Cricket: No gain without strain for county reserves: From game keepers to batsmen with driving ambition life is tough on the second XI circuit. Paul Hayward reports

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The Independent Online
IT IS a culling ground. Blood everywhere. The archbishop who called cricket 'organised loafing' never went to a county second XI game. And he never saw the scars at the base of Darren Cousins' spine.

Cousins plays for Essex seconds. He is 21 and coming to the end of a two-year contract that may or may not be renewed. He lost his first year with stress fractures of the back. He has no other trade. A list of young cricketers tried and discarded by the shires would look like China's telephone directory.

The scene is Wickford Cricket Club in Essex, where the home side are playing Kent under a thickening sky. It is another trial for both sets of players, as Darwinian principles of natural selection are applied in the most genteel of surroundings.

It is not unusual, Alan Butcher, the Essex second XI captain-coach, says, for a youngster to be summoned from some village or sixth-form college only to be rejected after just one day. 'Sometimes,' he said, hand raised to chin in professorial mode, 'we've decided a player isn't going to be good enough after only one game.'

Against such a pastoral backdrop, you would never guess such a fight for survival was being waged. Certainly not when the umpire explains to Graham Cowdrey (slumming it a bit, as captain of Kent seconds) how runs will be allotted if the ball hits an overhead telephone wire. Nor when a hulking six from Cowdrey narrowly misses a greenhouse. Men with pints and moustaches are observing all this as schoolboys tumble and giggle their way round the boundary.

On the pitch, though, it is no frittered afternoon. Even spectacular success in the seconds is no guarantee of fame with the firsts. Butcher said: 'I played in a Surrey team that won the second XI championship. We would have used 14 or 15 players that season, but of those only three managed to have decent careers in first- class cricket. The gulf is pretty big.'

No county knows that better than Essex. Last year, while Graham Gooch's 'A-team' were winning the Britannic Assurance County Championship for the second consecutive season, the seconds were finishing 18th and last in their own division.

'Results are not the be all and end all in the second XI championship,' said Butcher, who is in his first season as captain and coach. 'The idea is to ensure you have enough players of quality and experience to fill gaps in the first team where required.' The presence of Nasser Hussain (here as a spectator) is a reminder to Butcher's callow squad that a place alongside Gooch, both with Essex and England, is still attainable provided the chasm separating Wickford from Chelmsford can be crossed.

Cousins has played just five matches for Essex since signing in April, 1992, but is already a veteran of this struggle. 'I came from Cambridgeshire and if you're any good at cricket at a minor county they tend to play you in higher age groups,' he said. 'At a county like Essex they look after you a little better. If you're under 14 then they play you in under- 14's'

Cousins was also given trials by Northamptonshire, Worcestershire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, but chose Essex for their 'reputation' as a cricketing academy. He broke down in his first week. 'I wasn't that fit,' he admits, 'and my action was a bit suspect, too. I got stress fractures. I've still got one active in there. I had one pin and a bone graft over the top.' Now, before games, he has to be stretched like a woolly jumper that has shrunk in the wash.

A second XI cricketer can earn as little as pounds 7,500 a year. He must make his own way to matches (though expenses are paid). Last season, when he was recuperating, Cousins was claiming income support and a disability allowance. 'You have to work hard at the social security people because they don't give money away easily,' he said.

Like a DHSS office, second XI cricket is a jungle made to look like a meadow. A personal acquaintance remembers being summoned from village cricket to play for Sussex seconds and being sledged so badly that he could hardly hear his own thoughts. 'Haven't you got any homework to do?' they asked him. 'Any more little kids back in the pavilion?' No wonder Essex offer only two-year contracts to new recruits, reasoning, as Butcher does, that 'one-year agreements put people under an unreasonable amount of pressure'.

Butcher's least favourite task is telling dog-keen teenagers 'we won't be able to use them any more'. In conversations on his mobile phone about particular players, 'what Goochie thinks' is a constant element in calculations. 'I've not experienced it before and it's not something I look forward to,' Butcher said when asked how he delivers the fond farewell. 'When I was captain of Glamorgan the hardest part was telling someone they weren't playing.

'There are certain people who immediately stand out. It's in the way they play and it's in the way they carry themselves. When I first saw David Gower there weren't too many doubts in my mind that he'd do well and when I was at The Oval (where he played from 1972-86), Alec Stewart always looked as if he was going to be a pretty good player, as did Martin Bicknell.'

A decidedly chunky Graham Cowdrey, brother of Chris and son of Colin - both of whom captained Kent and England - is one player who 'stands out' at this quiet gathering in Wickford. For his batting? Partly, but for the regulars here there is another notable feature of Cowdrey's demeanour as he strides towards the crease for his short but greenhouse-threatening innings. 'He's certainly got the family backside,' a voice says from behind a pint pot.

Fear and loafing in Wickford, with only the fear available to the players.

(Photograph omitted)