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Cricket: Students of the game

School's not out for summer: A dressing-room for their prep, a pitch for their classroom; Andrew Baker finds the class hard at play at the London Cricket College
To Listen to some of the old sweats in the Test Match Special commentary box you would think that the days of the "School of Hard Knocks" were long past. But knocks do not come harder than grinding out an innings in drizzle and bitter cold on a suburban pitch in north London in front of a crowd of one. That was the task that faced the batsmen of the London Cricket College last Wednesday, and even Fred Trueman at his most curmudgeonly would have to concede that it was not a job for softies.

They were playing Hornsey Cricket Club, one of the less demanding fixtures on a schedule that consists mostly of games against county second XIs and universities. Yet Hornsey had won the fixture for the past two seasons, and the LCC players' approach was determined.

Their coach, Steve Atkinson, would not have it any other way. In the dressing-room he raised his voice above the ceaseless banter to dictate the batting order and remind the young players that they were here to work. They listen to him, because Steve is captain as well as coach, and no sensible cricketer falls out with his skipper. But they also listen because Atkinson is not only a former county cricketer (with Leicestershire) but himself a product of the London Cricket College.

"It's like I've come full circle," Atkinson explained as his openers walked out, "and I'm bringing what I've learned, all my experience, back to the younger guys. I like that. I like that a lot."

Atkinson is an example of what the college does best, the more so because although he did not make it as a first-class cricketer, he is making a living as a coach. The LCC tries to turn out young players with every chance of getting a county contract, but also young men with every chance of getting a job of some kind in cricket if they don't make the grade as players. And for every high-profile graduate - Mark Alleyne of Gloucestershire, Keith Piper of Warwickshire and Adrian Rollins of Derbyshire - there are scores more making honest livings from the game.

Alleyne, recently promoted to the captaincy of his county, has fond memories of the college. "I remember the games I played there very well," he recalled last week. "We played a lot of county second XIs and beat quite a few of them. It was nice to play against good consistent opposition, and the experience did me a lot of good as a player."

The London Cricket College was founded in 1984 as Haringey Cricket College. It was the inspiration of a local councillor who recognised the wasted potential of the youngsters he saw from the top deck of the bus on the way to work, playing unsupervised games in parks. The project finally became a victim of rate-capping, but the college survived under the umbrella of the London Community Trust, and last year became a registered company with charitable status. More recently, the future has been secured by a donation from the Grand Metropolitan Charitable Trust.

"It's nice that things are going well for the college at the moment," Alleyne said. "There have been some tough times in the past. Now there is talk of getting a game fixed up for all the old boys to play the current youngsters and I would love to play in that."

On the evidence of last Wednesday, it would be a cracking game. The college's openers put on an untroubled 70 against Hornsey's bowlers, with Richard Mansfield, reckoned to be one of the brightest batting prospects, stroking a text-book straight-driven four off the first ball of the day on his way to 42.

Later on, Mansfield was as fluent in conversation as he had been with the bat, describing the nature of the pitch and suggesting how the middle order should best deal with it: "You can't drive on this wicket - the ball really isn't coming on to the bat at all." They drove - and they regretted it.

The captain restored respectability to the college's score with some judicious application of the long handle, and they finally posted 170 - not the 200 Atkinson had wanted, but enough for the bowlers to aim at.

In fact, the college boys skittled Hornsey for 103, the highlight the dismissal of Junior Maxwell - one of the LCC's best batsmen, substituting for the opposition - for a duck. He slogged a catch to mid-on, and immediately conceded that his team-mates, who know his game well, had set a cunning trap for him.

Maxwell saw the funny side, and did not expect a wigging from his captain. "Steve's alright," he said. "Except when the team let him down." The boys are more nervous of disapproval from Deryck Murray, the former West Indies Test wicketkeeper who counsels them on behaviour on and off the pitch. "He's a toughie," Maxwell grinned.

Keith Waring, the college's director of training, is in charge of ensuring that the players study hard for the NVQs that are the insurance policy should they not make it as players. "Let's face it, most of them don't get county jobs," he said. "But if they work hard they will all get jobs of some kind in cricket. We've even got two of our boys working in township schemes in South Africa."

Waring is trying to set up the old boys' fixture, but in the meantime recommends the Burger King-sponsored match on 4 July at Honor Oak, when the LCC play Star of India, an under-19 touring team from the subcontinent whose past alumni have included Sachin Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin. "Our boys will have to bat for a long time," Waring said. "But that doesn't matter. There will be some great Indian spin bowling to watch." Put it in your diary.