Cricket: Cricket's building society

Stephen Brenkley hears how a country break may benefit the young county set
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The Independent Online
IT was difficult to be sure how to greet the accomplished England Under-19 cricket team who took the field last week. Either the side of teenagers were a source of deep pride or a cause for profound shame.

On the one hand they firmly contradicted the supposition that the English game is invariably ready to suppress gifted youth as long as it can encourage experienced mediocrity. Of the 13 players in the squad for the one-day series against Zimbabwe, which began in Hove on Friday, no fewer than 11 have already played first-class cricket for their counties.

On the other hand, it is precisely because they are so good that they ought not to be messing about with namby-pamby Under-19 cricket but actually playing for their county first teams, doing the real business. If Ben Hollioake was the obvious example then others such as Dean Cosker and David Sales were barely less clear cut.

"We are victims of our own success, I suppose," the Under-19 team's coach, John Abrahams, said. "It is at least partly down to the development of excellence scheme in the country that these lads have come through so early and are deemed good enough for county cricket.

"But then we have the other problem. It is well known that Surrey were against Ben being here, not least because he's already played for the England senior team. Well, if the county had had a game it might have been different. But they didn't. And then you have to consider that if we had released Ben other counties might have sought the release of their players and we wouldn't be picking a truly representative team.

"It isn't fair to the opposition and it may not be fair on the players themselves. This is after all playing for their country that we're talking about. Whatever the Championship is there are still lessons to be learned here about playing internationals, about making that step up if the time ever comes."

Nobody, surely, would argue with Abrahams that every single one of the 19-year-olds on duty at Hove still has plenty of things to learn about his game. Cosker, for instance, would certainly have been on duty for Glamorgan at Colwyn Bay in their crucial Championship match but it is possible that he may have honed his game a tad more among his peers. "They are certainly under pressure to produce the goods in these matches given the experience they've had," Abrahams said. "They've got a lot of senior cricket to play in the next few years and maybe this is no bad thing."

It is probably significant, however, that England have so far only picked a squad for the two one-day games and first of the three-match Test series. Should several of these players be allowed to return to their counties it will not be a surprise.

Abrahams said that this is probably a special year. Most members of national Under-19 sides should be capable of going on to play county cricket regularly. But the present side could yield more than their share of Test players. He did not name names but Hollioake, Cosker, Owais Shah, Alex Tudor, Ryan Sidebottom and the wicketkeeper Chris Read all leapt to mind.

In the week of the MacLaurin Report, Abrahams provided a reminder that some things have already changed. True, Australia have their vaunted Academy but all England's Under-19 cricketers have come through age groups year by year with specialist coaching. They are more complete cricketers than their predecessors of not long ago.

"There are arguments for and against playing for the county and for England but isn't it a nice one to have?" Abrahams said. And given what everybody accepts is the extremely moderate state of the Championship (otherwise there would be no need for change) the young men at Hove might well have been better off where they were.