Success of the England women's cricket team inspires girls to take up game in record numbers

Richard Garner reports on a grass-roots revolution
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The Independent Online

All eyes in the cricket world this week are on Alistair Cook's new-look England team and how they will fare in the Test series against India, which began yesterday.

Behind the scenes, though, there is a revolution going on at school grass-roots level, which is creating a massive upsurge of interest in promoting girls' cricket. Part of it, in all probability, is down to the success of the England Women's cricket team, which not only won the Ashes against Australia last summer but retained them Down Under in the winter.

But the rest of it, though, according to Elizabeth McLaren, team manager of the girls' cricket team at Felsted school in Essex, is that the sport is "just plain fun".

Felsted has seen a major boost to girls' cricket in the past couple of years. Then, it was down to a handful of exceptionally talented girls who played in the boys' first XI. The rest played rounders. "Now, though," says McLaren, "we've concentrated on cricket. We decided that rounders was a sport that you couldn't do at university, so we've abolished it and replaced it with cricket instead. It's cricket or tennis in the summer here now – and it has just taken off as a sport."

Rounders, she says, does not offer the girls the chance that cricket does to continue to improve and hone their skills once they have mastered the game.

Next year, too, cricket will be strengthened as the school takes on its first women's cricket coach – former pupil Lucy Stuchfield, who has just won an Oxford blue for cricket and will be joining the school's current cricket coach, the former England player Jason Gallian, in overseeing the sport.

The 1,000-pupil school (60 per cent boys and 40 per cent boys), which has much to celebrate this year – its 450th anniversary for a start, and a visit from the Queen – is basking in the glory of two of its players, who are succeeding at county level, 13-year-olds Nancy Hebron and Olivia Snoaks.

Bowled over: Felsted girls' team in action (Teri Pengilley)

Nancy is celebrating having just scored three successive hundreds – and a highest knock of 141 – for the Essex under-13s. She has been picked to play for an England development squad XI and is widely tipped as a future international player. She says she has been involved with cricket "ever since I was a baby".

"My brothers have been playing cricket since they were tiny," she says. One has just graduated from Durham University – renowned for its sporting success – where he played for the cricket team.

"I want to carry on playing cricket and hopefully play for England one day," she says. She is due to tour Abu Dhabi and Dubai next winter with emerging players.

Olivia, by contrast, is a bowler who has just revelled in taking two for 17 in six overs in a limited overs match against a visiting MCC women's side. (In a club match – playing alongside males – she bettered those figures, with four for 17 off eight overs.)

"Me and my twin brother started to play at the same time in the garden. I've also played for Writtle cricket club, my local side, where I played in the boys' team.

"This is my second year at Felsted and I started playing with the girls last year. I'd like to carry on playing for Essex, but I don't really know what will happen after that."

The team has gradually been building up the number of games it has played – it has excellent facilities with five pitches on the main site and three at the preparatory school.

Interestingly, it is not only the private sector that is seeing a boost to women's cricket. In a recent competition, Felsted, a private, co-educational day and boarding school, found itself in a group with three other state schools.

"There are quite a few state schools taking it up," says McLaren. There is still work to be done, she argues, in both sectors. "In some prep schools, they are struggling," she says.

In a spin: Nancy Hebron bowling (Teri Pengilley)

One factor that helps Felsted is the prospect of playing indoor cricket during the winter months, at Essex's county ground in Chelmsford, which will help the girls prepare for the summer.

When Jason Gallian arrived at the school, girls' cricket was in its infancy.

"We knew about a couple of girls in the prep school who were playing cricket," he says. "It's early days, but we have seen other schools get involved. There are girls who are very good – good enough to play for the county. There are also girls who are very enthusiastic to learn a new sport."

One, who had only been playing for eight weeks, was celebrating having just scored an impressive 43.

The school takes its cricket seriously. On the day that I visited, it was playing host to three Australian teams who were playing its boys' teams – and reciprocal visits have been planned.

Back to girls' cricket, though, and nationally it has seen increased take-up. So far in 2014, Chance to Shine – the cricketing charity that is aiming for a revival of the sport in state schools – said that in 2014 alone, 87,000 girls so far had been introduced to cricket for the first time, and the figure is certain to rise.

Since 2005, the year in which England retained the Ashes after nearly 20 years in the wilderness, a total of 1.1 million girls have played cricket for the first time, many of whom, the charity says "would never have picked up a bat or ball".

Another school where the sport has been enthusiastically embraced is St Margaret's Church of England, a state primary school in Newcastle-under-Lyme, where 50 per cent of its girls attend weekly cricket sessions.

"The girls have shown great enthusiasm for the game," says Don Mack, who coaches them. "They've embraced the whole concept of cricket from the start and I believe there's no reason why girls shouldn't play cricket at a competitive level just as the boys do."

Andrew Black, the school's headteacher, adds: "The shrieks of joy and excitement say it all for me. All years come together with friendship, appropriate levels of competition and appreciation of others' skills and abilities.

"The girls at St Margaret's don't want to become the tea ladies of the future. They want to be the players!"

If the enthusiasm seen at both schools is replicated across the country, England women's cricket captain Charlotte Edwards need have no fears about her legacy of success drying up.

And – who knows? – maybe the eyes of the cricketing world will be starting to turn in the direction of its women's team in future.