Cricket: Powell's fast-track to fantasy

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The Independent Online
On Tuesday morning last week Jonathan Powell was languishing in bed when his mother shouted up the stairs with information that is the stuff of dreams. "It's Malcolm from the cricket club on the phone," she said, "and he's ringing to say that you've been picked for the England A tour this winter."

It was enough to persuade a young man to take to his bed. Instead, Jonathan arose and began trying to digest the startling announcement with his breakfast. It occurred to him that it might be a mistake, that it might be one of the other Powells around the county cricket circuit.

But, no, it was him, Jonathan Christopher, an 18-year-old apprentice off-spinner who has played a few games for England Under-19s but just once for Essex in the Championship. Against his name is just one first- class wicket, that of David Millns of Leicestershire, which was captured at a cost of 109 runs. No bowler of such low experience and high average can have been selected for an England senior team.

"I'm still in a state of shock," said Powell 24 hours after his mum, Joan, had delivered her wake-up call. "I thought there was a real chance of going on the Under-19 tour and playing in the Youth World Cup but this, well ..." and his voice tailed off as he tried to grasp what was happening to him.

Powell, a slightly vague, relaxed young man ("my mum's always on at me about being much too laid back") is one of an array of unknown, untested players who have been selected for the A Tour to Kenya and Sri Lanka in a fast-track policy which now appears to be travelling at a speed of several light years per hour. The squad of 16 contains eight teenagers and two others who passed their 20th birthdays this summer.

John Abrahams, the Under-19s' coach who has also played a key role in the national Development of Excellence project, was delighted but not as surprised as Powell. "A couple of weeks ago, before the first informal selection meeting, David Lloyd spoke to me about what players we had and who might be good enough to progress and benefit from a senior tour. This is a very good year for them, it's a powerful team and a lot of the players have immense promise. I like to think that's partly because they were spotted early under the development scheme and have been brought on."

Lloyd reported Abrahams' observations back to the selection panel. The England team coach is a keen advocate of youth. Before taking up his present job he, too, had been with the Under-19s. He felt they needed pushing in to the harsh world of senior cricket, not wrapping up in cotton wool.

"It will not be easy," Abrahams said. "But that's the idea. They're going to have to go out there and perform. It's possible that one or two won't make it but that's the nature of sport."

At first sight the selectors appear to have taken a wild gamble on players they can hardly have seen. The truth is that this is not quite so. Those from Essex (such as Powell), Middlesex and Lancashire will have been seen at close quarters by, respectively, the selectors, Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, and the England captain, Mike Atherton. All the other youngsters have turned in performances defying their years.

"Funnily enough, I don't think I've bowled particularly well this season," said Powell. "I've struggled to get my length right at times. You've got to be patient as a spinner but it's been frustrating. Last weekend I was in the nets at Essex working away with John Childs trying to get it in the right place.

"But I was bowling well at the start of the season, the ball was coming out nicely. I know I can spin it on pitches that turn and there might be some of them in Sri Lanka. This is my first season as a full-time cricketer and I'm still getting used to that." With that he went out to perform for Essex second team against Derbyshire, a young man now awake but still in a trance.