England cricketer Rosalie Birch gets a celebrity welcome at King's Wood primary as she drags a kit bag through a crowd of excited girls begging for her autograph. It's the first time she's been back to the school since England's women cricketers triumphed in Australia last month, beating New Zealand to win the World Cup, and her visit is symbolic of how far women – and girls – have come in a game traditionally dominated by the chaps.
Women's cricket has, indeed, come a long way since the days when ladies sliced cucumbers in the back room of Lords while men packed the Pavilion. But it has not been until very recently that it really began to take off in schools. Persuading more girls to aspire to score a century or take a hat-trick was difficult as cricket fell off the timetable in state schools. In 2004 a survey commissioned by the Cricket Foundation found fewer than one in 10 schools played at least five competitive games a year.
Cricket was in a dire state, according to Nick Gandon, the foundation's director. "The then department for education and skills somehow came up with a statistic that cricket was played at 86 per cent of schools. It might have been a cricket bag in the PE teacher's locker or the occasional reference to cricket in GCSE sports science, but it certainly wasn't pupils playing matches," he says.
Then in 2005 the foundation launched Chance to Shine, a campaign to bring cricket back to state schools. Funded partly by the England and Wales Cricket Board and charitable donations and partly by the Government, it has so far provided free coaching for up to five years at 1,686 primary and 396 secondary schools. A recent evaluation by academics at Loughborough University concluded the benefits went beyond the engagement of children in exercise. It found evidence that taking part in the disciplined game of cricket increased pupils'self-esteem and social skills – and even encouraged good behaviour.
Birch is one of eight members of the England women's team who have signed up as ambassadors and at King's Wood in High Wycombe she teaches groups of girls, arguing that they have more confidence without the boys.
The benefit is not all one way, however. The England captain, Charlotte Edwards, thinks the security of a regular income as school ambassador for at least part of the year contributed to the team's success. "We are in the wonderful position where we can go into schools and be buoyed by the enthusiasm of the children and then go off to play cricket without worrying that we won't have a job to come back to," she says.
Running to join Birch on the field, Iqra Sadiq, 10, says she used not to like cricket because she thought it was a boys' game. "It looked really boring," she says. "You just hit the ball and ran, which didn't look much fun. But I want to be good at all sports, so I said I would do it. I changed my mind when Rosalie came because she is such a great teacher. Now my dream is to play cricket for England, like her."
The not-so-sporty pupils say it is the first time they have enjoyed doing exercise. "I don't like sport, says Hanna Arif, 10. "Before cricket I didn't like PE and games, so I used to forget my kit to try to get out of it. Normally, you do PE with the class and you get shouted at by the boys. They laugh at you and I used to get annoyed and ask the teacher if I could sit out." But her best friend Aisha liked sport. "I thought it would be good to do something Aisha liked. I wanted to find a sport we could enjoy together, so I tried cricket and it's really fun."
Hanna is not the only one who used to "forget" her kit in an attempt to get out of exercise, according to Karen Hunter, the deputy headteacher. Now, everyone remembers their kit. "Just look at the level of enthusiasm out there," she says, observing the girls running between two stumps, playing a version of cricket designed for maximum participation as the team makes the runs together. "There isn't a girl out there who isn't enjoying sport. It is a pleasure to see. We know that girls can go off sport when they turn 11 but, if we can capture them now, there's a chance they will continue to be active at secondary school."
Their enthusiasm spills over into lessons where the quiet ones or those who speak English as a second language forget their inhibitions when talking about cricket-related subjects. They also gain a lot from learning to work as a team and supporting each other, she says.
On a fine spring day it is easy to see why cricket, even the children's version with short games and plastic bats, is appealing. But according to Lesley Cowie, the teaching assistant who helps with sport, even in freezing fog the girls do not want the sessions to end. The value of Chance to Shine lies not so much in the game itself, but in the excellent support and coaching, she says. "The sessions, unlike some of the PE lessons, don't result in disputes and bad feeling. I think this is down to Rosalie Birch being such a good coach. It has worked because it is of such high quality. A scheme which trumpeted 'girls can do cricket!' without providing well-planned activities that engaged everyone would not have the same effect."
The Cricket Foundation faced scepticism at first. "People who thought they knew what schools were like said that they would not commit their teachers or curriculum time but that has turned out to be absolutely not the case," says Gandon. The timing was fortunate. The campaign began in 2005-06 when the Government was finally waking up to the importance of sport after years of abject neglect and saying to the school that they had to give children five hours a week of proper sport. "Schools were turning round and asking how they were supposed to do that," adds Gandon. " We turned up and said we are here to help you."
In 2008, there were 38,000 cricket matches played in more than 2,000 schools and, of the 226,884 who had participated by the end of last year, 45 per cent were girls.
Rosalie produces a copy of The Independent with a picture of the England women's team, with one player circled in red. "This is Isa Guha, ranked women's number one bowler. She lives in High Wycombe, just around the corner. She is just like you," she tells the pupils.