England Young Cricketers they were called. They were all aged 18 or under, and in the winter of 1986-87 they went on a tour of Sri Lanka that presaged what was to follow in a way that, in hindsight, seems almost uncanny. By no means every player went on to prosper. Some missed the boat entirely, or chose not to catch it. Others made solid first-class careers for themselves. But at the head of the group were two players whose destinies would lead them, by very different routes, to the point where they are today once again sharing centre stage, only this time it is the biggest stage in the game.
It is all there in the official team photograph. In the middle of the front row is the captain, Mike Atherton. At his right hand is Nasser Hussain. A decade later, as captain and vice-captain of the full England team, these two will again occupy the most important seats when the shutter snaps on the men who, in just over a week's time, leave for a winter in Zimbabwe and New Zealand.
There were 15 players on the tour, and they divide fairly neatly into two groups. In the "made-it" category - players who became established, at the very least, in the first-class game - are Atherton of Lancashire, Hussain of Essex, Mark Alleyne of Gloucestershire, Martin Bicknell of Surrey, Simon Brown of Durham, Warren Hegg of Lancashire, Mark Ramprakash of Middlesex, Martin Speight of Sussex, Harvey Trump of Somerset and Trevor Ward of Kent. Five of the 10 have also played Test cricket - Atherton, Hussain, Ramprakash, Bicknell and Brown. And the success stories would have to include the tour manager. He was Tim Lamb, who has just taken over as the chief executive of the Test and County Cricket Board.
Then there is the smaller category of players for whom it is a case of what might have been - names that barely figured on a county scorecard or not at all, and mean nothing now: Oliver Smith, Mark Newton, Lloyd Tennant and Alastair Fraser, whose brother is Angus Fraser. The one player who doesn't quite fit into either group is Mark Crawley, brother of John, who played for Lancashire and Nottinghamshire before retiring in 1994.
All, in theory, shared similar prospects, but according to Graham Saville, the team coach, the ones who stood out were Atherton and Hussain, along with Ramprakash, who at 17 was the baby of the tour. That did not stop him scoring a hundred in each innings in the last of the three unofficial Tests against Sri Lanka Young Cricketers, all of which were drawn.
Partly because Atherton has so much more international experience than Hussain - 62 Test caps compared with 12 - he seems to belong a different generation. Yet it is an under- appreciated fact that they were born within five days of each other - Atherton on 23 March 1968, in Manchester; Hussain on 28 March 1968, in Madras. They first played together in 1983, for England Schools under- 15s. Then, it was Hussain who was captain.
Three years later, Atherton had overtaken him. Hussain puts this down to the fact that while they both offered leg-spin in addition to their batting, Atherton's bowling was much the better and made him more of an automatic choice. It also helped that Atherton had done well captaining England Schools in the summer of 1986, by which time Hussain was trying to establish himself at Essex. There were other differences, though.
"Atherton was more mature," Saville recalls. "He thought a lot about the game. It was difficult taking wickets out there because the pitches were so bland. Tim Lamb and I would sit on the boundary and think, `he ought to try this now', and blow me he'd go and do it. But Athers was always very sensible. Going out in the evening could be a problem, because Sri Lanka wasn't a very stable place then. But he explained what the rules were, and that was it." Hussain was something of a contrast. "In those days he was very headstrong," Saville says. "He was worried about his own form more than anyone else's. He's grown up a lot since."
Two revealing episodes stand out in Lamb's mind. In the second Test, Hussain came off at one of the intervals on 70-odd not out. "He was obviously pretty pleased," Lamb remembers. "It was almost as if he thought his job was done. I pointed out to him that if he turned it into a big hundred then that really would make an impression." He went on to score 170.
The other instance provides an example of the roundedness of Atherton's character, and the ease with which he got on with his elders. On a free day Lamb and Atherton took themselves off on their own to visit an ancient fortress hewn out of rock in the middle of the Sri Lankan jungle. "To me just being in this country was mind-bogglingly interesting, and it was obvious that Mike felt the same way."
Atherton and Hussain still had things in common. They hardly drank, and, unlike some tourists of that age, or indeed any other, were deeply serious about their cricket. "I know lads who've not done themselves any favours on tours," Hussain says. "You get players who see a tour as just an excuse to go to lots of parties," Saville says. That wasn't possible in Sri Lanka. There were a lot of card games, and the players socialised largely among themselves. But the spirit, Saville says, was excellent, and although Atherton had his responsibilities, Oliver Smith recalls him being "basically one of the lads".
Evidence of a particular rivalry between Atherton and Hussain is in short supply. "They were friends," says Saville. "Mike's always been fairly laid-back, and I enjoy that style of captaincy," says Hussain. "I suppose there should have been some rivalry, but there always seemed to be room for both of us in the team, and captaincy has never been something I've set out my stall for. At that stage just going on tour was all you looked for. Athers was obviously the right person. He just had this aura."
As Hussain says, "It's strange the way it's come full circle." The parallels, though, aren't quite precise. The party that lined up before departure to have their photograph taken contained no official vice-captain, and in the Test Atherton missed, it was Ward who took over. But Hussain knew where to sit anyway.
THE 15 England Young Cricketers for the tour of Sri Lanka, plus manager Tim Lamb and coach Graham Saville, gathered at Bisham Abbey for this offical photograph, taken on the eve of their departure in January, 1987.
Back row, left to right:
Mark Ramprakash: Middlesex right-hand batsman, now 27. Has played 19 Tests.
Harvey Trump: Somerset off-spinner, now 28. Simon Brown: Durham left- arm fast-medium bowler, now 27. Won a Test cap last summer.
Mark Newton: Slow left-armer who took the first wicket of the tour but then got the yips and never recovered. Was on Hampshire's books but played no first-class cricket. Now 28 and a graphic designer in London.
Lloyd Tennant: Medium-fast right-armer, now 28, who played 10 first-class matches for Leicestershire between 1986 and 1991. Says he "never had the confidence". Became a coach.
Middle row, left to right:
Tim Lamb: Manager, now 43 and chief executive of the Test and County Cricket Board.
Oliver Smith: Right-hand batsman, now 28, who scored a century in second "Test". Played one first-class match for Gloucs. "Wouldn't have enjoyed life on the edge of county cricket". Works in market research in High Wycombe and led Bristol side Clifton Flax Bourton to final of national club knock-out competition in 1995.
Trevor Ward: Kent right-hand batsman, now 28
Martin Bicknell: Surrey right-arm medium-fast bowler, now 27. Played two Tests in 1993.
Mark Crawley: Right-hand batsman, now 28, who played for Lancs and Notts before retiring in 1994. Works in the City.
Mark Alleyne: Gloucs all-rounder, now 28.
Graham Saville: Coach of nine England under-19 tours or equivalent. Now 52.
Front row, left to right:
Alastair Fraser: Like his brother Angus, a medium-fast right-arm bowler who played five first-class matches for Middlesex and five for Essex, the last in 1992. Now 27 and working for a courier company in London.
Nasser Hussain: Essex right-hand batsman, now 28, who came of age as a Test player this year after making his debut in 1989-90. Appointed vice- captain for this winter's tours.
Mike Atherton: Lancashire right-hand batsman, now 28, who has captained England in 35 of his 62 Tests.
Warren Hegg: Lancs wicketkeeper-batsman, now 28. Member of England A in Australia.
Martin Speight: Sussex right-hand batsman, now 28. Photograph by Bill Smith