Cricket: Lamb keen to widen the vision

MacLaurin Report is only the beginning as winds of change sweep through the old pals' comfort zone; Andrew Longmore finds that the game will have to keep on moving with the times
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Ben Hollioake could be the first of many young players fast- tracked into the England team under proposals being considered by the English Cricket Board. On Thursday, the younger of the two Australian- born brothers became only the second teenager to play for England since the Second World War. But in future first-class counties could be forced to include a minimum number of players under 22 in Championship games to speed up the notoriously laboured process of education at county level.

"We have to get the younger players coming through quicker: players like Ben Hollioake, David Sales and James Ormond," Tim Lamb, the chief executive of the ECB, said yesterday. "If that means creating artificial regulations for the counties, so be it." The benefit system could also be phased out as England look to emulate the Australians and Pakistanis, in particular, in putting more emphasis on youth.

England have already suffered from Australia's willingness to back a youth policy. Jason Gillespie and Ricky Ponting are just 22, Matthew Elliott and Greg Blewett 25. In contrast, England selectors have in the past been suspicious of blooding young players.

"Stipulating age criteria for the counties is a pebble in the pond at the moment," Lamb said. "But we have a wealth of talent at Under-19 level and if our plans to streamline the structure of English cricket are to mean anything, young players have to see the top of the pyramid. I don't think we should lose sight of the importance of that."

Though not included in the Raising the Standard report launched at Lord's last Tuesday, the idea reflects Lamb's determination to back his radical restructuring of the national game with firm action. Streamlining the route to the top, making each grade of cricket more competitive, opening up the "closed shop" of county cricket to the talented club cricketer, sharpening the pyramid, providing more heroes for the young, winning more Tests and reducing what Lamb calls the "treadmill effect" of playing too much meaningless cricket; if the blueprint has been named after Lord MacLaurin, the high-profile chairman of the ECB, much of the vision stems from Lamb's own experience of the county dressing-room. An Oxford Blue, he was an underestimated seam bowler for Northamptonshire for 10 years.

"The players themselves admit that they live in a comfort zone, that they don't work hard enough at their games," he said. "There is a temptation to turn up for practice and go through the motions. I played three years of grade cricket in Perth and I can honestly say that the Tuesday- and Thursday-night practice sessions involving predominantly amateur players were much tougher and more serious than anything at county level."

With fewer county games in the new three-conference system, the players will have more time to rest and practice. But, says Lamb, it is up to the county management team and to the players to make the best use of the time. "They've got to have good facilities and practice in the proper way."

Press reaction has been encouraging so far. But the editor of Wisden was less complimentary, labelling the new county schedule a "horrid botch" because of the increase in one-day at the expense of four-day cricket. Lamb's rebuttal betrays a rare glimpse of anger.

"We need more big occasions, a regular diet of high-profile one-day cricket, played under lights on a Friday evening or on a bank holiday when people want to watch it and broadcasters want to televise it and for people to say the whole plan is rubbish because we've got a little more one-day cricket is, I think, short-sighted and dogmatic. We are in business and the counties are in business. The counties have to become more self-sufficient and the game has to become more appealing for the spectator. It's not in the interests of English cricket for any of our counties to go out of business." Ironically, the two-division system, once feared by the smaller counties as a short-cut to bankruptcy, is starting to look more attractive to some now that the more complicated alternative of three conferences has been revealed. The document, as Lamb says, is still open for amendment.

Whatever the outcome - and Lamb says that, after all 18 counties had agreed the need for change, rejection would be "disappointing" - few could fault the energy of the new chief executive and chairman. The slick presentation showed Lamb at his most plausible, the consummate politician tempering the more forthright views of one of the country's most successful businessmen. It was Lamb's Peter Mandelson to MacLaurin's Tony Blair and the audience were left in no doubt about the sincerity of the production. You only had to imagine AC Smith, Lamb's predecessor at the TCCB, sucking in air through clenched teeth before muttering "well, that's very difficult" to see that innovation has begun at the top. But Lamb will need all his considerable charm to push through his plans for a nationwide phalanx of Premier Leagues in the reactionary heartlands of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

"We're saying to club cricketers 'Have a good look at yourselves. Is the quality as high as it should be? Are there enough opportunities for young players?' They tend to say 'Why don't that lot in their ivory towers at Lord's do their thing and we'll do ours,' but the whole idea is that everyone feels part of the wide family of cricket."