Cricket: Hollioake blazes a trail for England's young guns

COUNTY COMMENTARY
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The Independent Online
While we're all busy tying yellow ribbons round the Hollioake tree - it's been 10 long years as far as the Ashes are concerned - it seems an appropriate time to have a root around the counties, checking on the development of other saplings planted at the same time as Ben, the younger of the two Hollioake brothers.

Although the inclusion of the 19-year-old Surrey all-rounder in England's one-day squad must have quickened the pulses of a number of his contemporaries, the England selectors confirmed yesterday that Test cricket is a different matter. So any discussion of potential England players should be tempered by the knowledge that we are talking about a country where, two months short of his 28th birthday, Mark Ealham is still considered a promising young all-rounder.

Nevertheless, some of Ben Hollioake's generation already have a reasonably high profile, like his Surrey team-mate Alex Tudor, opening the bowling for his county after performing well alongside Hollioake on the England Under-19 tour to Pakistan during the winter. Then there is Owais Shah, still only 18, still at school but a member of the successful England `A' side, captained by Adam Hollioake in Australia.

Before benefiting from Shah's batting, Middlesex have to wait for the end of the academic year. A number of other counties face similar waits.

Ed Smith, who made a century on his debut for Cambridge University last season, had scored more first class runs than anyone this summer before the latest round of Championship matches, including a superb 190 against the county champions, Leicestershire. Kent will be looking forward to having him in their side.

Some, like Worcestershire's off-spinning all-rounder Vikram Solanki, were tipped for big things before this season began, but the two who have achieved most so far were not among them: the Middlesex bowler Jamie Hewitt and Nottinghamshire's Usman Afzaal.

Hewitt's five wickets in the first innings of the current match against Northamptonshire has helped Middlesex towards what should become a comfortable victory today in Mark Ramprakash's first game as captain. It also took Hewitt's wickets tally for the season to 21, a figure not matched by many. After taking a wicket with his first ball in first class cricket last season, Hewitt, tall with an economical action and capable of moving the ball both ways, seems a significant find.

Afzaal, born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and raised in Nottingham, was thought of as a left-arm spinner who could bat, but this season it is his left- handed batting that has been his strong suit. Coming in at No 6 for Nottinghamshire, he has passed 50 four times in six knocks, and top-scored in both innings of a losing cause against Kent in this round of matches.

Dean Jones, the former Australian Test batsman now captaining Derbyshire, has played against both Hewitt and Afzaal in the Championship this season, and both made an impression on him. "Hewitt's got a good nature about him," Jones said. "He's not worried about bowling to the main players and he feels like he should be out on the park, which is half the battle.

"Afzaal is an interesting character. He likes it tough, he backs himself. He's a confident player, without being arrogant. But for both of them now it's just a question of experience. I've been in every shop in the world and you can't buy that anywhere."

Afzaal, 19, has been joined in the Nottinghamshire side this season by the 18-year-old seamer Paul Franks, another to have impressed Jones, and 20-year-old batsman Noel Gie, like Afzaal an England Under-19 player. But despite Nottinghamshire's initial success this season, Alan Ormrod, their cricket manager, does not necessarily feel England should follow the example of other countries such as Pakistan and India where players as young as 17, 16 or even 15 are sometimes thrust into Test cricket.

"You must remember that they are all amateurs over there, and here we pick from a professional staff," Ormrod said. "More often than not, players are not signed on to a county's staff until they are 18 or 19, after their schooling. Here we are hoping to bring them into a winning side and teach them how to win games of cricket first."

No other player as young as Hewitt or Afzaal has made much impression on the Championship matches going on at the moment. Dean Cosker's slow left-arm bowling has been successful at England Under-19 level and he has been among the wickets for Glamorgan this season. But none so far against Durham, who are heading for defeat in Cardiff where the Glamorgan seamers have done the damage.

Derek Kenway, 18, is playing for Hampshire against Warwickshire, but he was one of the few to miss out on the run feast at Southampton, where Matthew Hayden's unbeaten 235 looks to have made the game safe for the hosts; and Solanki has had no joy with either bat or ball at Worcester, where a draw with Somerset seems on the cards.

The two other games have been most notable for performances from more established players, like Mike Atherton and Jason Gallian, 100 not out and 99 respectively on Saturday against Leicestershire at Grace Road; and Ronnie Irani, exactly 100 for Essex at Ilford, where Yorkshire, with two wickets standing, need just six runs for victory this morning. Two wins in a row for Yorkshire? Surely some mistake.

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