Forget football - cricket's the only game in town

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The Independent Online

Old Trafford, the Test venue, was sold out months ago but the Roper family were among thousands who went to Bristol city centre to watch the match on a huge TV screen in Queen Square. Stalls also enabled fans to try their hand at the game and to experience, via an audio-visual display, facing a 90mph delivery.

The Cricket in the Park programme devised by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is helping to satisfy the appetite of a country rediscovering the pleasures of its national summer game. The first two Tests were watched by more than 200,000 spectators and by 40,000 at open-air big-screen showings.

The small screen has not done badly either. Channel Four's average viewing figures for the second Test were the highest in the company's seven years in the sport. The climax on Sunday was watched by an audience of 4.1m - 44 per cent of the total TV audience at the time - while the channel's 15.1 per cent share of the previous day's overall audience was its highest ever. In all the excitement, it has been almost forgotten that football's Premiership starts today.

There is no substitute, of course, for a winning side. With the five-Test series level at 1-1 there is confidence England can beat their oldest rivals for the first time for 20 years, thanks to the bold attacking play of new heroes such as Andrew Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen and Michael Vaughan.

Consequently, black market ticket prices have gone through the roof, with £35 seats at Old Trafford sold for up to £1,000 a pair. Even those who watch on television sometimes have to book their seats. A spokesman for the Jamie's Bar chain, which has encouraged customers to reserve places in front of its TV screens, said: "The Ashes series has been bigger for us than Premiership football, particularly at our bars in the City."

A year ago, the build-up to the first weekend of the Premiership season overshadowed the start of the Olympic Games. This weekend it is cricket dominating the sporting agenda.

An ECB spokesman said yesterday: "I can't remember any time in the history of the Premiership when football hasn't dominated the back pages at this time of year. We're only 24 hours from the start of the Premiership but it's been Michael Vaughan's face all over the newspapers today. Last week it was Flintoff, the week before that Pietersen. These are exciting, young, vibrant sportsmen and they've captured the public's imagination."

Mr Roper's sons in Bristol enjoy playing all sports, but their father is particularly keen to encourage their interest in cricket. "England and Australia have been perfect role models," he said. "They play the game in an exhilarating fashion and conduct themselves impeccably.

"I hate the way so many Premiership footballers roll on the floor feigning injury, get up after two or three minutes and then sprint the length of the pitch. That's just rather typical of some of the attitudes that prevail in football today."

Not that parents will appreciate every aspect of cricket hero-worship. "Jon played in a cricket match the other day and one of his friends turned up having spent £30 and two hours having his hair styled liked Kevin Pietersen's," Mr Roper said.

The upsurge in interest in the game is underlined by significant increases in the sale of cricket goods. A spokesman for Asda said yesterday: "We're selling more replica England cricket shirts than football shirts at the moment. We've had to order more this week and that's the third time we've done that this summer."