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Eileen Ash, who has died aged 110, was the oldest England Test cricketer, one whose career began before the Second World War; she relished the improved status of the women’s game and was always prepared to express a view over the way in which it was run. She put her longevity down to her Christian faith, yoga and drinking plenty of wine.
It was perverse that the debate in 2021 over erecting a statue at Lord’s of Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, another distinguished cricketer, did not extend to recognition of Eileen Ash, who had been an earlier pioneer. Instead, the focus was on whether a woman was deserving of such an honour ahead of the likes of Sir Don Bradman and Sir Garry Sobers.
In the end the North Gate was renamed in Heyhoe-Flint’s honour. Eileen Ash, who played in seven Test matches and outlived everyone else in the game, had to be content with honorary membership of Marylebone Cricket Club, and being permitted to park her Mini in the (male) chief executive’s driveway.
Eileen Whelan was born in Highbury, north London, on October 30 1911. “I had a cricket set when I was five and took them to bed with me – bat and ball and the stumps,” she recalled. She was educated at a Catholic convent, from which she was almost expelled when caught playing cricket: “The Mother Superior is the only person who’s ever scared me. She was so frightfully strict.”
The game was not deemed suitable for young ladies, although it was on the curriculum at prominent schools such as Roedean in Sussex, so she turned to hockey instead.
When she was 18 she joined the Civil Service, going on to play for its cricket team as a right-arm medium-paced bowler. “When I started, I used to play for my father’s team because I was quite a good fielder,” she recalled. “If they were one short, I’d play.”
She also turned out for Middlesex Women and South Women, playing at a time when long white stockings and white flannel skirts were worn: cricketing culottes were not for women. “I probably bowled at 60 or 70mph and could bowl 16 to 18 overs in a spell,” she said. “We were pretty fit. I was quite fast but I could slip in a slower ball.” She was one of seven players to make their England debuts in 1937 against Australia at Northampton, taking four wickets in a match that was lost.
There was no remuneration, or expenses, not even when she was chosen for the England party to tour Australia in 1939. A practice match was staged against The Rest at Colwall, but the trip had to be abandoned owing to the outbreak of the Second World War. “I lost my best years,” lamented Ash, who had bought kit and clothes, including ball gowns and a dress for cocktail parties.
She was seconded to the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. “We played a charity match during the war,” she recalled. “The Women’s Cricket Association v the British Legion. I raised a team, then I was carrying my bag across Liverpool Street Station and this lady came up to me and said, ‘You’re disgraceful going off to play a cricket match when there’s a war on.’ I was most upset.” She spent 11 years working for MI6, though she would not discuss it in later life.
Eileen Ash was more forthcoming about her driving – and she had a fondness for yellow Minis. She never passed a test, since she was born 23 years before they were introduced, but she featured in a television documentary, 100-Year-Old Drivers Ride Again, which explored why some of Britain’s oldest drivers were still keen to get behind the wheel. She was undeterred by having her wing mirror bashed in when she was 105.
She was selected for the 1948-49 tour to Australia and New Zealand: “We paid our own fares and stayed privately with Australian families.” She did not excel in the Tests, but fared better in the provincial matches. She also gained a treasured possession – a bat signed by Bradman, which she kept by her bed in case she was attacked by burglars.
In her seven Tests, Ash took 10 wickets at an average of 23.00, scoring 38 runs. In her 22 first-class women’s matches all told, including appearances for the Civil Service, Middlesex and South of England, she took 32 wickets and made 180 runs.
Although pleased to have witnessed the improvement in the lot of women cricketers, and their admission into MCC, Ash did not believe that the game itself was superior to the cricket of her heyday.
“I had an argument with Charlotte Edwards, the England captain [2006-16], over the coloured pyjama clothes they played in, and I did not like modern-day players criticising the umpires, or the review system to determine dismissals,” Ash said in an interview for MCC’s archives. “Everything is so technical. And what is the matter with cricket balls now? They did not become soft and awful when I played. I don’t think the standard of top cricketers has improved that much.”
Nor did she hold back in criticising MCC itself: “It kept preventing us from playing at Lord’s, so we went to the Oval instead.”
Elieen Ash also played golf until she was 98, as well as squash and boules. “I’d like to know when I’m going to be old,” she told an interviewer in 2016. “Do you think it will be when I’m 105? I’m going for my second century. It’s just a question of liking people, but breathing’s the best – as long as you can keep breathing, you’re OK.”
She carried on with yoga into her 11th decade, as well as drinking two glasses of red wine a day – Châteauneuf-du-Pape, preferably. To mark her 106th birthday she was taken up in a Tiger Moth. Asked if she needed to sit down when she landed, she replied: “No, I’d rather have a drink.”
Her husband, Wilfrid Ash, was deputy head at a comprehensive school in south London. They retired to Norwich and he died in 2004; they had a son, Christopher.
In 2017 Eileen Ash opened a sports hall named in her honour at the Hewett Academy in Norwich. When the England’s women’s team played in the World Cup final at Lord’s in 2017 she rang the bell to signal the start of play.
Eileen Ash, born October 30 1911, died December 4 2021