Cricket: Top of class of '94: As a new cricket term opens for the universities, Russell Cake seeks to follow a noble line: Simon O'Hagan meets a Cambridge batsman with first-class prospects

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THE FIRST ball Russell Cake faced in the 1994 cricket season was a wide. So wide, in fact, that first slip had to brace himself as it left Kevin Evans's hand and Cake could forget about playing a shot before he had even started. A lot of tension was released at that moment.

The second ball was closer to the stumps, but Cake was still able to shoulder arms and let it pass through to Bruce French. The third ball was much more of a test. It was straight and lifted off a length, and Cake's front-foot defensive push sent the ball rather uppishly into the covers. First-class cricket. For the students of Cambridge University, not such a straightforward business, even if you are as good as Russell Cake.

A slightly built 20-year-old, with an air of unobtrusiveness at the crease that is reminiscent of Mike Brearley, Cake is Cambridge's main batting hope for 1994, having averaged 31.63 in his first year last season and scored a century for Combined Universities against Australia. Opening the batting against Nottinghamshire at Fenner's last week, he made 21 out of his side's 144 on the only day of play, but for two balls, that the weather allowed.

It may not sound much, but it was a decent effort on a damp wicket, and included two cover drives for four off successive balls from Andy Pick that were the shots of the day. Decisive footwork and lovely, clean hits with a full swing of the bat that sent the ball racing away in spite of the cloying outfield. Graham Saville, the Cambridge coach, says Cake 'has a very good eye and he's a good timer of the ball. He has his technical faults, but he's not afraid to hit the ball, to go for his shots. He's got that inner confidence.'

None the less, at the back of Cake's mind - indeed everyone's mind in the Cambridge team, it seemed - was the knowledge that this was the first season bar one since 1986 that they were without a star player. One of them, Mike Atherton, was leading England to victory in the West Indies, while another, John Crawley, was preparing for his first full season at Lancashire having done so well on the England A tour of South Africa in the winter that he looks almost certain to play for the senior side this summer. Difficult acts to follow.

'In a way it could help us,' Cake says. 'John Crawley rarely failed to get to 50 last year, and if you were batting with him and got to 30, it made you think, 'Well, I've done my bit,' and people tended to get themselves out. Whereas now we're more aware that you can't afford to do that, because if a few people get to 30 and the rest don't get very many you end up with a score like we had today.'

There is a limit to what you can expect of student cricketers, and everybody knows it - the players, the coach, and the county opposition for whom the matches are little more than net practice made interesting. So as Oxford and Cambridge begin another season when, for all their dedication, the idea that they might actually beat a county side remains pretty fanciful, the question is in the rainswept air again: should the universities retain first-class status?

The trouble is, it's an arrangement that suits all sides, even if the standard of university matches, according to Bruce French, the Nottinghamshire and former England wicket keeper, is lower than the 2nd XI championship. For the students, the thrill of finding you're on the same field as Test players can be easily imagined; for the counties, there is the promise of easy runs and wickets to boost confidence and your place in the averages.

Cake's view is that as long as counties are prepared to play Oxford and Cambridge, then that's fine by the students. 'You could take away our first-class status, but I can't really see who would benefit.' French is happy to see things carry on as they are. Every now and again an Atherton or a Crawley comes along, and there's also the matter of tradition.

Ah, tradition. Run your eye along the walls of the Fenner's pavilion, and the team lists going back to 1827 tell their own story. The post-war names include some of English cricket's most influential figures: Insole, Subba Row, Warr, Sheppard, May, Dexter, Silk, Lewis, Brearley . . . and on in that vein right up to Atherton.

Not that the students' efforts should be decried. In many ways, it is remarkable they can hold their own at all, considering that the days when the gifted sportsman was waved through almost irrespective of his academic abilities have long gone. The sort of Oxbridge cricketer the system now produces is not only less likely to play outstandingly, but is always going to be aware of a career away from sport.

That's true even of Cake. A pupil of King's College Wimbledon who played for Surrey junior teams, he has a contract with the county for the second half of the summer. But he's far from set on making cricket his job. 'If I get runs this year, enjoy myself with Surrey, then I've got two more years here and I could do the same as I'm doing this year before I have to decide. I could see myself playing cricket if things went well. But I'd only want to if I was sure of a place in the county first team and even higher. I wouldn't want to spend years in and out of the team, because I know I could do better in other areas.' This is no idle boast. An engineering student, he got a first in his exams last year.

As it is, only Cake and a couple of other members of the Cambridge side - Andy Whittall, captain and off-spinner, from Zimbabwe, and John Ratledge, a batsman from Lancashire - are seriously contemplating cricket as a career. For them there is cricket, work, and not much else.

As a hailstorm rages outside, Ratledge is taking the chance to catch up on his law notes. 'The law of tort,' he explains. 'Joint liability.' For Cambridge University's modern-day cricketer-academics, it is less a case of joint liability than of double indemnity.

Rain washed out both the University matches, Cambridge v Northamptonshire and Oxford v Hampshire, yesterday.

(Photograph omitted)