Cricket: Fowler adds an edge to the learning process

David Llewellyn finds that Durham's academy is toughening up the new generation
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The Independent Online
IT IS 10 seasons since the first- class counties have come up against any serious resistance from the Students in the Benson and Hedges Cup. Back in 1989 the likes of Nasser Hussain, Michael Atherton, James Boiling, Martin Speight, Mark Crawley (remember him?) and Steve James took what was then the Combined Universities into aquarter-final tie against Somerset at Taunton. And they nearly won. Perhaps, if James had been allowed to defer the sitting of his finals by Cambridge, the undergraduates would have managed the four runs they needed for victory. As it was, Hussain's gutsy century took them close, but not close enough.

Since then, though, student sides have not even come near a similar kind of upset - until this year's win against Gloucestershire. And the signs are that there may be more on the way. "They know how to compete," said Jack Russell, who scored a century in Gloucestershire's losing cause. "Compared with what they were like a few years ago there is a hell of a difference now. There is a hardness to them that we haven't seen before."

So where has this edge come from? It is actually no coincidence that half a dozen of the squad attend Durham University, where they have come under the care and tutelage of a former Durham graduate and Lancashire and England batsman, Graeme Fowler.

Since his retirement the left-handed opener has thrown himself into the setting up of an academy under the aegis of the university. Fowler has devoted himself to trying to turn callow undergraduates into toughened professionals, ready for the county circuit. He has done so well that last summer an article in a tabloid newspaper accused him of teaching his young charges how to sledge.

Fowler dismisses the accusation. "Psychology is a part of the course," he said. "We prepare them for what they can expect from professional cricketers. I have told these guys that when they are sledged they should not react, because that is what the sledgers want. It is gamesmanship. Sledging is a way of distracting the batsman and breaking his concentration. There was one dodge we did at Lancashire. I would field at leg slip, say, and start to tell the wicketkeeper Warren Hegg a joke within earshot of the batsman, but, crucially, I would make sure the batsman did not hear the punchline, all he would hear would be us laughing. He would want to know the punchline and while he was thinking about that he would not be concentrating on the job in hand."

But there is a lot more to the academy than the coarse arts. Its full title is the University of Durham Colonial Cricket Centre of Excellence - it is a bit of a mouthful but its products are proving to be something of a handful. Fowler and his team of specialists work on a number of different aspects including fitness, each student having a training programme tailored to his personal needs, technique and, of course, the psychology of the game. Much of the work is carried out after lectures have finished, and during the winter there is a get-together on Sundays when the players have nets and also work on their coaching courses. This summer the students will be sent out to primary schools in the City of Durham and by the end of term Fowler expects somewhere in the region of 1,000 10 to 11-year-olds will have been coached by his squad. Of the 30 now at the academy 10 are on county books.

The money from Colonial's sponsorship (they are an Australian insurance company) will allow one innovation, the introduction of video. "They will be able to assess their progress and analyse where they are going wrong," Fowler said. "Additionally I hope the videos can be used as a curriculum vitae. When a county rings me up and asks about a player instead of that player turning out in a trial match and maybe bowling a couple of overs, which tells a coach nothing, or batting for a few deliveries, the county will be able to have a closer. It will save them a lot of time and money and should be mutually beneficial."

The idea of the academy was Fowler's originally. "I felt it was wrong that a lad of 18 should have to choose between a degree and cricket," he said. "That is the old-fashioned way and if you take the academic route the cricket suffers; but if you decide to pursue a professional cricket career you can end up at the age of 35 with no qualifications. I took the idea to the university here, then to AC Smith at the then Test and County Cricket Board.

"A Government White Paper on centres of sporting excellence came out at around the same time and the TCCB said they were already looking into the possibility in cricket. The result is that we are now in the second of a three-year pilot scheme. We have an England and Wales Cricket Board grant of pounds 135,000 as well as sponsorship of pounds 20,000 for two years from Colonial."

Now Lord's are talking about setting up a further five such institutions around the country. "I would dearly love to be involved in that," said Fowler, an immediate nominee for this particular academy award.