Cricket: Lessons to learn from the Academy: As one young Aussie after another makes a mark, Glenn Moore looks at the success of their Alma Mater

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The Independent Online
SCHOOL'S out and the kids from Fame are hogging the stage already. At Old Trafford it was Shane Warne, at Lord's Michael Slater. Expect Damien Martyn to shine at Trent Bridge and Brendon Julian to swing Australia to victory at Headingley. All four are graduates of the Australian Cricket Academy, the Oxbridge, Harvard and Sorbonne of cricket, and it would appear England's only hope is to send immediately for Martin McCague, Kent's Irish-Australian and another alumnus of the Adelaide-based school of excellence.

The academy, primarily an elite one- year training school for around 17 young players each year, has developed a formidable reputation since being set up, partly as a response to successive Ashes defeats in the mid-1980s. But what actually happens there?

'The idea was not to produce a cricket factory,' said David Richards, the former Australian Cricket Board chief executive who is soon to assume that position with the ICC. 'It is intended to give them a rounded cricket education but with an awareness that there is more to life than cricket. Not all of them are going to go on to be first-class cricketers, let alone Test players, and they have to be equipped to cope with that.'

That means that for some it is virtually a reverse of usual reality. They play games for lessons and study in the breaks - doing further education at local colleges. Others work part-time, often coaching.

After three years when it was a 12-month operation under Jack Potter, a highly accomplished former Sheffield Shield player, the academy is now run in nine-month cycles under the auspices of Rod Marsh, the former Australian wicketkeeper, with players returning to play in their state in the second half of the season. One might imagine a typical series of classes under Marsh would cover such topics as how to drink non-stop from Sydney to London, how to play through a hangover and the mechanics of betting.

But Marsh, now 45, has mellowed since his days as a key figure in the carousing - and very successful - Aussie side of Ian Chappell and Dennis Lillee and proved an excellent choice. After a stint at commentary for Channel 9, which ended when he dared to criticise one-day cricket, he took up his academy post in 1990 and has increased the emphasis on playing without detracting from the scientific approach that made many critics sceptical initially.

'We play a lot of cricket, that is the most important thing,' Marsh said. 'We have a rugged domestic tour when we play at all the major grounds and play the best sides we can - Shield teams and second XIs - and we go overseas, South Africa was the last tour, India is next.

'We scientifically go about getting them physically fit for cricket, mentally fit and technically right without trying to clone them. We do two two-hour sessions a day. That might mean an early- morning swimming and an afternoon on sports psychology. There are also lectures on the history of the game and speaking in public.'

The players are selected nationwide, largely through the ACB's annual youth competitions, and with a view to Australia's long-term requirements. Of the 70 players involved in the first five years, 43 have played first-class cricket - in a country with far fewer players at that level than here - and five for their country, the fifth being Justin Langer, who missed tour selection after an excellent debut against the West Indies in January.

Langer is spending the winter honing his game at the academy - specialist tuition is another aspect of its work. 'We are looking at his fielding, developing his play against spin bowling and working on his cut shot,' Marsh said.

In a further illustration of its broad range the academy also conducts research, at present looking at fast-bowling injuries and attempting to design better cricket footwear. 'It is about more than developing kids as cricketers, we are trying to develop the game as well,' Marsh added. 'I'm sure the academy has done Australian cricket a lot of good, it certainly has not done it any harm.'

So should we start one in England? The ACA costs around pounds 200,000 a year which is divided between the federal government, the sponsors Commonwealth Bank and the ACB. While it is hard to imagine Her Majesty's Government, even under a cricket nut, chipping in, that cost is about 10 per cent of ticket receipts for the present Test and a fraction of the annual distribution to the counties.

But it is not as if players don't emerge from the current set-up: Michael Atherton, Chris Lewis, Nasser Hussain, Mark Ramprakash, Ian Salisbury, Mark Illott and Dominic Cork all played for the under-19s in 1988-89. But since then, no one: Mark Lathwell isstill ignored while his 1991 opponent Damien Martyn is busy flaying the counties as he seeks a sixth Test cap.

Ossie Wheatley, chairman of the TCCB's cricket committee, said that the idea had been 'given a lot of thought' but rejected in favour of a more decentralised approach alongside investment in under-19 and 'A' tours and four-day cricket. This is partly because, as Wheatley admitted, 'counties object strongly to letting go of their best 18- and 19-year-olds.'

Instead, Wheatley says: 'We have 18 centres of excellence in the counties giving a pool of about 360 players under the expert tuition of ex-pros.'

The problems begin early, Wheatley argues: 'The success of Slater and Warne is not entirely attributable to the academy, it goes back to the cricket they were brought up on. Here there is a habit of not getting talented young players into first XIs early enough, right down to club level. Players should be in their county second XI at 17, the first team at 20. Staffs are too large, with too many players who play a part but are not going to win matches.

'While we are preoccupied with playing - not practising - at all ages, the cricket is not competitive enough, early enough. Our youngsters are not as mature as their opponents.'

Meanwhile, back in Adelaide, Marsh is enthusing about his charges. 'We've a new young leggie, a pace bowler - Glen McGrath - who's ready now to take over if Craig McDermott can't carry on, and a batsman - Ricky Ponting - who's 18 and the best I have seen at that age, including Sachin Tendulkar.

'Your system is ridiculous,' Marsh added. 'Players here treat each first- class match as if it could be their last. Your guys get on a green track, don't fancy it, and give it up knowing they'll be able to make a hundred on a flat track soon enough. I always loathed playing the counties - a waste of time.'

With Australia on this tour denied a clean sweep only by the rain and a flat Hove track so far, nothing, it appears, has changed, and while an Australian- style academy may not be the answer, some attention to youth is imperative. The selectors could set an example by picking the best of the present vintage before it goes stale on the county treadmill.

(Photographs omitted)