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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 August 2005, 08:17 GMT 09:17 UK
Cricket's chance
By Bryn Palmer

Cricket is booming. The nation is gripped.

All the talk is of a sport re-born, not just rivalling football but challenging its supremacy in the country's sporting affections.

Andrew Flintoff has become a hero and kids want to be him
ECB national development manager Peter Ackerley
Kids want to be Andrew Flintoff rather than David Beckham. Shops are selling more cricket shirts than football tops.

People with no previous interest in the game are asking why England didn't actually 'win' on Monday, given they had scored more runs than Australia over the five days.

One newspaper columnist reckoned "this Ashes series has not so much captured the public imagination as sent it into orbit".

The figures tend to back up those sort of claims.

Channel 4 reported the final day at Old Trafford brought them their best ever share of total TV viewing figures for a Monday.

Average figures over all five days of the Test were 2.5m, with a peak of 7.7m when England were on the brink of victory, 42% of the total share.

Indeed, nearly 2.4m people accessed the BBC Sport website on Monday, clearly keen to follow the latest updates and listen to the Test Match Special commentary.

The 115,000 fans inside Old Trafford over the five days was the largest crowd aggregate at the ground since Richie Benaud bowled Australia to victory there in 1961.

Fans are locked outside the gates at Old Trafford
Thousands queued to no avail
Up to 20,000 were either locked outside or told not to travel to the ground on Monday by Manchester police.

Many of those fortunate enough to get in were wearing replica England shirts.

Sales have doubled and stocks have run out, with an estimated 25,000 extra shirts sold on the back of England's Ashes displays.

"From being a sport only watched by old people or those who played it at school, cricket is now appealing to a mass market," says Adam Reynolds, chairman of International Brand Licensing, the company that owns Admiral, which makes the shirts.

The ECB doubled its original order of 20,000 DVDs of "The Greatest Test" - England's second Test win at Edgbaston - but they have all been snapped up too.

The governing body has even had to beef up the hardware on its website, which is "creaking at the seams" under the weight of numbers wanting to find out about the game.

"It is quite staggering the number of people interested in these matches who have a new sense of loyalty towards a game that was not part of their main sporting diet before," ECB marketing manager Tom Harrison told BBC Sport.

"We now have to keep their interest and give them more opportunity to be involved in the game - helping them become participants as well as spectators."

So how can the ECB capitalise on the game's current popularity, to ensure this Ashes summer is not a one-off?

There are plans for two more "Cricket in the Park" events in Nottingham and London, the cities hosting the final two Tests, to cater for fans without tickets.

Sustained growth is not just a one-off because of the Ashes. It will continue whether it is Australia here or anyone else
ECB's Peter Ackerley
And participation-wise, the ECB is confident a 10-year development programme is well equipped to nourish the extra demand.

A week-long course for youngsters in Birmingham was four times over-subscribed after the Edgbaston Test, and double the usual numbers are turning up for junior nets.

"We are already seeing a phenomenal impact," Peter Ackerley, the ECB's national development manager told BBC Sport.

"There is a national fervour at the moment, and cricket has captured the public imagination.

"They have got heroes out there now. Andrew Flintoff has become a hero and kids want to be him.

"It is important we capitalise on that because we are still looking for the next Andrew Flintoff."

Ackerley believes the success of the ECB's development programmes for schools and local cricket clubs, combined with Government funding of 15m between 2003/04 and 2007/08, bodes well for cricket's continued popularity.

"Obviously this year it is the Australians and the Ashes. They are the ultimate, they always have been, and always will be.

"But we are seeing solid, sustained growth. It is not just a one-off because of the Ashes. It will continue whether it is Australia here or anyone else.

England fans lap up the atmosphere at Old Trafford
Fans lapped up the last-day action at Old Trafford
"There may have been empty seats in the grounds when Bangladesh were here earlier in the summer, but there were still vast numbers of youngsters playing cricket before, during and after school, in those communities.

"Sri Lanka and Pakistan next summer will offer different opportunities."

But will those youngsters encouraged to pick up a cricket bat or ball over the last fortnight retain their enthusiasm if they cannot watch their heroes in action?

Extra demand for TV rights to the current series has spread to countries such as Japan and Norway, not normally known for their love of cricket.

But after this summer until at least 2009, international cricket in England will only be seen on satellite TV, including the next Ashes series in this country.

ECB chief executive David Collier believes the early-evening highlights on Channel Five, for non-Sky subscribers, will be enough to sustain the interest of casual spectators now happily discussing the merits of Shane Warne's 'slider'.

"We've done an awful lot of research which shows that the majority of children and the majority of families watch TV between 7.15pm and 8pm," he told BBC Radio Five Live.

If Collier is right, and the England side continue to enjoy success in the coming years, cricket may yet be able to call itself 'the national game' again with some conviction.

Two more matches like those at Edgbaston and Old Trafford, with an England series victory at the end of it, would certainly get the ball rolling.

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