LONDON (Reuters) - Former England cricket captain Ian Botham wants to encourage children from tough urban areas to play the game by promoting a condensed form tailored for school gyms or basketball courts.
Botham, who was one of England's greatest all-round players, is concerned that poorer youngsters are turned off by cricket despite efforts to reinvent the game in recent years and rid it of its stuffy image.
"Kids in inner-city areas think cricket is boring and they can't afford pads or equipment - we want to change that," said Botham, lead ambassador for the "Cage Cricket" initiative and a crowd pleaser in his 1980s heyday.
Cage Cricket is designed for just six players, rather than the traditional 11-a-side, with players competing as individuals and earning points for batting, bowling and fielding. The format removes time spent waiting around for a chance to bat that puts many youngsters off cricket for life.
It can be played with a soft ball rather than the hard, red leather cricket ball and matches should last only around an hour. Another plus in a rain-lashed English summer is that it is not at the mercy of the elements.
Botham, 56, will join former players and lawmakers in demonstrating the game on Tuesday in a specially built cage in the grounds of the British parliament.
CRICKET'S BIG BANG
Cricket, once the most traditional of sports with its pristine white kit and rituals such as the tea interval, has undergone a series of makeovers in recent years to try to maintain its appeal.
The most dramatic development in the professional game has been the launch of Twenty20 cricket -- a brash form that is over in 3 hours rather than the five days that international test matches can endure. That shorter format has proved a commercial success, spawning the money-spinning Indian Premier League.
Cage Cricket is working with a London youth charity to try to establish 50 venues across the capital.
Its founders are also using online funding platform Spacehive.com to encourage businesses and enthusiasts to contribute cash to build cages, initially in the southern English city of Portsmouth and then in other parts of the country.
England are the world's top team in test cricket and latest annual figures from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) showed a five percent increase in players of all ages in club cricket. However, critics say the game risks once again becoming the preserve of leafy suburbs and expensive schools.
Bank of England governor Mervyn King, a cricket fan, leads a separate "Chance to Shine" campaign to try to get more children in state schools to play the game competitively.
Cage Cricket's backers hope the new game will prove an alternative to five-a-side football or basketball for youngsters. They see it as complementary to the "Chance to Shine" project.
"Cage Cricket is a bit less structured. They don't need to wait for a teacher or coach, they can play whenever they like," said Stuart Robertson, a non-executive director of Cage Cricket and former ECB marketing chief.
"We hope it really chimes with kids," added Robertson, who helped to launch Twenty20 cricket.
(Reporting by Keith Weir)