Cricket: The dearth of the young ones

County Championship: Grim warning from game's finest talent spotter as first-class boys try to become men
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The Independent Online
KEITH FLETCHER put his head slowly to one side, fiddled with the cricket sweater he was cradling in his arms and knitted his brows. His eyes did not stop scrutinising the action on the pitch for a moment but finally he said: "Ashley Cowan, there's a good one. Our boy, he really came on last year, and if he does the same this time, he'll be a top-line bowler."

But if other names sprang to his mind they resolutely refused to come gushing to his lips. Initially it seemed pretty conclusive. Fletcher, player, coach, manager, all-round guru, could not readily come up with a string of cricketers whom he is sure have what it takes to succeed consistently in the international game.

Now, part of this demurral was a combination of his unwillingness to put the pressure of expectancy on likely candidates, his disinclination to hand out praise willy-nilly, his reluctance to give too much credit beyond Essex, and his complete inability to remember anybody's name at the best of times. But it was also realistic and concerning.

"We have got to produce more young cricketers," he said. "We have fallen well behind in the last 15 years on development. We still haven't got over schools stopping playing cricket completely. Clubs have taken over but kids have got to be starting earlier. We need more of them and we've only started to make up for it in the last five years."

Fletcher was speaking as he sat by a sightscreen at his beloved Chelmsford watching his beloved Essex batting during a pre-season match against Worcestershire. He appraised the counties and their players and if he seemed a little too clinical, a touch too harsh, he could not disguise his delight at the imminent start of the season. "Looking forward to it, always do, super," he said.

This will be his 37th year in the first-class game. He scored 37,665 runs including 3,272 in Test matches, and was an incisive captain before turning to coaching. He has become known, because of his stature, his stooping shoulders and his furrowed forehead as "Gnome". The Gnomes of Zurich are probably not as clued up on fiscal matters as the Gnome of Chelmsford is on cricketing ones. His reputation is second to none as evinced by Michael Atherton a couple of weeks back when he wrote in a valedictory essay after relinquishing the England captaincy that Fletcher was much tougher than people imagined, possessed a shrewd cricket brain and "is the best judge of a young cricketer I know".

Casting his net round the general state of the county game, the Gnome said: "Too many of the counties have eight players in their first team who should be there playing first-class cricket. The other three shouldn't and it's that we've got to get right. But that comes down to getting people playing, teaching them the proper techniques early.

"Splitting the Championship into two divisions isn't going to make much difference. For a start, the main reason it's always being put forward is promotion and relegation so counties get themselves sorted out. Obviously teams want to stay in the top division but it also means that if they've got Test players they're at a big disadvantage. Look at Surrey, who are having a lot of calls. They might have been relegated last season. One way round it would be not to have Tests when the Championship is on. Then your Test players would be completely knackered."

The Essex all-rounder Paul Grayson, who would be in anybody's octet of proper county cricketers, came up briefly. "Well played, lazy shot," said his coach succinctly. "Trying to run it down, suppose it was a bit casual," said Grayson, recognising wisdom when he heard it. Fletcher, 54 in May, returned to Essex after a sojourn with England that turned out to be ill- fated. "I enjoyed my time with England, I enjoy it here, I just enjoy cricket," he said.

His verdict on the present England team was generous. He is certain that the series defeat against West Indies was an unfair reflection and that Atherton ("good player, done it all") will be back. "Our batting's OK I think but I can't see why Graeme Hick's not in the side. Ask all the bowlers who they'd prefer to bowl at and it's never Hick. Darren Maddy's impressed me," he said, pleased to have recalled the name.

"Bowling, well there's only three good spinners in the country, Tufnell, Croft and Such. Giles looks as though he might come through but I wonder if he turns the ball enough. How Such didn't get a tour in the winter I don't know. It's all very well giving youth a chance but he's a professional and that's depriving him of his livelihood. As for seam bowlers, England missed Gough." Actually, on reflection, he was not all doom and gloom, but merely hedging his bets.

But he could not, he said, see anybody like Graham Thorpe or Neil Foster, players he knew the first time he saw them had what it took. What, say, of Lancashire's Andrew Flintoff? "Haven't seen enough, but looks a good county player." Or Chris Silverwood? "Don't think he's really going to take 100 Test wickets." Or fellow Yorkie Paul Hutchison? "Needs a yard of pace. Not impossible. You'd better ask Horse."

Horse is Geoff (G G) Arnold, former England seam bowler and highly sought- after bowling coach. He was busy taking videos of Essex's batsmen as all but Ronnie Irani ("good cricketer, seems to be out of favour, should be in the one-day side, I'd have thought") struggled against the seaming ball.

"England should have a close series against South Africa," said the Gnome. "Australia in Australia next winter might be different. It should be a good Championship. Essex, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Yorkshire, all good sides. All got players who should be playing." He went off, clutching his sweater as furiously as he was watching the cricket.