ALMANACK : System with a degree of quality

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WHEN you think of Cambridge you think of dreaming spires, narrow cobbled streets, bright young things sipping Pimm's in punts on the Cam. There is no shortage of picturesque sights in the old university town but Fenner's, the university cricket ground, is not one of them. The wrecker's ball is long overdue for that ghastly multi-storey car park at long-on.

"What are you going to write about?" Ed Hughes, a Cambridge seam bowler, asked as we watched the team in the nets last Wednesday. "Are you doing that old stuff about whether or not we should have first-class status?" Russell Cake, the side's leading batsman, ambled over: "What's the story then? First-class status?"

No it isn't. That old chestnut gets a thorough roasting at this time of year every year, and we're thoroughly bored by it - almost as bored with it as the Cambridge players are. They play first-class games. Fine. They hardly ever win; the county players improve their averages; the university players improve their skills. It won't change, because it's not in the interests of anyone involved to change it.

The system seems to benefit England as well as the University sides. Successive generations of Cambridge sides have produced a collection of caps including Mike Brearley, our own Derek Pringle, Mike Atherton and John Crawley. Rather than waste breath on whether or not they should be playing first-class cricket, we thought it might be more instructive to try to find out what it is about University cricket that produces so many good players.

The main advantage is that the players are introduced to top-class cricket without the pressure of playing for their careers. Very few Cambridge players expect to make their living from cricket, even though most would like to. This means that when they walk out to bat against Craig White and the rest of the Yorkshire attack this week, they can fail without putting their livelihood at risk. That is not the case with young professionals learning the game in county second XIs.

"They are nervous when they start," Andy Whittall, the Cambridge captain, said. "There might be a spinner on, and they'll be surrounded by close fielders. The first ball comes down, and they go - [he mimes a tentative forward prod] - and that's that. But once they get a score, the confidence begins to flow." Whittall, a tall, tanned Zimbabwean who has represented his country at under-19 level, is just the kind of laid-back character the younger players will need to calm their nerves. He is also, to judge from his efforts in the nets last week, a pretty useful off-spinner.

Not all the players need their hands held. Some, such as Russell Cake and Nick Haste, who this year leads Cambridge's seam attack, have seen it all before. Cake and Haste are both studying engineering, a four-year course - and so have a longer-than-usual university cricket career. While his team-mates were in fielding practice, we found Haste upstairs in the pavilion, with some of the traditional accoutrements of the English seam bowler: a beer, a fag, and a heat mat on a dodgy hamstring. "Just a precaution," he said. "It's only a twinge, but I've got a lot of bowling to get through this summer."

Earlier on Haste had a fun time in the nets with a bat: he's the kind of tail-ender who can deliver handy runs in a very short time. He had been particularly severe on the spin bowling of the Cambridge coach, Graham Saville, twice whacking him straight back over everyone's heads. "Sav" didn't seem to mind. "They're a good bunch of lads," he told us. "Whether or not they can play cricket is another matter."

Haste, like his team-mates, would love to play county cricket, but, as he honestly admitted: "I'm getting on a bit now, and I've not been signed up by anybody." There are still this year's first-class scalps to collect. He has already observed cricket history at close quarters. "I was bowling to Graham Gooch when he was on 99," he recalls, "the day he scored his hundredth hundred. But I was determined that he wasn't going to score the crucial run off my bowling." And? "He didn't. He got it at the other end."

A final question for the captain: can you beat a county side this year? "It's going to be hard", Whittall said. "It's always hard for Oxford and Cambridge. But we have great team spirit. All Cambridge teams have great team spirit." Who knows? Perhaps the indigestible combination of Cake and Haste will cause a few upsets.

HATS off to the lads on the Aberdeen Press & Journal, who pulled off a fine April Fool stunt. "Eric says Oui to County" ran the banner headline on the back page, above a plausible photograph of a smiling Cantona holding a No 7 shirt in the colours of Ross County, with the Scottish Third Division club's manager, Bobby Wilson. The piece explained that, through a little- known loophole in Fifa regulations, the fiery Frenchman was banned from playing anywhere in the world - except Scotland. "We almost had to take the phones off the hook," Mr Wilson said. "A surprising number of people were taken in by the spoof." Fans at County's game against Queen's Park last week waited for the team announcement with bated breath. The PA man hesitated at No 7, then reported that the new signing had failed a late fitness test.

QUOTE of the week comes from Bruce Rioch, the Bolton manager, on ITV: "We threw our dice into the ring and came up trumps."