With school cricket in decline, the future of the national game looks to be on a sticky wicket. But, as Fred Redwood reports, an indoor, speeded-up version could see the pessimists hit for six.
The diehards at Lord's wouldn't recognise their summer game. A tangle of bodies races around the assembly hall in gymnastics gear, with a yellow ball and plastic bat and not a "flannelled fool" in sight. sixes off the wall-bars are celebrated with "bum wiggles.'' It's all far from the delights of the village green and county cricket, but this form of the game may bring about the return of England as a major force in world cricket.
This is Pangbourne primary school, near Reading, and the coach running the session is Mark Smee, primary school cricket co-ordinator for Berkshire. So why play cricket indoors, in the autumn? "With so many sports vying for space on the curriculum, cricket often loses out,'' he says.
"Many teachers are also suspicious of the game because it fails to meet Office for Standards in Education recommendations that children should not be inactive for more than three minutes at a time. In the traditional form of the game, that is inevitable.
"But with a little imagination, cricket can meet all the key stage 2 physical education programme of study requirements. It's perfectly possible to keep classes of more than 30 involved in the limited space of a school hall. '' This adaptation of the game is called kwik cricket and was invented to do for cricket what short tennis does for raquet sports.
A former primary deputy headteacher, Mark Smee keeps the Year 6 class on the boil with jokes and encouragement. The game itself is one of perpetual motion - all scores being in multiples of two, with the exception of big sixes, which score 10.
The ways a batsman can be dismissed are reduced to three and there are other variations. Instead of a bellowed "owzat?'', Mr Smee winds the children up with pantomime squeals of "out!'', and "bat off the mat'' if the striker fails to abandon the bat after hitting the ball.
But this is more than enjoyable farce and good exercise. Gradually, Mr Smee introduces rules that help develop basic skills. The children stand side-on at the crease - making a baseball-style slog unlikely. And batters can score only if the front foot is moved to a marked square a half-metre in front of the crease. Without knowing it, they learn the basics of the forward defensive stroke.
Mr Smee explains the coaching theory to the class teacher as he supervises the match. He is also keen to run after-school coaching classes for teachers.
"Cricket is such a turn-off," he says. "If I were to try to interest teachers in coaching methods during formal in-service training time, I'd have minimal uptake. They'd say that you need expensive facilities, summer sunshine and small classes. Nobody should be expected to teach a big group of children in a tiny assembly hall in winter. But by doing just that, then providing the course for teachers later the same day, I gain credibility."
As the session continues, progressively more time is given to basic skills, such as throwing. Significantly, the children remain in the same groups, which are approaching a nail-biting, last-wicket finish in the main game - so the exercise makes sense to them.
Mark Smee's sessions are typical of those being offered by all the cricket-playing counties. The Cricket Foundation is a charity running parallel to The English Cricket Board, and funds are readily available to promote the national game, which has spent much of the past 15 years in the doldrums.
Fifty thousand kwik cricket sets have been distributed to schools, and cricket is now played competitively in 12,000 of the country's primaries. The Cricket World Cup will be held in England next year and 18,700 resource packs have been given away.
All the cricket-playing counties have coaches who, like Mark Smee, are willing to work in schools at primary and secondary level. And many of them, unlike Mr Smee, have recently played professionally, which gives them kudos in the eyes of the children.
But is cricket, with its male ethos, the best sport for a mixed-sex, progressive primary school? After all, women have only just been accepted on to the long waiting list for membership of the MCC at Lord's. What sort of message is given to children by promoting a game in which women have traditionally been depicted as providers of tea, cakes, and sandwiches - but little else?
But Sue Dady, teacher of Year 6 at Pangbourne, doesn't see it that way. "Cricket wasn't my favourite sport but, having taught it, I find it brilliant. If it's intelligently adapted and taught properly, girls love it and so do children with special needs."
Mark Smee offers a final observation to make the Lord's stalwarts choke on their cream teas: "The future of cricket rests in the primary schools. As most primary teachers are women, our test match future rests with the women teachers - not the members at Lords.'' Whisper it softly as you pass the Long Room.
Contact your county cricket development officer for more information about coaching. Nationwide kwik cricket hotline: 08000 214 314