Female fans bowled over by Eng~~s cricket hunks

Published: Wednesday, September 7, 2005, 23:53 [IST]
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London:Football heartthrob David Beckham and rugby hunk Jonny Wilkinson have been caught out this summer by England's cricket team whose skill against Australia and good looks have won a bevy of female fans.

The whole country has gone cricket mad over the past few weeks as England battles to beat Australia in an Ashes series for the first time in nearly 20 years, with a nail biting climax set for the final Test from thursday.

For a sport that is traditionally worshipped by men, cricket is also attracting more women thanks to the success of the England team and the appeal of certain members, such as charming all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, chiselled fast bowler Simon Jones and cheeky blue-haired batsman Kevin Pietersen.

"The players look good and they are charismatic, which is partly why the game is spreading to new audiences," said Clare Connor, captain of the England women's cricket team, which won its own Ashes against Australia last month.

"Everyone male or female gets interested as soon as the team starts doing really well against the top side which is Australia," she told AFP.

England will go into the final Test 2-1 up and needing just a draw to win the overall contest - a feat that will turn the squad into national heroes.

"Everyone is talking about cricket," said a spokesman for the England and Wales Cricket Board. "The fact that the team is potentially in line for an Ashes victory is something that has swept the country."

Asked how the players were handling their heightened fame and adoring throng of female fans, the spokesman said: "They are coping very well. Essentially they don't have time to do much else other than concentrate on the job at hand - and that is trying to win the Ashes."

Despite their gruelling training regime, some of the team have found time to pose for photo-shoots and give interviews. Their pictures dominate the sports sections of newspapers and also appear increasingly in glossy men's magazines. They even feature as pin-ups inside women's monthly magazines.

Cosmopolitan magazine sent female hearts racing when it published a naked, smouldering photograph of 26-year-old Jones, who will miss the last Test with an ankle injury, in its August edition.

"We were the first people to identify the sexual appeal of the England cricket players," said a spokeswoman for the magazine.

"Suddenly cricket is sexy for young women," she told AFP, noting that the picture of Jones - which is part of a monthly feature to raise awareness about male cancer - triggered a flood of emails and phone calls from readers wanting a poster-size copy of the tanned, muscle-bound cricketer.

The so-called Barmy Army, a colourful group of cricket fans who typically wear fancy dress and sing funny songs at matches, said they welcomed the influx of women who were travelling to the games or watching them on television.

"I think the girls like coming along now that there are a few sex symbols on the pitch," said Paul Burnham, one of the founders of the fan club, which claims to have some 32,000 registered members.

"The more girls who get into it the better for cricket," he said, adding: "The more girls who like cricket, the more times their husbands and boyfriends will be allowed to play or go and watch it."

Highlighting the sport's popularity, Channel 4, which broadcasts live coverage of cricket in Britain, enjoyed a 21 percent share of the country's television audience on August 28 when England clinched the fourth Test at Trent Bridge.

The figure was more than double its normal rating and higher than the other stations - ironically it comes in the last season that terrestrial television broadcasts home test matches after the domestic sport's ruling body the ECB judged it better to move it to BSkyB who offered a lot more money.

In addition, one supermarket chain is selling more replica England cricket shirts than football shirts, according to the series sponsor.

England captain Michael Vaughan said last month: "We can't go anywhere without people wishing us luck. It's great to know that the nation will be right behind us when we take on the Aussies."

With the football and rugby seasons up and running, however, the sponsor's spokeswoman Sue Newton said it would be naive to think cricket's new-found popularity will last throughout the winter months when the sport is not played in Britain.

At the same time, she hoped enough momentum had been generated to see cricket once more in the headlines when the new season starts next year.

As for the female fans, their passion for the game - and in particular the players - shows no sign of fading.

"I like the appeal of the characters and personalities who are playing, and the fact that they are doing well," said Hannah Mervis, 25, a policewoman who lives in a flat overlooking the Oval Cricket Ground in south London, where the final Test match will take place.

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