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Friday, 25 May, 2001, 09:26 GMT 10:26 UK
Girls bowled over by cricket
Girls playing cricket at Barnard's Green school
Zienia Heaton puts in some practice
Interest in cricket among girls has never been higher. Gabrielle Lewis reports for BBC Sport Online.

In a corner of Worcestershire, with the backdrop of the idyllic Malvern Hills, women's cricket is thriving.

Girls of all ages jostle to pick up bat and ball rather than take part in athletics or rounders during their PE lessons at The Chase school.

And several of the teenagers give up valuable socialising time to improve their skills as an extra-curricular activity at the nearby Barnard's Green cricket club.

An undeniable influence is the presence of Jane Powell, the former England captain and currently coach to the national women's team, who teaches at the school.

But their enthusiasm exemplifies a soaring interest in women's cricket which has seen the numbers playing the game double in the past two years.

Over 640,000 girls played cricket at school in the last 12 months, while over 4,000 play at club level and more than 7,600 women are now registered with clubs.

There are a number of reasons behind the upsurge; recognition of the England Women's team and the success of England's men are two of them, but primarily it comes down to money.

Lucy Pearson takes a wicket against South Africa
England celebrate a wicket at the 2000 Women's World Cup

Since the Women's Cricket Association merged with the England and Wales Cricket Board in 1998, 7m has been invested in the grass roots of the game every year.

This has enabled the provision of four regional development officers and initiatives such as Kwik Cricket and Inter Cricket that appeal to schoolgirls.

"It's incredible how fast the number of girls and women in cricket has increased," Powell said.

"There were around 5,000 at the end of my time as England captain in 1991. In 10 years that's risen to almost half a million.

"A major part of the reason has been joining with the ECB. The women's development officers around the country have had a massive input as well as the ECB officers in getting cricket into the schools."

Shortage of opponents

The speed of cricket's growth among women has taken many regions by surprise and, with provisions for female participation in athletics and tennis already well established, the cricket world has had to react quickly to effect a structure for the female game.

However, despite the 56 new women's sections that have formed at existing clubs in the last year, there are still a limited number of clubs available for women cricketers to progress and that factor alone leads many schools to prefer the alternative summer sports.

"One of the problems I have is that the school team want to play games and there's hardly anyone else to play against, so they have to play against the young boys teams," Powell added.

England coach Jane Powell
Jane Powell: A dual role at youth and national level

"The nearest good club is Wolverhampton, although now the county section is fully set up in Worcestershire so I can feed the girls into that from Under-13s.

"As an outlet, it's good for the girls who want to progress and need competition. There are not many women's clubs, so the girls' next step is really county level."

Rachel Wyatt is one of the girls who plays for Worcestershire at Under-17 level. She was encouraged to take up cricket at school by Powell and pursued it following support from her family.

"Cricket is that little bit different from the other sports and I was given a lot of support to play from my grandfather," said the sixth form student.

"It's a good talking point and most people accept that I play now. I don't get teased because it's a male sport."

Family influence also played a part in 13-year-old Zienia Heaton's decision to take up cricket.

"My dad is the captain at Barnard's Green so I make the teas when he plays at the weekends and I practise in the nets after the matches," she said.

Professional ambition

"It's good because they have a girls team there that caters for 10 to 17-year-olds, although I have made up the numbers in the Under-15s boys team. It means I can put what Ms Powell teaches us at school into practice.

"I want to be a professional sportswoman and cricket is one of many sports I do. I'll probably stick with cricket and rounders during the summer as I'm not interested in athletics."

Wyatt's career plans lie in other directions but she is keen to enjoy playing the game while she can.

"I've found it hard to find a university that offers women's cricket as well as the medical course I want, although some say there are clubs nearby," she added.

"But I don't think I'll ever play professionally. I feel I've got skills in other departments that I will focus on, although I want to do my coaching award so I can encourage others to play cricket."

This enthusiasm is music the ears of the sport's representatives like Powell, who hope success in the forthcoming Ashes series will breed more of the same.

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