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Rounders is slowly dying out, but this most British of pastimes is well worth saving

Rounders is losing popularity in British schools
Rounders is losing popularity in British schools Credit: Alamy

Last week, I had a call from my daughter in her last week at prep school. It was the day of the leavers’ games against parents – fathers versus sons on the cricket square, mothers versus daughters on the netball court, as well as on the rounders 'pitch'... well, bit of grass actually.

Of course, she has learned well at her school and knew not to ask me the direct question, “Would you like to be an honorary mother for an hour?” but rather skirted round it. “Are you busy?” she began by asking.

Once she had established that I was on a day off and had no excuses, she hit me with it – to play netball for the first time ever and rounders for the first time in 25 years – against her and a bunch of her very energetic 13-year-old colleagues.

We 'mums' lost the netball, we won the rounders and, instead of honours being left even, to determine an outright winner a member of each team was chosen for the prep school equivalent of Duckworth-Lewis; rock, paper, scissors, at which we smashed ’em for a memorable 2-1 series win.

The afternoon did leave me to reflect on a few things, apart from how long it might be before I need a first hip replacement. Firstly, why had it taken me 54 years to play my first game of netball? And, secondly, that with cricket becoming a mainstream girls’ sport in schools, are we witnessing the death of the pastime which gave the United States baseball?

Girls playing rounders back in 1948 Credit: Picture Post

Having been a Lent term activity, my knowledge of netball had been restricted to watching from the sidelines, usually on bitterly cold afternoons dreaming of chocolate brownies, the reward for stoic supporters at the post-match parents’ tea. But as goal attack, you get a different perspective on the game, which is fast and – if I got it, which I think I did – fundamentally depends on movement and on players finding space in a crowded area. As a convert, I am now pricking my ears at the prospect of the Netball World Cup which starts in Liverpool on Friday.

It is rounders though, probably the cheapest team sport going unless you play football with jumpers for goalposts, and one of the most fun, for which I worry.

It was first played in Tudor times and was exported pretty much on the Mayflower, from where it spawned its extraordinarily rich and brash cousin, the national game of the US.

Here, though, it is the nouveau pauvre of sports. Once described in this newspaper as the “sport for people who hate sport”, in 2015 some seven million people are meant to have played the game, which caters as well for the cack-handed player as it does the star batter.

Boys playing rounders in the 1990s Credit: REX

Although both games are about hitting, throwing and catching, rounders is being quietly phased out of schools in favour of girl’s cricket, where there is more emphasis on the technical and the tactical.

Girls’ cricket saw a massive boost after the Women’s World Cup was held in England in 2017. The number of females playing has tripled every year since and, while the county performance pathways for girls have been in place for some time, the England and Wales Cricket Board is about to invest £20 million in promoting it within clubs which are, at the moment, regarded as the weak link in the women's version of the game.

The key priority for Rounders England, the Sheffield-based organisation which runs the game, is to keep the sport hanging in there in schools. It submitted a comprehensive response to a Department for Education consultation last December regarding the list of assessed sports at GCSE and A-level PE. The outcome is not yet known.

It strongly argues that rounders offers an inexpensive major sport for all levels and that there is room on the school playing field for both.

Cricket may lead to competition and performance opportunities but rounders focuses on fun and can be played where time and space are short. But if it is not played at school, then in 25 years’ time, another part of British life will be as good as gone in our parks and on the beaches, its last remaining habitats.