Cricket: Enthusiasm alone will never beat the world: After England's latest humiliation in the West Indies, Glenn Moore looks at why domestic cricketers cannot compete against leading Test-playing countries

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The Independent Online
THE announcement yesterday that an updated video version of Sir Donald Bradman's 60-year-old cricket coaching film is to be released later this month seems a particularly sadistic piece of Australian timing after England's debacle at Port of Spain, especially as it is 46 minutes long.

The Test and County Cricket Board might have been tempted to send a bulk order to Barbados, where England have arrived after their humiliating defeat in the third Test, but the assessment of the experts yesterday was that it is not the quality of coaching that is the problem, more the nature of English cricket and cricketers.

'The strength of cricket in this country is the thousands of players getting enjoyment from it every weekend,' Micky Stewart, the man charged with organising the development of future England cricketers, said.

However, Stewart, a former England batsman and Keith Fletcher's predecessor as national manager, believes the consequence is that young English players do not get enough competitive cricket early enough. 'An 18-year-old is often at the same stage as a 14-year-old from Australia,' Stewart said.

At the Indoor School at Lord's yesterday the MCC's chief coach, Clive Radley, was conducting an Easter holiday coaching session that underlined Stewart's assessment. While there were some forward defensives that would bring a sparkle to Geoff Boycott's eye, there were others that only would bring forth a tear. The sole common denominator was enthusiasm.

Radley, the former England and Middlesex player, oversees the club's school of merit, whose recent graduates, Mal Loye and Mark Lathwell, illustrate his philosophy. 'I don't like to over-coach, to send them out with an MCC stamp on their backs,' Radley said. 'There must be a reasonable basic defensive technique but I don't want to knock flair out.

'Some kids are coached so much they can't work things out for themselves. To get here they must be good players. After that it is as much about 'bottle'. You have to be hungry. There is so much first-class cricket now, bowlers pace themselves and rarely bowl flat out, which is a reason we do not produce any.'

In England, cricket, perhaps more than any other game, transcends the divide between natural sportsmen and those whose enthusiasm outstrips their co-ordination. Even a hopeless player can get a regular game, while many a Sunday 2nd XI is captained by a 50-year-old, batting 10 and not bowling.

This would not happen in Australia, for example, where the concept of 'social' cricket barely exists and poor players simply don't get a match. Winning is everything, even to the extent that, with most leagues giving fractions of points for each run scored and wicket taken, every ball counts; even at 40 for 8 there would be more than pride to bat for.

Although England's latest humiliation has come in the West Indies, it is the Australian example that best illustrates the problems in the English game. As in England, cricket in Australia is learned with clubs as much as in schools. However, there are fewer clubs and ability is quickly promoted, so a talented 14-year-old could find himself alongside a state or national player in a dressing-room, whose decor consists of a sign proclaiming: 'There is a place for losers - but it is not in this room.'

Such an approach would be anathema to most English clubs which tend to promote different values. Sledging, for example, is rare in English club cricket, but in Australia it is endemic at all levels.

The consequence, Stewart says, is that young English players lack know-how and toughness. He has sought to remedy this by creating national Under-15 and Under-17 sides, and the investment is beginning to be rewarded. The Under-19 side have achieved their best results since the team was set up 20 years ago with series wins over a West Indies side including Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Sri Lanka, and draws in India and Pakistan and with Australia.

For a young cricketer with talent the opportunities are immense. Quality coaching with indoor and video facilities, overseas tours from the age of 14, and rich rewards if you make it to Test level. But only the single-minded need apply. 'Heart, aptitude and guts,' Mike Bore, the coach of the highly successful Yorkshire Academy, said, 'is what we are looking for.'

The challenge for English cricket is to develop a dedicated elite without excluding the eager incompetent. A structure is taking shape which can accommodate both, but there are likely to be several more ignominious days ahead before it bears fruit.

How to Play Cricket, by Don Bradman (Quadrant Videos, pounds 10.99).

(Photograph omitted)

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