CRICKET: Sky's the limit for young ones

Graeme Wright watches an international competition of under-15 cricketing talent
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You could tell from the start it was one of those English occasions. There were ominous grey skies overhead, filled with the threat of the forecast rain, and deck chairs were set out optimistically all along the boundary rope. Mothers, even more optimistically, had come along in summer dresses to watch their sons represent England, and some of the boys, themselves, were sporting shades. There was even the marquee for hospitality.

In the end, the optimists won the day. The wind that flapped through the deck chairs kept the rain away from the Lensbury Club, in West London, and allowed the inaugural Lombard World Challenge - cricket's World Cup for under-15s - to get underway. On the main ground, behind the impressive red brick buildings of the club, England met India.

Across the road, out of sight but never far from the organisers' minds, Canada were going down to Zimbabwe by 234 runs. Further north, at Oundle School near Peterborough, Sri Lanka were hammering the Netherlands bowlers to the tune of 335 runs off their 55 overs, Australia were playing Pakistan, and South Africa, like West Indies here, were waiting for today's round of matches.

If for the boys it must be like a dream to be playing for their countries in an international tournament, for men like David English - the Bunbury bunny man - and Ken Lake, the general secretary of the English Schools Cricket Association, it is a dream realised. They have been hatching this brainchild for several years, and if there were any doubts that this is a serious business, it was soon dispelled by the sight of the young West Indians. Though not in action yesterday, they none the less made their presence felt, strolling around the ground looking mean and moody in their maroon and crimson tracksuits. One or two could make the girls blush, to show that boys will be boys anywhere around the world.

Age-group cricket plays an important part in every country's development. How many of these boys will go on to Test cricket is anyone's guess, but of the present England team, Michael Atherton, John Crawley and Graham Thorpe are three who began their England careers at under-15 level. Ian Botham failed to make it at this grade, but had the consolation of seeing his son Liam play for England under-15 against South Africa under-15 in 1992, when the seeds of this Lombard World Challenge were sown.

Up at Oundle are two other proud fathers, Abdul Qadir and Majid Khan, whose sons Imran Qadir and Eazid Khan are in Pakistan's squad. The young Qadir bowls leg spin just like his father, and with a name and a bowling action like that, he should go all the way. What is just a little disconcerting, watching these tyro international cricketers go through their paces, is that in some cases they are only a few months younger than Sachin Tendulkar was when he made his Test debut, aged 16, for India against Pakistan in 1989.

The group matches continue here and at Oundle School until Monday, after which the top two in each group go on to the semi-finals at Trent Bridge (15 August) and Headingley (17 August). At this stage the tournament moves up a gear from serious to very serious. Sky Television are providing ball- by-ball coverage of both semi-finals and the final at Lord's, and all three games have been given first-class umpires by the TCCB. Kevin Lyons and David Shepherd are down to stand at Headingley, David Constant and John Hampshire at Trent Bridge, and John Holder and Trevor Jesty in the final.

Getting Lord's for the final might seem something of a feather in the organisers' cap. In fact, it merely confirms the English game's commitment to cricket at all ages. Lt-Col John Stephenson, the former secretary of the MCC, recalls David English asking him as long ago as 1992 if the final could be played at cricket's headquarters, and replying that "it was MCC's policy to allow all levels of cricket to be played at Lord's". Whichever two countries play there on Tuesday 20 August, those boys will have a day to remember. As with all the matches, entry is free, and the sponsors Lombard already say they expect more than 7,000 at Lord's - something the ground does not manage for a county championship game.

Yesterday, a strong-looking Indian side put themselves on course for Lord's, dramatically beating England by one wicket with three balls to spare. This pleasant suburban sports ground, with pleasure boats cruising behind the sightscreen on the neighbouring Thames is a fair old distance from India for these boys, but in their blue and maroon turbans and floppy Panamas they looked quite a home here. Their seam bowlers used to conditions as if born to them, and having put England into bat, they restricted them to 84 from 36 overs at lunch.

Two big stands, both involving John Francis, were instrumental in England reaching 221 for 8 off their 55 overs. In an innings of 78 off 105 balls, which included a six and seven fours, he added 78 for the third wicket with Jimmy Adams (69 off 121 balls) and 68 in half an hour with his captain, Alex Loudon, for the fifth wicket. Without the scampering that picked up 84 runs in the last 10 overs, England would have been out of it.

In the field the Indians were a chatty lot, constantly cajoling and exhorting. But when it came to their turn to bat they let their strokeplay do the talking, and there was no doubting their eloquence. At tea, after 25 overs, they were 94 for 1, England's sole success being a direct hit by Stephen Byng from deep gully to remove Ravneet Singh. India's other opener, "Gary" Singh, had reached 54 off 80 balls with his 11th four before Adams took a stunning one-handed catch at fly slip off Byng's bowling. Barry Stewart plucked out Reetinder Sodhi's off-stump, just when the Indian captain (30) was cutting loose, to bring the pyrotechnics to an end. Now the run- stealers flickered to and fro in the gathering gloom, and as wickets fell nerves and pressure rose until Vivek Mahajan stole in for the Indians with a mighty six in the final over.

LOMBARD WORLD CHALLENGE UNDER-15 CHAMPIONSHIP Group A: Zimbabwe 317 for 6; Canada 83. Zimbabwe won by 234 runs. England 221 for 8; India 222 for 9. India won by one wicket.