England's national game is showing signs of recovery on school playing fields. Jon Slater reports.
LIKE the England team, cricket in schools has been in decline in recent years. But new figures from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) suggest that in schools, at least, cricket is staging a comeback.
The number of secondary schools teaching the sport rose by 10 per cent last year and the number of primaries taking part also rose - from 11,782 in 1998 to 12,588 last year.
Featherstone high school in Southall, Middlesex, is one of those giving a new generation of boys and girls the chance to bowl googlies, practise their forward defensives and field at silly mid-off.
The school stopped competitive cricket a few years ago because of a lack of PE staff and curriculum time. But a successful bid for sports' college status helped them bring it back.
Joy Spreadbury, head of PE, believes that the initiative has been both popular and beneficial.
"Go out onto our field this afternoon and you won't find kids kicking a football around, they'll be using dustbins as wickets. The knock-on effect is unreal. It has helped pupils' confidence and self-esteem," she said.
Featherstone has forged links with Middlesex County Cricket Club and is working wih the local club to set up an under-15 side. It is also helping with the cricket coaching in nearby primaries and will host a primary school tournament this summer.
Former England star, Mike Gatting, now Middlesex's director of cricket, believes there is an untapped enthusiasm for cricket among many children - particularly in the inner cities.
"We've tried very hard to get schools more involved. Many of the kids want to do more but schools' budgets seem tighter than ever," he said.
Despite that, more than eight in 10 secondary schools now play cricket and the number of secondary girls playing the game rose by a quarter last year. The board plans to invest a further pound;600,000 in school cricket over the next three years.
Martin Coles, headteacher of St Paul's community school in Tower Hamlets - one of the poorest authorities in England - reintroduced cricket when he moved to the school five years ago. He has no doubts about its benefits.
"It gives children from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to show that on the cricket field they can match middle-class kids," he said.
"I believe that it develops skills such as teamwork which wouldn't normally be developed," he said.
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