The day after Eileen Ash was born on October 30 1911, Robert Falcon Scott and his doomed party set forth from their Antarctic camp bound for the South Pole. Last September Ash celebrated her 110th birthday at her care home, St John’s House in Norwich, continuing her innings as the oldest ever Test cricketer with a glass of red wine she credited along with yoga, “an apple a day” and “smiling a lot” as the key to her longevity.
Ash had been the youngest of 12 British supercentenarians until her death on Friday, ever the persevering seam bowler, cheerfully walking back to her mark for another spell, uphill and into the wind. She was the only woman Test player to reach three figures (in years), seven years older than the age South Africa quick Norman Gordon (1911-2014) attained as the longest-lived of all male Test players.
In spite of her venerable distinction, Ash was the embodiment of the maxim that a good life trumps a long life. She played in every Test of England’s first home series in 1937, making her debut in the first at Northampton and taking 10 wickets with her brisk medium pace in the rain-shortened, drawn series, including three for 35 in Australia’s second innings at Stanley Park, Blackpool. It was the one Test the home side won which ultimately meant they retained the Ashes they had secured three years previously at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Born in Islington, Eileen Whelan, as she was known before marriage, worked for the Post Office and rose to prominence in the game in the great pre-war hothouse of women’s sport, the Civil Service Sports Club. She also played for South Women, Home Counties Women and finally Middlesex in 1949 by which point she was also combining her on-field duties with the role of match secretary of the Women’s Cricket Association.
The 1937 Ashes was something of a disappointment given all the fundraising endeavours of the preceding couple of years to finance the Australians’ visit.
Designed to be a showpiece for the women’s game, generally supportive coverage at the start petered out once it became apparent that the tourists, who had been outplayed on home soil, had improved immeasurably in two years and hammered just about everyone but England.
The Manchester Guardian, notably, accused the WCA, with some justification, of not “looking upon the game seriously”, embroiled, as it often was, in petty preoccupations about the decorum of players wearing socks as opposed to its preferred stockings. The Telegraph, regrettably, abandoned covering women’s cricket properly straight afterwards and would not resume for several decades.
She spent the war and 11 years after it working for MI6, doing her duty about which, The Telegraph’s Simon Briggs wrote five years ago, she “maintains a patriotic silence”. Her international return came on the tour of Australia in 1948-49 when England lost the Ashes for the first time and she was wicketless, but they beat New Zealand at Eden Park before the long journey home, ending her Test career with seven caps and 10 wickets at 23.00.
Ash turned to golf following her retirement from cricket, the signed bat given to her by Sir Donald Bradman later, sadly reduced to being stashed by her bed “in case of burglars”. She was honoured at Lord’s in 2017 when she was asked to ring the bell to mark the start of the ICC Women’s World Cup and where her portrait now hangs in the pavilion.
Fame for a woman cricketer in 1937 would have been unthinkable but in the past few years Ash became a celebrity, feted by Heather Knight and Joe Root, zipping around Norfolk in her yellow Mini and starring in a reality show on which she retook and passed her driving test at the age of 105.
A year older, in 2017, she reached for the skies in a birthday Tiger Moth flight and continued to bless her great fortune of good health, a close-knit family, love of sport and fun. Truly a life well-lived.