When the cricketer Cecilia Robinson, who has died aged 97, made her Test debut against Australia in Adelaide in 1949, it was over a decade since England’s women had last played any match at all. Things did not go well for the visitors. Beset by the spin of Betty Wilson, who took 6 for 23, England were all out for 72, and only Robinson reached double figures. Her dogged 34 was compiled over three and a half hours, which was three hours longer than anyone else lasted at the crease. England lost the match, and ultimately the series – but they found an opening batter whose patience and determination would be a pillar of their game for the next 14 years.
Robinson’s predecessor as opener was Betty Snowball, who had established one of the most famous batting partnerships in the history of the women’s game with Myrtle Maclagan. When Snowball dropped down the order after the war, Robinson became Maclagan’s new foil, and at a time when women’s internationals were few and far between, her 829 Test runs, including two centuries, represented a significant haul; her close-fielding contributions, either at silly mid-on or slip, were equally invaluable.
Robinson was born in Canterbury, Kent, the daughter of Beatrice (nee Moore) and Arthur Robinson. She was besotted with cricket from her early childhood. She was only four when her elderly father, a canon at Canterbury cathedral, died; her older brothers, John and Edward, allowed her to join in with their backyard games so long as she acted as chief ball retriever. It did not take long for her to surpass them in potential; she had already made the first XI at St Paul’s school for girls in London when the second world war upended her family life.
Her mother’s house was requisitioned by the army, while her school was evacuated to Wycombe Abbey in Buckinghamshire, and those circumstances meant she never got to follow her brothers to university as she would have liked. Qualifying as a PE teacher in 1945, Robinson made her first-class debut for Home Counties women when cricket resumed after the war the following year; her domestic career would go on to span three decades, to 1967.
Taking up her place on England’s 1948-49 tour of Australia and New Zealand meant giving up her first teaching position, and she worked at a poultry farm to raise the considerable funds required to finance the six-month trip. The tour was an eye-opening adventure for a young woman from an ecclesiastical family, as packed with socialising as it was with playing and travel; invited to “tea” at the tennis club in Perth, Robinson and her teammates found themselves mortifyingly underdressed for Western Australia’s upper crust.
Her maiden Test century came at Scarborough in 1951, in a blaze of elegant strokeplay she attributed to the coaching of the former Sussex players John and James Langridge. But it was her second overseas tour, in 1957-58, that proved the highlight of her England career. Following an incident-filled voyage to New Zealand – the ship the team was on collided with a freighter in the Panama Canal – Robinson was one of the most prolific England batters on the tour, scoring 454 runs at 41.27, including, in the third Test against Australia, the slowest international century by a woman.
In the final Test, she took on the captaincy after Mary Duggan was ruled out through injury, carrying her bat through the second innings to help save the match: her quick-scoring 96 not out was a reminder that she could play attractive attack as well as stoic defence.
She sparked many a sporting passion through her long tenure as cricket coach, games teacher and housemistress at Roedean school, in Sussex, but even the least athletic of her charges were inspired by her kind-but-firm mentorship. Her niece Catherine, with whom she lived in her final years – the daughter to Cecilia’s brother John, who became bishop of Woolwich – points out that the family motto her aunt inherited was a daunting one: “Not for ourselves alone but for the whole world were we born.” For all her sociability, says Catherine, it was rare for anyone to penetrate Cecilia’s emotional reserve, and the great love of her life was, as far as anyone knew, her golden retriever Islay.
After retirement, Robinson moved to Tenterden in Kent, where, in the time-honoured tradition of cricketers, she polished her golf game, and became ladies captain of her local club. She was made an honorary member of MCC in 2000 and, in 2020, Kent finally awarded her a county cap. The club had to admit they had no idea how many runs she had scored for them in total, because the official records (1,109 runs at an average of over 50) failed to include a good many of the games she played.
Robinson’s longlived dedication to the game, at a time when women’s place in sport was so woefully dismissed, is as powerful a legacy as the runs she scored.
She is survived by two nieces and two nephews.
• Cecilia Robinson, cricketer, born 22 May 1924; died 3 November 2021