For many, the mention of netball brings back memories of windswept playgrounds, frostbitten fingers and fading bibs. At the other end of the scale, however, it thrives as an international sport, with England as the dominant European force.
Although most of the estimated one million netball players in the UK compete in PE kits on Wednesday afternoons, England's national team have begun to challenge the southern hemisphere's hegemony. They won bronze at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and the 1999 World Championships, but Australia and New Zealand still set the standard.
A number of subtle differences separate the game at the top level from the version played in schools. Competitions take place almost exclusively indoors, for example. Players wear high-performance one-piece Lycra outfits, somewhere between a swimming costume and a leotard, with a token "skirt" sewn around the waist. The traditional bibs denoting the players' positions have been replaced with Velcro panels. The rules, however, remain essentially the same.
Teams consist of seven players, each with a specific role. Each position is restricted to certain areas of the court. These positions are identified by large letters worn on the player's front and back.
A goal is scored by launching the ball into the opposition's net, at the top of a 10ft goalpost. Shots can be taken only from within the goal circle and only by one of two players: the goal shooter and goal attack. The two forwards are fed passes by a centre and wing attack, while their own goal is defended by a wing defence, goal defence and goal keeper.
Play is divided into four 15-minute periods, and up to five substitutions are allowed. Scores can be high, with an average game boasting 50 goals; England's record in one match is 114, against Papua New Guinea in 1975.
Netball is a fast, non-contact sport. When the ball has been caught, it must be released within three seconds, and the first landed foot may not be lifted or regrounded until this has happened. Obstruction or contact with other players is punished by a penalty pass or shot.
The game can be traced to basketball. It began to assume its modern identity after arriving at Dartford PT College in 1897.
Today, England's leading players include Tracey Neville, the team's goal attack, who is the sister of Manchester United and England footballers Gary and Phil. Unlike her brothers, Tracey has already won medals for her country, and will be looking to add to her haul at next year's Commonwealth Games in Manchester.
To find out more, contact The All England Netball Association (AENA), the national governing body responsible for all aspects of netball in England (www.england-netball.co.uk, 01462 442 344, email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
The association will be able to put you in touch with your county netball association, who can provide lists of all the clubs in your area. They also produce Netball Magazine, published quarterly for an annual subscription of £8.
The International Federation of Netball Associations (IFNA) can be contacted at www.netball.org, or on 0121 446 4451.
Goal posts: The goal posts must be exactly 10ft (3.05 metres) high, and tend to be made of steel or aluminium. The base is usually triangular, but should be designed so that it does not stick out on to the pitch. Many come with wheels attached to the base for easy relocation, and padding for the post itself is also optional. Unlike basketball, there is no backboard behind the hoop, which should have a standard internal diameter of 38cm.
Ball: Balls tend to be a standard Size 5, weighing between 14 and 16 ounces, and ranging in price from £9-£49. The best match balls, used at international level, are made of folded cotton layers sandwiched together by a rubber outer-coating. Balls should have good grip, a regular bounce and good flight characteristics, to ensure that they will maintain a straight line when passed.
Clothing: One-piece suits made from Lycra performance fabrics are becoming popular in the higher echelons of the sport. These can often be colourful, and start at around £50. Bibs, which resemble sleeveless tunics, are still popular, but have begun to be replaced by lightweight Velcro patches. Thick socks are an important consideration, as friction created by fast foot movement can cause blisters. Solid trainers with a good ankle grip are advisable; the range of specialist netball shoes is limited.
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