DNB: Christina Willes

I was looking for someone who wasn’t, as it turned out, in the DNB and turned this up. Not quite Bodyline, mind you. Oh, The Ashes they’re a-coming and we’re gonna thrash those upstart Aussies. (Like we’re thrashing those upstart Kiwis, no doubt.)

Christina (or possibly Christiana) Willes, “pioneer of round-arm bowling in cricket” (forerunner of modern overarm bowling), was baptised in February 1786, the daughter of a Kent landowner. She married Richard Thomas Hodges, another Kent squire in 1810. (Their death dates are not known). It was their son Edward who recorded his mother’s contribution to the development of the game in a 1907 article:

It was my mother’s skill in throwing the ball to him [John Willes, Christina’s brother] for practice in the barn at Tonford … He then trained a dog to fetch the ball, and there was a saying that Willes, his sister, and his dog could beat any eleven in England.

There seems to be some debate over whether the story should be taken at face value or whether “the suggestion that John Willes took his cue from his sister could… have had its origins in the playful ridicule of contemporaries”. The truth of the matter could have some significance:

Her name has been invoked by historians of women’s cricket as that of the first of her sex to assist in the game’s technical development, and was mentioned, inevitably, in coverage of the battles over the discriminatory admission policies of the MCC, which belatedly opened its doors to women members in 1999.

Whether she gave him the idea or not, John Willes’ adoption of the bowling style itself incurred some controversy.

John Willes first bowled round-arm at Lord’s in 1806; ten years later the MCC formally outlawed the practice, but Willes continued to use the style in county games and tried it once again at Lord’s, famously, in a match between Kent and the MCC in 1822. He was no-balled for throwing—becoming the first player to incur this penalty—and reportedly rode out of Lord’s ‘in high dudgeon’, vowing never to play the game again (Frindall, 14). The umpire reputedly acted under the influence of Lord Frederick Beauclerk, a formidable cricketing presence of the era and a decided opponent of the innovation. After holding trials in the previous year the MCC gave its approval to round-arm bowling in 1828; the change was formally written into a full revision of the game’s rules in 1835.

Never say that cricket doesn’t move with the times.

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