Ahead of her time: The brilliance of Betty Wilson
A superstar who became the first ever cricketer to hit a ton and take 10 in the same Test, Betty Wilson counted Aussie icon Sir Donald Bradman among her fanboys
Laura Jolly previously wrote for News Corp Australia and the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015, and is now cricket.com.au Women's Cricket Editor providing dedicated coverage to all aspects of the women's game
Had the late, great Betty Wilson lived to see the upcoming T20 World Cup, it is safe to assume she would have been one of those helping to fill the MCG for the final on International Women's Day.
And no doubt, she would have arrived armed with plenty of advice for the players of today.
Wilson was the original trailblazer, a player who forged a reputation as one of the game's best-ever allrounders during her decade of dominance at the highest level from 1948 to 1958.
It was a decade that culminated with one of the greatest individual performances of all-time when she became the first cricketer, male or female, to score a century and take 10 wickets in a Test –single-handedly silencing the laughter of her English foes in the process.
Wilson is also a player whose story is known to far too few – a fact that has prompted key figures including Mel Jones to advocate for the allrounder, who passed away aged 88 in 2010, to become the first female Australian cricketer to be immortalised with a bronze statue.
"Betty used to come and support our games. When I was coaching Victoria, we'd be doing some stuff in a warm-up and she'd come over and say, 'they can't catch', 'they've gotta do this, they've gotta do that.'
"She was quite forthright. We were somewhere, Clea Smith was wearing a low neckline and Betty gave her a serve saying, 'young lady, cover yourself up!'
"She was lovely to have around. She wanted to talk the game."
A chance encounter with an errant cricket ball on a Thursday evening in Collingwood during the early 1930s set Wilson on the path to cricket immortality.
The daughter of a shoemaker from Melbourne's northern suburbs, Wilson had played cricket with friends in the streets of Clifton Hill while growing up, but it wasn't until she was 10 years old that she was 'discovered' by local cricketers at an oval near her home.
Walking with her father one evening, they passed a Collingwood Ladies Cricket Club training session as a ball rolled out to the boundary.
Wilson collected it and returned it with pinpoint accuracy to the 'keeper's gloves. She was asked if she could replicate the feat; when she did, she was invited to join the club – and was subsequently selected in their XI for that Saturday.
A uniform was rustled up – a new teammate shortened one of her own dresses – her father made her some shoes, and so began Wilson's cricket career. By 16, she had been selected in the state team.
The Second War World meant Wilson didn't have an opportunity to make her international debut until she was 26 years old – but she quickly made up for lost time.
Taking on New Zealand in a Test at Wellington's Basin Reserve, Wilson scored 90 and took nine wickets, in an ominous sign of the feats that were to come, in a match Australia won by an innings and 102 runs.
Earning praise from the likes of Sir Donald Bradman and Bill Ponsford for her approach to the game – Ponsford once gifted her an autographed bat in appreciation of her skills – she was instrumental in helping shift attitudes towards the women's game.
"When Betty Wilson and Una Paisley were entrusted with the spin attack, I realised that if we men have any laurels, we had better set about their defence immediately." Bill O'Reilly wrote for the Sunday Herald during the 1948-49 series against England.
"From this time onward I shall steadfastly refrain from saying that 'so and so' batted or bowled 'like an old woman'."
There's no doubt that Wilson was particularly blessed when it came to natural cricket talent.
But it was a work ethic that matched her raw ability which saw her rise to the top of her game.
At time when there was no payment for playing cricket, Wilson made a living as an office assistant, with employers who were, fortunately, willing to grant her leave to fulfil her cricket commitments.
And when she wasn't working, she was training tirelessly.
She designed her own makeshift training set-up in her backyard – placing a ball in one of her mother's stockings and tying it to the washing line. It was a device that helped her hone her footwork and perfect the shots she struggled with.
In the nets, she would bowl her off-spin for hours at marks representing batters of varying heights, so she knew exactly where to place it when faced with the real thing, while she honed her fielding by throwing stones at lampposts.
A firm believer in hitting the ball along the ground – clearing the ropes was only a last resort, for when fast runs were required – Wilson toiled endlessly to perfect her weakest shots, employing the motto 'there's no use standing there all day waiting for the ball you want to hit'.
Her swift rise wasn't without its off-field complications. Wilson was engaged to be married when she was selected to travel to New Zealand in 1948, and her fiancé agreed to postpone the wedding while she toured.
A second postponement was required when England travelled to Australia in 1948-49, and when Wilson was selected in Australia's Ashes touring party in 1951, she realised she needed to make a choice, once and for all.
Her love of cricket won out and the pair went their separate ways. Wilson would never marry – announcing she preferred cricket to the idea of matrimony.
"If she was Bradman on the field, she was definitely Keith Miller off the field," Australia great Mel Jones noted during Wilson's induction into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame in 2017.
"In 1951 she went on a tour of England … and she was over there for two years. And in that time she became a household name. When she returned, she picked up a few other loves in her life until her passing in 2010. She loved her lawn bowls, she loved a flutter, and she definitely loved a chardy – and it probably wasn't in that order, either."
What threatened to be one of the Australian team's most embarrassing chapters in February 1958 ended with Wilson making history.
Playing England at Melbourne's Junction Oval in the second Test of a four-match series, Australia were sent in to bat in soggy conditions after rain washed out the first day of play in the era of uncovered pitches.
On a wet pitch the Australians suffered a shocking collapse, bowled out for 38.
"England put us in to bat and we were all out for 38 and I was the top scorer with 12," Wilson later told cricinfo. "England were killing themselves laughing."
But it was Wilson who had the last laugh.
She tore the England batting line-up apart with her off-spin, taking 7-7 as the tourists were dismissed for 35 during a spell that included the first ever hat-trick in women's international cricket.
Then, she scored a century as Australia posted 9-202 declared in their second dig.
The game ended in a rain-affected draw but Australia came close to stealing a win when Wilson collected 4-9 in England's second innings, finishing the match figures of 11-16.
In doing so, she became the first cricketer, male or female, to score a century and take 10 wickets in a Test, a feat not matched until 1980 when Ian Botham hit 114 and picked up 13 wickets against India in Mumbai.
The scarcity of women's matches at the time meant Wilson played just 11 Tests during her 10-year career, scoring 862 runs at 57.46 and taking 68 wickets at 11.80.
Perhaps the one regret Wilson did have was the fact she only received her Baggy Green – bearing the number 25 – retrospectively in 2005. "I would have been so proud to have worn that while I was playing," Wilson reflected at the time. "But better late than never."
In retirement, Wilson remained close to the game and was more than happy to offer advice – some solicited, some not so much – to current-day players.
She was a regular presence at both women's and men's matches at the MCG until she passed away in 2010 aged 88, just days after attending the Boxing Day Test.
"She would sit in the stands and she would hold court," Jones recalled. "All the people of different eras would sit down and just hang on every word.
"No one was immune to a cheeky Betty technique spray. One day sitting there, watching the cricket, we had this little debate about playing spinners. And Betty was all about footwork. And she turned to me and she said: 'Mel, I would have got you out in six balls.'
"I said: 'Oh, six balls, Betty?' And she said: 'Well, even I have my off days.'"