JOHN CRAWLEY was not the only young English batsmen making a debut to high expectations last week. One hundred and fifty miles away at Trent Bridge another prodigy was making a nervous step into the big time.
Although Nottinghamshire were beaten as heavily by Surrey as England were by South Africa, Mathew Dowman enjoyed a better introduction to first-class cricket than Crawley did to Tests. Though making only five in his first innings - and being dropped first ball - the 19-year-old showed considerable maturity in digging in for a near three-hour 31 in the second innings.
Not a bad start but to some a long overdue one. Indeed there are those who think he should have been alongside Crawley at Lord's rather than playing as a last- minute call-up in a Championship match.
Last summer Dowman made 267 in a 'Youth Test' against the West Indies, the highest score made by an Englishman in 20 years of Under-19 Tests. An impressive achievement but, given the poor profile of youth cricket in this country, one that would usually have been noted, then forgotten.
However, there was another double-centurion in the series, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and six months later he surfaced again, this time playing for the senior West Indies side and taking a series of half-centuries off England.
Dowman started the season in a Nottinghamshire Second XI who play at such exotic places as Dartford and Worksop. Meanwhile, the clamour for Crawley to be picked in the Test team went ignored, a 281-run innings against Somerset notwithstanding.
Crawley has eventually got in, but however long tonight's selection meeting for the second Test goes on there is no chance of Dowman's name cropping up - though he may retain his county place if Chris Lewis and Paul Pollard remain injured.
Another victim of English cricket's mistrust of youth? Not quite. To start with the comparison with Chanderpaul is unfair to Dowman and Nottinghamshire, for although Dowman had represented England Under-19's the previous winter in India (scoring 142 as England won the first Test) he had nothing like the background of Chanderpaul.
From his earliest days the Guyanese had been singled out as something special. He came to England last summer having already played for West Indies A and Under-23 XIs, and with a century against the touring Pakistani senior side in his portfolio.
Chanderpaul apart, the West Indies selectors are little more inclined to gamble on youth than England. He was the first teenager to play for the West Indies in 21 years and looks like being the first since Gary Sobers in 1954 to go on to have a successful Test career (the last teenager, Elquemedo Willett, was only 21 when his Test career ended).
Of his fellow batsmen last winter, Brian Lara, Richie Richardson and Desmond Haynes made their Test debuts at 22, Keith Arthurton 23 and Jimmy Adams at 24. Of England's home-grown batsmen Michael Atherton and Mark Ramprakash first played for England at 21, Nassar Hussain and Matthew Maynard at 22 and Graham Thorpe at 23.
It is not that England's young players are not as good as others, or that they lose their way. Crawley, now 23, and Mark Lathwell (who made a Test debut at 21 last summer) played for the Under-19 side who drew against Australia in 1991 - of their opponents only Damien Martyn has graduated to full honours.
Since the youth system was reorganised in 1989, England have won three and lost two of the eight series having won three of the previous 20. This year they host India, who, like Pakistan, do appear to blood young players quicker - Sachin Tendulkar played his first Test as a 16-year-old and seven of this year's under-19 visitors have played in the first-class Ranji Trophy.
Alan Ormrod, the Nottinghamshire coach, believes this is partly due to a greater 'mental toughness', a harsher upbringing making them 'harder and more determined at taking opportunities'.
Graham Saville, the England Under-19 coach, also points out that those chances arise sooner, that in Asia - as in Australia and the West Indies - progress is often made on ability rather than age, whereas in England 'we have 18-year-olds still playing schools cricket'.
This, said Ormrod, was one of the problems with Atherton when he joined Lancashire. Such were the demands of schools and representative cricket that the future England captain was unable to play regular second XI cricket before he went to Cambridge.
As Atherton found when he came back it is then hard to break into the team because players stay in the game longer here than in countries who do not have a full- time professional circuit.
This means not only is the pool of experienced players large but selectors are dealing with players' livelihoods. When he was the coach at Lancashire, Ormrod was criticised for putting Atherton, and later on Crawley, into second- team cricket when they came back from successful Cambridge University seasons. 'If a player comes from what is effectively an amateur club and walks into the first team it can create animosity which does not help when trying to produce a winning team.
'I felt both could become captains of the club and wanted them to appreciate the talent there. It did not do them any harm. Within a few weeks they had made runs in the seconds and were in the first team.'
Similarly, Dowman is now serving his time and, to get a regular first-team place he must perform. 'I have high expectations of Mathew,' Ormrod said. 'High enough that I don't play him in the Sunday League matches as I don't want him to pick up bad habits - but to knock a senior player out of the side he must show consistency in the second XI.'
With five batting places settled Dowman is competing with Graeme Archer, Wayne Dessaur and Mark Crawley for the sixth. 'Mathew has made some scores but not consistently. I don't want to bring him into what is very competitive cricket without the confidence of making a few scores behind him,' Ormrod said.
Dowman, having got over a back injury that has affected his season, now hopes to do just that. 'First-class cricket is tough but I felt comfortable,' he said. 'I just hope people don't expect too much. Some people have said 'Do you think you should be playing for England?' You can guess what I say to that. I did not even expect to start the season in the county team. Now it is up to me to get the runs.' Yesterday he scored 17 against the South Africans.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content