Netball: Goodbye to the pleated skirt as playground game grows up

England's new promise faces the toughest test with the visit of world champions Australia

The sporting year of 2013 is likely to be coloured in this country by one of our most enduring rivalries: England against Australia. The Ashes will duly dominate but the first Anglo-Australian encounter of the year will happen in Bath tomorrow in a sport that has quietly and efficiently tended to its grass roots to dramatic effect.

When, amid all the post-Olympic backslapping at the close of 2012, a pot of nearly £500m was divided out among sports in England, it was netball that emerged as one of the main beneficiaries. This is a sport with green fingers. As cricket's share was cut, only cycling and football received more than the £25.3m Sport England – in charge of grass-roots funding – handed to netball, an award that came in recognition of the rapid expansion of a sport that has reinvented itself.

More people play netball in this country than basketball, boxing or hockey and three times as many as play rugby league. It has come a long way from its image as a "pleated skirt, playground" sport.

Tomorrow Pamela Cookey will lead England out to play the first of three Tests against the world champions, the others being at Wembley Arena on Wednesday and Birmingham NIA next Saturday. It will have the needle of any such encounter – Australia are the team England need to catch. The ambition is to reach at least the finals of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the World Championships over the next two years and be world champions the next time out, in 2019.

The sport in Australia, where it is semi-professional, and New Zealand, is still ahead of this country – Cookey puts a five-year span on the gap. But this is a bottom-up process – and one sports such as handball, which are searching for a future following their Olympic surge, can learn from.

Participation levels in netball have grown rapidly: 160,000 play it every week, according to the latest national survey, a number up by 40,000 since 2008-09. That compares to 183,000 who play cricket and rugby union. Netball's aim is to add another 40,000 over the current award period, 2013-17.

"It's about saying 'remember how much fun you had, how exciting it was, how social it was'," Cookey says. "We have been able to remind people and when they come back they remember how much they loved it."

There has been a change of image through a marketing campaign around women who play the sport at a basic level, for social as much as physical reasons, combined with three successful campaigns designed to divorce the game from a perception that it is a "white middle-class" pastime.

"We have worked exceptionally hard over the last four years to try and change the face of netball," says Paul Clark, England Netball's chief executive. "As a women's sport you have to work harder to gain the profile and the credibility. We have really got to ride the crest of the wave that we are on. From the performance side, we have to start realistically challenging the No 1 and No 2 in the world, Australia and New Zealand. We are pushing up towards those one and two spots – we have beaten them on occasions but we are not doing it consistently."

The Tests are to be shown live on Sky, which has been showing the sport for nine years, and commentary broadcast on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra. Success internationally is the next stage. The game in England is based on the eight-team Super League. Games are shown on Sky, with the governing body contributing to costs, an expenditure worthwhile for the "shop window" effect. The standard remains below that Down Under but is improving.

"The broader you can build your base in terms of participation, the greater choice ultimately you have for internationals," Clark says. "By the same token, the more role models you have out there and the greater success of your international team, the more young girls want to play netball."

England v Australia International Series and Netball Super League are live on Sky Sports

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