* FTSE 100 index finishes 0.7 percent higher

* China’s growth data slightly above forecasts

* Sports Direct (Frankfurt: A0MK5S – news) surges on bullish BofA-ML note

By Atul Prakash

LONDON, April 16 (Reuters) – Britain’s benchmark stock index rose on Wednesday after Chinese economic data came in a touch above forecasts, with Tesco (Xetra: TCO.DE – news) rising on aggressive strategy plans and Sports Direct surging on a bullish note about the company.

The sportswear retailer surged 5.6 percent to the lead FTSE 100 gainers. Traders cited a note from Bank of America Merrill Lynch as saying it could grow its top line at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7 percent over the next 10 years, driven by online sales and expansion into Europe.

The market was broadly helped by data showing China’s economy grew 7.4 percent in the January-March quarter from a year earlier, just above a forecast of 7.3 percent. March data showed retail sales were a shade above forecasts with an annual rise of 12.2 percent.

“Investors have taken Chinese growth numbers positively, but they are cautiously optimistic as defensive sectors are in favour today,” James Butterfill, global equity strategist at Coutts said.

“Aside from some possible seasonal weakness in May, we like equities. We are positive on healthcare stocks, which remain good value with an attractive dividend yield,” he said.

Pharmaceutical shares, generally seen as defensive plays, added the most points to the blue-chip FTSE 100 index, with GlaxoSmithKline (Other OTC: GLAXF – news) , AstraZeneca (NYSE: AZN – news) and Shire (Dusseldorf: S7E.DU – news) rising 1 to 1.6 percent.

The FTSE index closed 0.7 percent higher at 6,584.17 points, after falling 0.6 percent on Tuesday, on relief that Chinese growth was steadier than some had feared.

“In terms of where we are focusing our positions and our positive stance, within the emerging markets context we are trying to pick names which are more skewed towards China than the current account deficit economies,” Ian Richards, global head of equities strategy at Exane BNP Paribas, said.

Among individual sharp movers, Tesco, which is heavily weighted in the FTSE 100, rose 2.6 percent after posting in-line results and its chief executive Philip Clarke said he would respond to both the discount groups and the upmarket grocers that have hit Tesco sales.

“Although the figures highlight the difficult trading conditions the group faces, the statement comes as something of a relief following a period of poor share price performance, while a focus on capital discipline and cash generation means the dividend has been maintained,” Jonathan Jackson, head of equities at Killik & Co, said.

“The attractive dividend yield continues to provide support.” (Additional reporting by Tricia Wright and Sudip Kar-Gupta; Editing by Alison Williams)