A SURPRISING renaissance in children's cricket could be jeopardised if the Government "meddles" with the time spent on PE in its drive to improve the 3Rs, say English cricketing authorities.
Despite last Sunday's defeat of the England Test team by New Zealand - leaving England bottom of the world league - the past few years have seen a little-
heralded growth in the school game.
This is thanks to developments such as Kwik Cricket and the increase in links between schools and clubs. The England and Wales Cricket Board estimates that nearly 100,000 primary-aged boys and girls play the game, and almost 800,000 in secondary schools.
But new research shows that PE is under threat from the academic curriculum.
More than half a million hours of PE have been lost to the Government's literacy and numeracy strategies in primary schools, says the study from Leeds Metropolitan University.
Richard Peel, director of corporate affairs at the cricket board, said: "From the launch of the ECB nearly three years ago our priority has been to get youngsters to participate in the game, but if the Government meddles with the amount of time spent on PE and sport in schools it will have an adverse effect."
In the aftermath of the latest Test defeat, Kate Hoey, the Sports Minister, told Radio 4's Today programme: "We've got a lot of youngsters coming through and now, believe it or not, there is more cricket being played in the country in our schools than there has been for some time."
The Leeds survey was carried out by Speednet, the sports and PE network, on all primary schools. Of the 10 per cent who responded, a third had reduced time for PE in the past year, with some schools providing only 12 hours a year.
The reductions are the result of the relaxation of the national curriculum - in force until 2000 - allowing schools to spend more time on reading and maths.
Margaret Talbot, convenor of Speednet, and head of sport at Leeds Metropolitan University, said she expected the picture to be even bleaker in the coming year.
The survey also found that a quarter of schools lacked the qualified staff to teach PE, while 26 per cent had poor equipment and facilities. Teachers reported they were fighting for time in an increasingly crowded curriculum.
Professor Talbot said: "We feared this would happen as soon as the Education Secretary announced the suspension order. We wanted PE to be accorded the same status as English, maths and science, as it is the only subject to support children's physical development and health."