“[She] took a catch out of the sun and it hit her in the eye and she had to go off. I remember them putting this great big raw steak over her eye.”
In an interview, 59 years after the WHITE FERNS’ introduction to international cricket, this moment was one of the lasting memories for the side’s wicketkeeper, Pearl Savin. The unfortunate player she refers to in her story was Ruth Martin (nee Symons), the WHITE FERNS’ first captain.
The youngest of five children born to Eva and William Symons, Ruth Evelyn Symons grew up in the Christchurch suburb of Opawa, an area that played a strong role in the development of women’s cricket. She attended local schools in Waltham and Woolston before attending the Christchurch Technical College. The Symons family are often mentioned in The Press highlighting parties held by the family, especially to celebrate the “Coming of Age” of their children. As Ruth and her sister Ruby shared the same initials, their presence on the guest list is often noted as “R Symons (2)”.
In 1931 members of the Technical College hockey team, led by Ruth Symons, created a cricket side after the formation of the Canterbury Women’s Cricket Association (CWCA). After spending many afternoons with her father at Lancaster Park, Ruth developed a real passion for the game and, in particular, the role played by the on-field leaders. When later asked about captaincy, Ruth would recall days spent focusing on the decisions made by the captain of Canterbury’s men’s side, Curly Page.
In an event more common to American baseball, the opening of Christchurch’s 1934-35 season featured a unique commemoration with the ceremonial first ball of the season bowled by CWCA President, Mary Machin, to Vice-President Elsie Whitta. Women’s cricket was strong in Christchurch that season, with eight teams playing in the women’s senior grade. The first round pitted the two competition front-runners, Mai Moa and Ruth’s Technical College, against each other. Mai Moa were led by a provincial and, soon to be, national team mate of Ruth’s, Margaret Marks. The pair were clearly the stars of their respective sides, both women top-scoring and claiming three wickets. Although Mai Moa won convincingly, the newspaper report had one word to say about Ruth’s captaincy: “workmanlike”.
In January 1935, Ruth led the Canterbury side in their defence of the shield named for the CWCA President, beating Otago by 10 wickets. The Mary Machin Shield was the symbol of southern supremacy in women’s cricket for a decade before the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield, with a national focus, took over. In that 1935 game, the 12th woman for Canterbury was a 15-year-old named Phyllis Blackler.
The month after Canterbury’s defeat of Otago, Ruth found herself standing at Lancaster Park as the captain of New Zealand. Ruth was just 21 and among the oldest in the team. The youngest player was Marks, who had celebrated her 17th birthday just weeks before.
Ruth was realistic about how her team would fare against the daunting English opposition, later describing her team as “kids” who were “very green”. She was also quick to note that they felt “very proud that we were amongst the first lot to set women’s cricket going in New Zealand”.
England were far too powerful for the New Zealanders, many of whom met for the first time on the morning of the game, winning by an innings and 337 runs. The home side weren’t helped by the absence of their captain, who fought for 52 minutes in the first innings – twice as long as anyone else – and claimed two wickets before the sun blinded her while attempting to take that catch. The side fared better in the second innings as Marks batted for almost two and a half hours for 23 runs. Ruth’s injury meant she didn’t bat in the second innings. But Ruth herself noted that she had bigger worries than batting; her eye was swollen shut, her nose was blocked, and she was to be married in six weeks!
After the English Test in 1935, Aucklander Hallyburton Johnstone had donated a trophy to be played for by New Zealand’s domestic sides. This had led to increased competition and regular coaching for women’s cricketers.
In spite of that, Ruth and many of her 1935 teammates, would never play another Test but she did tour to Australia with the New Zealand side in 1938. On that tour, the team gave a much better account of themselves, drawing the first five matches before winning the final match against New South Wales Country Women by 158 runs. Ruth talked of the opportunity to receive coaching from the likes of Ian Cromb and Walter Hadlee (who went to school with her) and how different the situation was for the 1938 team: “We’d had three years since that first match and we’d had a bit of coaching. It was different altogether.”
In her final match on record for Canterbury, Ruth – still captain – led her side to a 42-run win over Wellington. The year was 1943 and her daughter, Beverly, would be born later that year. Although she hung up her boots, Ruth kept a close watch on the national team, often sending them a note of good luck ahead of big games in the 90s. Ruth’s messages were often replied to by one of the team and she would’ve been immensely proud to have been able to watch many of those players win the Cricket World Cup in 2000.
In the new pavilion at Hagley Oval a picture of Ruth hangs in the players’ area, acknowledging her place as one of Canterbury’s Players of the Decade for the 1930s. Further recognition of Ruth’s pioneering status came when New Zealand Cricket introduced a trophy in her name at their annual awards. Given to the year’s outstanding batswoman in domestic cricket, the Ruth Martin Cup had a short run before it was retired after the 2009-10 awards. Introduced at the same time was another trophy awarded to the year’s outstanding bowler. The Phyl Blackler Cup recognises another pioneering WHITE FERN, and Canterbury’s 1935 12th woman.
In 2017, the Ruth Martin Cup was awarded for the first time in seven years. Otago’s Katey Martin was the recipient of a trophy that goes a small way to recognising the contribution made by a woman who led a group of “backyard cricketers” on an important first step in our cricket history.
The quotes and some of the background information in this piece come from excellent interviews conducted in 1994 by Carey Clements, interviewing a group of the 1935 WHITE FERNS, and Margot Butcher, who interviewed Ruth for an edition of Boundary magazine.