Cricket: The girl who crosses boundaries - A 12-year-old with a gift for cricket looks forward to her debut for the England Women's Under-19 XI

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THE medium-pace bowler overpitched by a few inches, though the ball moved slightly in the air. The batter, however, stepped forward and drove sweetly between mid-off and bowler for four.

A smattering of spectators by the pavilion applauded. An everyday cricket scene - except that the batter was a 12-year-old girl.

Charlotte Edwards is the most exciting prospect in English cricket. She is so good that she has to play in senior matches or with boys years older to get worthwhile competition. This season she was voted top player in the East Anglian women's team, and she has just been picked for the England Women's Under-19 XI to play England B on 12 September at Denstone College, near Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

Elaine Wulcko, manager of the East Anglian side, says: 'I am really excited about her. Charlotte is a remarkable talent.

'I have never seen a youngster of her age with such a range of shots or such maturity at the crease.'

Behind every young girl interested in traditionally male sports, you expect to find an overbearing father who always wanted a son but got lumbered with a daughter instead. And it's true that Charlotte spent a great part of her baby years in draughty pavilions while her mum fulfilled the time-honoured role of a keen cricketer's wife - making the teas.

But father Clive, who had already got the son anyway, didn't need to buy Charlotte a kiddie's bat or pictures of Geoff Boycott to kindle her latent talent. 'From when she was, oh, about three, she would watch cricket on the television,' her mother, Yvonne, recalls.

'She only ever wanted sporting things for presents, and she and Daniel (her 15-year-old brother) are always out in the back garden playing cricket.'

Like many girls who enjoy 'male' pursuits, Charlotte was discouraged from playing football or cricket at primary school until a more enlightened headmaster took over. Somersham Junior School went on to the national primary schools' cricket final and just failed to get the one run needed off the last ball. Opening bat and captain Charlotte had the consolation of hitting a couple of sixes into the nearby river.

She was soon the only girl in the Under-13 county side. This led to a place in the East Anglian Under-19 women's team, where the next youngest is 15. She has played 14 games for them this season, averaged 35 and won their Batter of the Year award, as well as taking a dozen wickets with her right-arm medium pace.

She may have taken several more, but Charlotte has little interest in statistics. 'I think my best score is 50-something and my best bowling. . . I once took eight wickets but I can't remember how many for.' So far, she has only bothered to paste two cuttings into her scrapbook.

Watching her play cricket, it's easy to forget she is just a 12-year-old girl barely out of junior school. 'She can bowl leg or off-cutters, and if I ask her to bowl at a batsman's feet, she can do so,' says Wulcko. Charlotte is already well over 5ft, throws the ball hard and low, and catches casually with either hand.

Incongruous she may look with shoulder-length wavy hair spilling from beneath a cricket cap, but word has got around that this is no cissy. 'Boys are more cautious than normal because they don't want to be bowled out by a girl, so I get away with balls that really ought to be whacked. But they don't treat me any differently when they bowl at me.'

Her team-mates are possessively proud of her, and her only real problem is with changing- rooms. 'I usually have to change in the ladies' loo or in the umpires' room.'

Away from the cricket square, Charlotte lives on the family farm at Ridley, near Huntingdon. She is shy, gnaws her nails and still has the clumsiness of a puppy that hasn't quite learnt all its limbs are connected. Her ambitions are to meet Robin Smith and to be a PE teacher.

She has a refreshing innocence, even embarrassment, about her exceptional ability. Small things like sponsorship from a local sports shop (the bat of her choice and pounds 60 pads) are far more exciting.

And though she will have practice nets through the winter (including a session at Lilleshall with the England squad), Charlotte's looking forward just as much to playing hockey again.

Will competition from other sports dilute her delight for cricket? Will she grow tall and strong, and retain her remarkable hand-eye co-ordination, or will she just grow big and clumsy?

Will the discovery that boys have an attraction stretching beyond batting partners mean she never fulfils her potential? And what's to be done with her precocious ability now? Cricket isn't really sure how to handle a 12-year-old girl.

Her club cricketer father is in no doubt. 'You can't coach talent,' he says succinctly. And Wulcko agrees. 'I would take the Pakistani approach with her. I would not want to see her overcoached because I want to let her talent flow out.'

(Photograph omitted)

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