In April 2005, Blakewater College in Darwen was invited to take part in a high-profile national cricket initiative. But there was one tiny problem - the school had only been open for two days. Although initially hesitant, John Connell, the school's director of learning for sport, performing and creative arts, decided to go for it. In retrospect, it's one of the best decisions he ever made. "Cricket is now established as a major sport in the school and we've forged a great partnership with Darwen Cricket Club," he says.
Blakewater's reopening coincided with the club's selection as one of 12 chosen to pilot Chance to Shine, a Cricket Foundation initiative to develop competitive cricket in schools. The project supported the new management team's desire to give students a fresh start. "Football tends to dominate everything around here," explains deputy head teacher Mubaareuck Ibrahim.
"As some of our pupils had never even played, it was a case of new cricket team, new ethos, new school!"
Throughout the summer term, Darwen Cricket Club provided qualified coaches to work alongside PE staff. An even split between curricular and extra-curricular activity gave all students in Years 7 and 8 a chance to get involved, while at the same time allowing the more talented and enthusiastic cricketers to take things further in their own time.
Competitive matches were quickly arranged - first intra-school and later against other local schools, giving students an immediate and tangible reason to improve their skills.
For the Blakewater students, many of whom were beginners, competition also provides a reference point for measuring their own performance. At first it was obvious that more experienced students from other schools were playing a more sophisticated game, but gradually the Blakewater students learned from their mistakes and by the end of the summer they were more than holding their own.
Often, however, it is the non-sporting effects that are most significant.
Blakewater serves two distinct closely knit communities - one estate predominantly Asian, and another that is mainly white. Cricket, the school finds, is able to transcend divisions, appealing to large numbers from both groups. "Everyone wants to be Freddie Flintoff, regardless of their background," says Mubaareuck. "Playing cricket together is a step towards greater group and school cohesion. It gives us a start point, something to build on in the future."
The Chance to Shine development structure is quite simple. Clubs are chosen on the basis of the high-quality opportunities they already provide for young people, as well as their capacity to cater for increased numbers and deliver an extensive programme of coaching in schools. The selected clubs work with two primaries and four secondaries over the course of a year. A structure for coaching and competition is devised, and a pathway is developed to encourage children to move from school to club activity when they are ready. Any form of cricket can be used - softball, hardball, Kwik, pairs, inter-cricket, right through to a full version of the game - whatever best suits the playing and developmental needs of the young people involved.
To fund this programme, the Cricket Foundation is aiming to raise pound;50 million over the next 10 years, and involve a third of all schools in England and Wales. Ian Cordingley, co-ordinator of the Darwen project, believes that it has already given a major boost to junior cricket. "As well as establishing cricket in schools where little or none was being played, we have also been able to deepen levels of involvement in those which were already playing," he says. "With a bigger pool of players we are more likely to unearth talent, while at the same time providing opportunities for all to take part."
Avondale is one of six primaries working on the Darwen project. The school is only a couple of miles from Ewood Park, home of Premiership football team Blackburn Rovers. With football entrenched in the hearts and minds of parents, teachers and children alike, cricket has had to fight hard to establish itself. Yet for Avondale headteacher John Hodkinson, Kwik cricket, a non-contact sport with a distinct structure, has provided his pupils with a whole range of new learning experiences. "Children have to take turns in an orderly fashion," explains the former club cricketer.
"It's free from the selfishness, tantrums and attitudes unfortunately associated with football and teaches self-control, concentration and respect for the efforts of both team mates and opponents.
"While the nature of a football match allows one or two to dominate," he adds, "in Kwik cricket everyone's contribution is valuable. It is in every sense a team game, but one played by individuals."
These days there are just as many budding Kevin Pietersens, Michael Vaughans and Shahid Afridis on the Avondale playground as there are Wayne Rooneys and Robbie Savages.
In games lessons, Darwen coaches work alongside class teachers, giving boys and girls in Years 5 and 6 an introduction to the game and helping class teachers to learn the rules. Keen to continue teaching cricket after the coaching sessions were completed, Year 5 teacher Ann Smith says: "I'm now much more confident in demonstrating basic skills, picking up faults and noticing effective technique."
Key to the success of the Avondale and Blakewater projects has been the creation of effective club-school partnerships. Always taking into account the club's objectives to develop more cricketers, and the schools' desire to provide new opportunities for their students, if such partnerships are to be successful it is the needs of the youngsters themselves that must form the starting point.
"For us, the key thing is ensuring that students can get to matches, and, when they are ready, along to the cricket club," says John Connell. "Many don't have the support networks in their lives that enable them to travel around freely and, if we want them to make the most of their opportunities, school has to play a significant role - especially in the initial stages while they are getting used to the new activities and venues."
"Communication between club and school in the first instance and then an ongoing dialogue between coach and teacher can ensure activity is always pitched at a level all children can access," adds John Hodkinson.
This summer, Chance to Shine will be rolled out to a further 600 schools across the country, with 100 expected to take the lead. Avondale and Blakewater both hope to be involved again. "The idea is to help create a culture of competitive cricket in an area," says Wasim Khan, the ex-Warwickshire cricketer who is Chance to Shine's operational director.
"We can provide funding for good-quality clubs to take the lead in embedding, developing and widening this culture."