Cricket: Kids get swinging at Lord's: Jim White on an initiative to halt the decline of schools cricket in the capital and raise the sport's marketing profile

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ANNIE CLAIRE executed a text- book off drive to clip an out-swinger into the boundary netting. From the other crease Kemi, her batting partner, advanced and the pair touched knuckles by way of celebration.

Annie Claire, 8, and Kemi, 10, were doing something yesterday their elder brothers and sisters had been denied: they were playing competitive schools cricket in London, helping Fircroft Primary from Wandsworth in the Capital Kids Cricket competition at the Lord's indoor school. And they were loving every minute of it. As were the scores of other children filling Lord's with the kind of high spirits not normally associated with the place on a day Middlesex were playing Nottinghamshire in front of two dozen people and a flask of Bovril.

As recently as 1987, it looked as though such a sight would never again grace Lord's. Then the tournament had to be abandoned because only two schools could raise a side: schools cricket had become the lion-faced tamarin of sport, a species on the brink of extinction.

'Cricket in state schools in inner London had all but died out,' said Mike Barnett, of the London Schools Cricket Project and one of several David Bellamys who have helped re-establish the breed in the wilds of inner London. 'There were no facilities, the teachers strike didn't help and there was an educational philosophy which discouraged competition.'

The result was that Barnett's son Alex, the Lancashire spinner, discovered that as he made his way through the London schoolboy representative ranks during the 1980s, the proportion of boys from state schools dwindled from about half when he was under-11 to zero when he was under-16. Cricket was rapidly becoming a private school game. And the counties were missing out on a huge pool of talent.

So a number of initiatives were introduced by the London Schools Cricket Project to reverse the decline. The LSCP sent coaches into schools and discovered that the game was still hugely popular; it was not dying out through market forces. They were enormously helped by Kwick Kricket, the plastic bat-and- ball game perfected by Annie Claire and Kemi which can be played anywhere.

According to Haydn Turner, the chairman of Capital Kids Cricket, schools cricket is an enormous marketing opportunity for the professional game: 'Make kids excited by the sport, enjoy it. They won't all become England players, but they might become enthusiasts. They might even come and watch Middlesex v Notts.'

As Annie Claire and Kemi disappeared into the hastily prepared ladies' changing-room at the indoor school, it seemed as if schools cricket was back in full health.

'Well, I wouldn't want to sound too triumphalist,' John Smith, the LSCP's chief development officer, said. 'We've reached 40,000 children so far, but our target is 100,000. There's only one borough where we have penetrated 100 per cent of the schools. That's the City of London. And they've only got one school.'

(Photograph omitted)