The fast women in netball's hard world

Richard Edmondson finds a game in need of a new image at the World Championships
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There will be blood on the floor at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena this week. Not because another world championship boxing title is up for grabs at the Midlands venue, and not because the Gladiators have returned for another series. For the next fortnight, the netball World Cup has come to town.

Netball, like its cousin basketball, is remarkable for the number of times its principal rule - outlawing body contact - is broken. There were bodies on the ground, stretchers in the aisles and the threat of cadavers in the press room yesterday as the group matches for the ninth World Championships unfolded.

England's squad trains for up to 12 hours a week, and have not taken kindly to reports that their sport is a bit of a joke. Certain journalists have suggested so this week, and would be advised to undergo plastic surgery and head for the deed poll office.

"We're light years ahead of other sports in many respects and that is why we get annoyed that we are treated as a triviality," Liz Broomhead, the England coach, said. "And it's only in this country.

"In New Zealand and Australia they are getting up at 4.30 in the morning to watch this tournament live and players are asked for their autographs when they walk down the street.

"This is a tough game and when we play the teams from Down Under they aren't going to pussyfoot around. You will certainly see blood out there.''

Netball has an uphill task being taken seriously in this country from the moment playground schoolboys are persuaded it is a game for drips, and should be avoided in favour of restringing the catapult or crushing beetles.

Nevertheless, there are 1.5 million adult players in Britain alone and a national side that has emerged from the ice mist of scientific preparation. A mental and physical programme has been developed for each squad member at Manchester Metropolitan University in an effort to win the world title for the first time (John Major would rather like the sound of this).

The rules, however, remain relatively unchanged since the time an American, Dr Toles, brought the game to Madame Osterberg's PT College (now Dartford College) in 1895 and gave a display with wastepaper baskets employed as nets. The opening game yesterday was (for billboard purposes) between the Douglas firs and the Scots pines. Neither Canada nor Scotland, though, were particularly big and it was Canada who came out on top 54-43 after trailing 23-21 at the interval.

In a (seven-a-side) game in which the ball has to be touched in each of three marked sections of the court, they used the short, sharp passes their stature dictates. The relative Amazons of Australia, the world champions, and New Zealand prefer Wimbledon's long ball approach. The Kiwis, playing their first match of the tournament, thrashed Namibia 87-22, while Australia continued their winning start to the campaign with an 86-24 win over Papua New Guinea.

Each sporting tournament produces its shining figure and this World Cup's lighthouse is Irene Van Dyk, the 6ft 5in shooter from South Africa, who are appearing in these championships for the first time since 1967.

Minnows of the past have included Vanuatu, the 75- island republic in the Pacific, and competing for the first time are Malawi, a nation with just 260 adult players, joining sides such as the Cook Islands and Namibia in the 28-team championships. Netball is taken considerably more seriously by audiences once you get outside British air space.

The home nation has some catching up to do, but may be heartened by the example of their most capped player, Kendra Slawinski. While she might not be readily picked out on the picture round of a Question Of Sport, she at least has appeared on the show itself.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 23