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Cricket: Maddy carries flag for youth

Leicestershire opener can prove value of dedication, determination and attention to detail. By Derek Pringle
BY ALL accounts Darren Maddy is a fine specimen. A gym fanatic, his Leicestershire team-mates call him eight-pack, the extra two units a testament to the time and effort he puts into his fitness training. He practices hard, too, a work ethic he shares with England's workaholic batting coach, Graham Gooch, who once famously told him to ease off. When that happens, you know that this is a player dedicated to getting the best from himself.

It is a point worth noting as Maddy strides out to make his Test debut this morning. Cricket in general, and young players in particular, have been getting a bad press of late and Maddy, recently 25, is keen to disabuse people of the notion that the system no longer produces talented players.

"I saw a TV programme recently which made that very point, and I thought that's a bit unfair. When I step out in my England sweater and cap this morning, I feel that not only will I be representing my country, but also the many youngsters striving to play for England. Ideally I'd like to prove to the nation as well as other cricketing countries that English cricket is not in the bad state it's made out to be. Obviously that can only happen when the youngsters take the opportunity to make a name for themselves."

Maddy's chance has come, but only after a tempting morsel had been tossed his way last year in the shape of the Texaco one-day series against South Africa. In two matches he batted once, at number five, making just a single run at The Oval. Had he failed to grasp his opportunity, or was it a case of not being ready for it?

"I was disappointed to come away from those games with only one knock. I'd batted out of position but I suppose if someone had said to me `you'll play for England batting at number eight,' I'd have jumped at it. Wearing that England sweater for the first time was a very special moment."

Nerves are something both public and media tend to overlook in sportsmen, and Maddy admits being affected at the time. "Everybody gets them, but I think the best players cope with them early on. I've had a year to think on things and I believe I've learned a lot."

A powerful driver of the ball, whose preference is to pull when the ball is short, Maddy reckons it is not about "getting your head in the clouds." Instead, he claims, it is more about taking every day, every ball even, as it comes. In other words being consistent. So far, the self-analysis has paid off and he is poised to pass 1,000 first-class runs in a season for the first time. Currently, his tally stands on 888 runs at 48.

Three years ago Dean Jones thought he was the best young batsmen in England. However, according to James Whitaker, his previous captain at Leicestershire, Maddy has matured a lot in the last 12 months and is now ready for Test cricket.

"He is a very determined guy, and keen to make his mark" says Whitaker. "Having gone on two England A tours he's a product of the system, and someone who should be able to deal with the spotlight and the scrutiny that accompanies players at this level."

After his fleeting taste of international cricket, Maddy admits he was probably too hard on himself. "I'm very self-critical but that's because I place enormous pride in my performance and the preparation that goes into it. Often, that has meant putting a lot of pressure on myself."

Until last year he still lived with his parents, but buying a house with his fiancee has shown him that other things exist beyond putting bat to ball. "I've learnt to relax a lot more and to just focus on cricket when I turn up." For a man who covered the floral wallpaper (his parent's choice) of his bedroom with posters of cricketers, he makes the realisation sound like a personal epiphany.

Playing for a successful county, as Leicestershire have been over the past few seasons, has also been a boon, offering both a distraction and stability. He cites Jack Birkenshaw, the county coach, as a major influence and someone who helped him to "work out a game plan."

Before that his father, Bill, who at 50 still opens the bowling for his local club side, Leicester Banks, was the major influence. "As a toddler I grew up watching Dad, who eventually took me to nets at Leicester where Ken Higgs ran the show.

"Although I like my rugby as well, and keep close tags on the Tigers, all I've ever wanted to do from the age of six is to wear pads and hit a cricket ball." He must have shown early promise, because he captained every county school age group from under-11's upwards until signing for the county on his 17th birthday.

As someone schooled through the state system, Maddy was reliant upon club cricket to improve his skills. "We played a token 20-over-a- side game at my first school but the standard was terrible." His secondary school at Syston, aware that they were about to inherit the Leicestershire schools captain, laid an artificial pitch especially for him. They also had to start putting out a team, just to show willing. Unsurprisingly, the standard was dire.

It is not an unusual tale and it perhaps illustrates why cricket has lost ground to other sports. Using clubs as nurseries is all very well, but the fact that Maddy Snr is still wheeling away suggests either there is a dearth of youngsters playing the game, or that they are having difficulty in deposing him. The social dimension in club cricket still rules.

If England are batting, Michael Atherton, a batsman of similar method but far greater experience, will be his partner. Always keen to learn, Maddy invited Atherton out for a quiet drink on Tuesday night, in order to pick his brain. After accusations from certain quarters that young players were being given the brush-off by senior players, it is good to see that symbiosis is achievable.

All advice, even from a veteran like Atherton, will be sifted carefully. "I just need the things that work for me. At the moment that means sticking to my game plan and giving myself the best chance to succeed. After all, that is what got me here."