Cricket: Danger to the young blades

Jon Culley hears why life is so difficult for new batting talent
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THE CHOICE of Chris Read, Aftab Habib and Alex Tudor for the Edgbaston Test side sent a clear message to England's young pretenders that there is no better time than now to catch the selectors' eyes. Nasser Hussain's side will have an accent on youth and the likes of Yorkshire's Matthew Wood, David Nash and Owais Shah of Middlesex, the Swann brothers at Northampton and Warwickshire's Mark Wagh could have an opportunity to gain rapid elevation.

Good judges believe these players - and a few others - have the qualities required to become Test stars. But are they being given a fair and proper chance to show those qualities? Are sub-standard pitches on the county circuit undermining the development of young batsmen to a degree that could seriously affect the future of the national side?

Certainly the individuals whose job it is to make sure England's most promising players fully realise their potential, their county coaches, are worried on that front. Inadequate practice facilities, poor fixture planning, even lack of motivation among players are cited as detrimental factors. But bad pitches are seen as the most important by some distance.

"We moved to four-day cricket with a view to helping batsmen play long innings, but we are just not producing four-day pitches," Warwickshire's Phil Neale commented. "There are too many that are bowler friendly and while the importance of winning matches should not be underestimated, if you are playing on poor pitches you are not going to improve a batsman's confidence. Bad pitches lead to a negative mentality among batsmen, who feel they need to score as quickly as possible because they fear they will get out.

"I know there are problems with a lot of squares. A lot are a bit tired and need relaying and it is hard to keep pitches dry in our climate. But I would still like to see a bit more conviction in this area.

"The move to 12 points instead of 16 for a win is a step in the right direction, although they could have reduced it to eight so that first innings bonus points become more important."

Bob Carter, who succeeded John Emburey at Northamptonshire, believes clubs should place the emphasis on producing England players rather than winning matches. "With the move to a two-division Championship, the temptation for many counties will be to prepare wickets with results uppermost in mind, especially if they have a chance of getting into the top division.

"My county voted for two divisions, but personally I do not see what it will achieve because we need to play on the best possible pitches."

Yorkshire's Martyn Moxon suspects part of the answer could lie in the composition of pitches and in particular the widespread use of clay-rich loams. "The pitches are certainly different from the way they were when I started my career," he said. "They used to have a covering of fine grass almost like a bowling green but the grass is coarser and thicker now and there are more cracks in the surface. You need the ball to carry and bounce evenly but if there is no consistency in bounce you cannot play forward with confidence and it places doubt in a batsman's mind.

"It is not easy for young batsmen and it is not doing the bowlers much good either, letting them get wickets too easily so that they don't have to work hard for their success."

Neale thinks the quality of pitches needs to be policed more vigorously and former England skipper Mike Gatting, coach at Middlesex, believes there should be an increased readiness to penalise counties who do not meet the required standard. "It is up to the counties to get the pitches right but unless the ECB are prepared to dock points you are not going to persuade counties not to look for results, especially if there is a risk of not being in the top division."

Gatting, however, feels other factors should be taken into account, among them - controversially - the attitude and ambition of the players themselves, which he sometimes sees as falling short.

"The quality of pitches does not help batsmen to develop good technique and there are not many counties with adequate practice facilities but there are other factors, such as desire - how much young batsmen want to succeed and how far they are ready to push themselves.

"In my opinion, there are too many young players who feel they are further up the ladder than they actually are and are not perhaps as good as they think."

Carter believes the haphazard, disorganised nature of the current fixture programme has to be tackled. "It is something that needs to be looked at," he said. "I realise that there are difficulties when you have a World Cup to accommodate and with fitting in NatWest Trophy and Benson and Hedges Cup games but it would be better to have a clearly defined programme that included a proper build-up to each Championship match and perhaps a break every fourth week to allow time to practise and for injuries to heal."

Despite much shaking of heads at Lord's and elsewhere over the decline of cricket in state schools, however, Moxon, comforted by the production line of players emerging from the Yorkshire Academy, sees no lack of talent.

"There is no problem with the raw material, no lack of talented youngsters who want to play. But they are the future of the game and it is up to us to make sure they get the best possible opportunity."