1921-2010 – Post-war Australian allrounder whose obsession with practice made her the best player the women’s game has seen.
By Gideon Haigh
“Send Betty Wilson in!” went a cry from the outer during a desultory passage of the Melbourne Test of 1955. There have been poorer suggestions. Wilson played fewer than a dozen women’s Tests during a decade when they were seldom and widely spaced but she dominated them as no player before or since.
Raised during the depression in working-class Collingwood, Melbourne, Wilson took after a brother who became a top-notch Australian Rules full-back. Her bootmaker father, noting Wilson’s alacrity and aptitude in street cricket, hung a cricket ball in a cashmere stocking from a wire clothes-line so she could rehearse batting: a challenging drill, because a well-struck ball snapped back twice as quickly, and the same one adopted by the young Keith Miller.
Wilson steadily turned her urban environment into a cricket academy. In the local nets she bowled endlessly at two strategically placed pieces of cotton wool – cotton wool, you see, stayed put when hit. She honed the accuracy of her throwing arm by hurling stones at lamp posts. It was her throws from the boundary while retrieving balls in a women’s club match at Mayor’s Park in Clifton Hill aged 10 that resulted in her being asked to join in; six years later she was bowling offspin and batting in the middle order for Victoria.
The war delayed her debut until March 1948 but she made up for lost time with 90 and 10 match wickets for 65 against New Zealand. Ten months later in Adelaide Wilson compiled the first hundred by an Australian woman against England, which she combined with match figures of 9 for 62. On her only visit to England, in 1951, she piled up 571 runs and 57 wickets, then remained behind to play competition badminton and county mixed pairs – a choice she later somewhat regretted, as her father, to whom she was devoted, was run down and killed by an automobile while she was wending her way home.
Otherwise Wilson was content with her life choices. “I chose sport over marriage and kids,” she said matter-of-factly. “It was my decision and I’ve never regretted it.” There was not time for much else. She made a point to practise every day; she thought deeply about the game, even starching her sunhat so that it would not flap distractingly while she batted. Games were best when she batted long and bowled the maximum number of overs, as at the Junction Oval, Melbourne, in February 1958 against England when she became the first Australian to achieve the match double of 100 and 10 wickets in an international: her figures were actually 11 for 16 from 29.3 overs.
Recognition came only gradually. In 1985, 25 years after retirement, she became the first woman cricketer inducted in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. More recently she donated her memorabilia to the Melbourne Cricket Club and became a popular life member, watching games closely and discussing them animatedly. When Steve Cannane interviewed her for his recent book First Tests she still had one of her mother’s stockings in her garage – “just in case”. Had the call gone up for her at the MCG again, you fancied she would have been ready.
Career record M R HS Avge 100s 50s W Best Avge 5w CT
Test 11 862 127 57.46 3 3 68 7-7 11.80 4 10
Elizabeth Rebecca Wilson was born on November 21, 1921 and died on January 22, 2010, aged 88.