final Test and intern them in an urn was gently refused by the Australians who instead preferred a "mythical Ashes".

But there was nothing mythical about the 1934/35 Ashes. That they happened at all can be credited to the resolute women of the Australian Women's Cricket Council. But to tell this story, we have to go back further than 1934.

Women's cricket starts to move

With the revival of women's cricket in the 1930s came the call for a more structured approach to administering the game.

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A report in the December 13, 1930 issue of Melbourne's Sporting Globe suggested a national association was necessary as the sport had "advanced so rapidly in New South Wales and Victoria".

By March 1931, the Australian Women's Cricket Council (AWCC) had been established. Along with promoting the development of the sport for women, the council also planned to "regulate visits of teams to and from Australia".

The AWCC wanted to take the Australian team to the world and bring the world to Australia. It'd soon make it happen.

Soon after the AWCC formed, whispers of a women's Ashes began.

An article in the April 29, 1931 issue of The Worker reported that "fights for the ashes between women teams of cricketers from Australia and England will probably take place in the near future".

A little over a year later, in July 1932, The Daily Telegraph reported that NSW Women's Cricket Association was "working out details, financial and otherwise, of an international tour".

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By May of 1934, the AWCC had extended an invitation to its English counterpart to take part in the first Ashes.

A 'golden era'

The invitation was ambitious and bold. The AWCC was hardly flush with cash but it was far from reckless. It was betting the Australian public would be an enthusiastic audience. It had good reason for such optimistic thinking.

The 1930s are often referred to as a golden era for women's cricket.

Women enjoyed more freedom to pursue more sports, and associations run by women and for women created more opportunities to play. The proliferation of workplace teams played a role too. This confluence of circumstances provided fertile ground for the start of women's Test cricket.

With the invitation for the Ashes extended and accepted, planning quickly got underway. By June of 1934, the draw for the Ashes was in place. Brisbane's Exhibition Ground would be home to the first test in late December, Sydney would be the stage for the second, and Melbourne would host the third and final test in mid-January.

The draw may have been the easiest part of arranging the tour. While the AWCC would take care of their travel and accommodation while they were in Australia, the English players needed to contribute 80 pounds each to get to Aussie shores — hardly a trifling sum at the time.

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Many of the Australian women were burning the candle at both ends. Captain Margaret Peden was secretary of the NSW Women's Cricket Association and was tasked with making the arrangements for the Sydney Test. The manager of the team, Ruth Preddey, was also a selector and wrote extensively on the series for the Women's Weekly. The investment was significant and the stakes were high. The Ashes could make or break women's cricket.

First Test: Brisbane

  • Friday December 28, Saturday December 29 and Monday December 31
  • England won by nine wickets

The weather forecast for the opening Test on Friday, December 28, was for a cloudy day with wind. Close to an inch of rain had fallen the day before. The conditions were expected to suit the Australian team and reports in Brisbane predicted that the home side's chances "appear[ed] rosy".

Three thousand people turned up for the opening day, thousands more for the second and third. It was a promising start for the AWCC, a sign its boldness was warranted.

Australia won the toss and elected to bat but it was a disappointing start for the home side which wrapped up its first innings having made 47 runs. Only Queensland state captain and Australian vice-captain Kath Smith managed to make more than a handful of runs. The home side might have been feeling the pressure of the occasion, but the efforts of Myrtle Maclagan, who collected seven wickets and only allowed the Australians to score 10 runs on her watch, left them no space to settle into the match.

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It was Maclagan who opened the batting for the English, finishing on 72 runs as the visitors raced away to 10-154.

It wasn't all bad news for the home side. Victorian Anne Palmer took 7 wickets, almost single-handedly taking the English down. More than 80 years after their Test debut in Brisbane, Palmer and Maclagan still hold the record for the best figures in an innings on debut.

The Australians shook off their nerves for the second innings, notching up a more respectable 9-138. Essie Shevill was the shining light for the Aussies with 63 runs while Mary Spear was the standout for the English, taking five wickets. Despite the home side's best efforts, England was left with a target of only 32 runs. Strong bowling from Nell McLarty, Palmer and Peggy Antonio gave some hint of the promise of the Australian team, but England quickly collected the required runs and, with them, the first Test.

Second Test: Sydney

  • Friday January 4, Monday January 7, Tuesday January 8
  • England won by eight wickets

The Sydney Cricket Ground was the stage for the second Test. The wicket was said to be in "perfect condition" and 4,641 people poured through the turnstiles on the opening day.

The Australian team, battered and bruised by their poor showing in Brisbane decided some fresh legs were in order. Joyce Brewer, Barbara Pedan and Rene Shevill came into the side while England brought in Mary Richards. Brewer would prove a handy inclusion. After slumping to 3-22, the Aussies regrouped and closed out the first innings on 10-162. Brewer, along with fellow Queenslander Kath Smith, had done most of the heavy lifting with 34 and 47 runs respectively.

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It was a promising start for Australia but England was not about to be left behind. Maclagan and Snowball again opened the batting and their partnership of 190 put the visitors in an enviable position.

Maclagan's 119 earned her the record for the first century in a women's Test. England declared at 5-301, presenting a daunting task for the home side. Kath Smith stepped up again, this time aided by Essie Shevill and Anne Palmer, but it wouldn't be enough, with Australia's second innings all done and dusted at 10-148. England's target was a slight 10 runs. They made it in six overs and took the second Test.

Third Test: Melbourne

  • Friday January 18, Saturday January 19, Monday January 21
  • Draw

With the first two Tests going England's way and with them the Ashes, the Australians were playing for pride in the third Test in Melbourne. What better stage than the hallowed turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

English captain Betty Archdale won the toss and elected to bat. If the visitors were hoping for a gentle opening day, they were quickly disappointed.

Maclagan again demonstrated her skill, scoring 50 runs before being bowled by Amy Hudson. Hudson may have taken the golden wicket of Maclagan but it was Antonio who did the most damage for Australia, taking six wickets. The English wrapped up their first innings at 10-162. A more even performance from the Aussies saw them finish on 10-150.

In the second innings, Snowball was again in the thick of things for England, collecting a handy 83 before the visitors declared at 7-153. This set the Aussies an ambitious target of 166 runs.

It was almost possible. The team seemed to have settled and the bowlers were taking it right up to the English. But time would be their undoing. The three-day test format for the women robbed the Australian team of the opportunity to make the target; they finished on 8–104. The home side had averted a straight-sets loss, clawing back a draw in the third Test.

Paving the way

Fifteen women played for Australia in the 1934/35 Ashes; 12 played for England. Some, like Anne Palmer and Joyce Brewer, never played a Test again. Others, like Molly Hide and Myrtle Maclagan, went on to forge decorated careers.

There is nothing mythical about these twenty-seven women. Nothing fantastical or imaginary about their feats with the bat or ball, their wickets, their hard-fought runs, their hours on the pitch.

The inaugural women's Ashes stands tall in the story of women's cricket. Not because of the records and debuts. Not because of the crowds who numbered in their thousands. Not even because it was the first.

Today, nearly 87 years to the day that Margaret Peden and Betty Archdale led their teams onto Brisbane's Exhibition Ground, the 1934/35 Ashes serve as a reminder of what is possible when you step boldly to the crease.

ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

Kirby Fenwick is a writer and audio producer, a co-founder of Siren: A Women in Sport Collective and an honours student at Griffith University.

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