Cricket: Widened net brings in a bigger and better catch: Graeme Wright reports from Headingley on encouraging signs at England under-19 level

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NO sign of the Prime Minister at Headingley yet, even though there is a Test match in progress. England are playing Sri Lanka in the first of three Bull under-19 four- day matches. Still, Ted Dexter, the chairman of selectors, was here to run his eye over England's young prospects and hoping to find a fast bowler for the future. Glen Chapple, a lively, aggressive Lancastrian, looked the best bet, and Andrew Cottam, son of the former England fast bowler, purveyed his left arm spin with increasing success.

On Friday Dexter hardly had time to touch his morning coffee before he was witnessing that routine feature of England teams - a batting collapse. In just nine balls, England lost three wickets for one run, and this time it was medium pace swing bowling on a bright, blue morning which wrought havoc, not the Wasim and Waqar roadshow. Poor Darren Robinson fell to the first ball of the match, yorked by one from Alexander that dipped late. Philip Weston, the captain, and Malachy Loye both edged on to their stumps. Alexander took two wickets in his first over.

England's recovery to 285 was effected by Matthew Walker, a stocky left-hander from Kent, Gloucestershire's Matthew Windows - both scored 68 - and an unbeaten 86 from the Essex reserve wicketkeeper, Robert Rollins. Coming in at 155 for 7, Rollins batted with an easy style and a big smile, giving every impression of a cricketer enjoying himself.

Windows, whose father played for Cambridge and Gloucestershire, batted steadily, but it was Walker who really impressed with his positive approach in circumstances that can put experienced players on the defensive. Attack, as well as being more attractive than attrition, begets success more often than not, and it was encouraging to see Walker, Windows and Rollins going for their shots.

What I particularly liked about Walker was the way he moved into position with time to play the stroke he selected. Off-spinner Sajith Fernando, who accounted for Walker with unexpected bounce, was one of seven bowlers who came and went during the England innings. Four of them tried spin of some kind.

Walker is also interesting because, like others in this England side, he has come through the ranks at under-15 and under-17 levels. Much is made of the decline of cricket in schools, but little is said about the efforts which keep the game going at grassroots, and which bring youngsters like these through to representing their country. This under-19 series is the showpiece of a Development of Excellence programme in which the English Schools Cricket Association, National Cricket Association and TCCB have linked to advance the future of England's cricket.

Michael Atherton and Mark Ramprakash are current England cricketers who tasted international pressure at this level. From last year's side which drew an exciting series against Australia, John Crawley, Mark Lathwell and Ben Smith have quickly made an impression in county cricket. Indeed, six of the current side have first-class experience. Eight of them, moreover, went to state schools.

Although not unimportant, it is these days less significant whether or not they learnt their cricket at school. The NCA can boast around 7,000 member clubs, several thousand of which have official junior sections providing games and coaching for schoolboys. The NCA award more than 1,000 coaching certificates a year, so maybe things are not as desperate as the Jeremiahs would have us believe. It has to be remembered to what extent cricket in other countries has improved.

An area of greater concern is finance. Bull's three-year sponsorship of the under-19 team is due to expire with this winter's tour to India. If further sponsorship is not forthcoming, it seems the TCCB will pick up the tab - something critics of the board's money-making policies might like to think about. At the same time, our cricket loving prime minister might care to reflect on the fact that, through Bull's involvement, the future of England's cricket has been financed by the French government. Perhaps French cricket is more in his line anyway.

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