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Cricket Club Goes to Bat for Women

Marylebone, England's oldest such facility, will admit female members. But some decry end of male tradition.


LONDON — Three cheers for the good ol' boys.

Nearly two decades after Britain put a woman in the prime minister's office, members of the 211-year-old Marylebone Cricket Club have decided that they too can admit women into a male preserve.

That's good news for feminist sports fans, who hail the historic vote by the 17,500-member private club to open its doors to women.

The bad news is that there is an 18-year waiting list to get in.

Never mind, say women who play the national sport of England's elites. Victory is victory. Just eight months ago, the Marylebone club, England's oldest, failed to pass the same resolution because it could not muster the necessary two-thirds vote.

"The issue for us is a symbolic one. It recognizes women's contribution to cricket over the years," said Barbara Daniels, who manages women's cricket for the England and Wales Cricket Board.

In fact, a handful of women will be appointed as honorary members very soon, and players on women's cricket teams will be able to join the club by 2001. Female fans will have to queue up with the 9,500 men already in line for the privilege of watching cricket matches from the club's hallowed Long Room at Lord's Cricket Ground.

For some men, the issue is tradition. The genteel game of cricket, with its white flannel playing clothes and requisite tea breaks, has not changed over the years, so why should the Marylebone club change its customs? Members should honor their all-male past by sticking to it, the die-hards say.

"I don't like change, it's a simple as that," said Bill Edwards, who voted against admitting women. "I have nothing against women . . . but I have friends who have been on the waiting list for 10 to 12 years, and I have a strong suspicion women will now be fast-tracked into membership and overtake them."

Ivo Tennant also voted against letting women into the wood-paneled club, saying that he wished to maintain the "refuge for like-minded men" and that he resented the pressure for change.

"I've no objections to women playing cricket--my mother plays cricket," Tennant said. "It's just the way the committee handled it. They virtually steamrollered over the opposition."

Advocates of change say it was high time that the club modernized. Women have been playing cricket as early as 1745, the year of the first recorded women's match, which predates the Marylebone club by 42 years. Recently, they have been doing better than British men. The national women's team has won cricket's World Cup championship twice--two more times than the British men's team.

"There was a need for the club to move forward as a cricket club, not as a private men's club. Our mission is to promote and develop the game among youth and in schools," Marylebone spokesman Chris Rea said.

He acknowledged that the turnaround in the vote was the result of a well-run hearts-and-minds campaign by the club leadership but denied reports that the real force for change was money.

The Marylebone club will host the final game of the cricket World Cup championships next year and has sought funds to spiff up Lord's ahead of the media glare. But the National Lottery and corporate sponsors rejected the club's appeal for funds because of its men-only policy.

Sports Minister Tony Banks, who harshly criticized the club in February when it failed to overturn its exclusive policy, lauded the decision this week and said he is "quite certain" the club will qualify for National Lottery cash now.

"OK, they've taken 211 years to get there, but it took us 700 years before we ended up with a woman in the chair as speaker of the House of Commons, so it's good to see progress," Banks said.

But he lamented the club's decision to keep one of its bars off-limits to women, calling it a "shame."

Women cricketers seemed relatively unperturbed by this detail. Rachel Heyhoe Flint, former captain of the England women's cricket team and the first woman to try to join Marylebone in 1991, is likely to be one of the first female members. She called the turnaround "absolutely wonderful. It's so important for cricket around the world that the MCC can now be treated with the utmost respect."

Now comes the question of dress. Currently, the code requires members to wear a jacket and the club's red-and-yellow tie to a match.

"I am sure in our newfound state of awareness, we will have women in the group deciding the new dress code for women," spokesman Rea said.

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