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

Life and Style
life
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
health
News
Joan Rivers has reportedly been hospitalised after she stopped breathing during surgery
people81-year-old 'stopped breathing' during vocal chord surgery
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
Life and Style
fashion

Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, UI, JMX, FIX)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, U...

Structured Finance

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - An excellent new instruction w...

SQL Server Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Server Developer SQL, PHP, C#, Real Time,...

C#.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer C#, Win Forms, WPF, WCF, MVVM...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone