Cricket: Young lions offer new hope

Success at Under-19 level may lead to an expansion of the present system. By David Llewellyn at Bristol
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The Independent Online
WHILE EVERY England cricket fan was in mourning yesterday, in the West Country hope was flickering for the future. Under the guidance of the coach, Tim Boon, the England Under-19s were showing their elders and betters how to turn the screw on the opposition. And the opponents in this case are Australia.

Their uncharacteristically poor performance in Bristol against the hated Poms had their coach, Rod Marsh, the former Test wicketkeeper, wincing and grimacing in seeming pain at every wicket to fall, every run given away.

But however good England's Under 19s ever are, by the time the players are old enough for the real thing they do not seem to be good enough. Down Under, however poor their teenagers are, the finished products, for the moment at least, are proving to be world beaters.

Where is English cricket going wrong? England Under-19 cricket, a massive undertaking backed by NatWest, is the bedrock of the Test side, but is it successful? More than 60 Test players have come from the Under-19s, including half a dozen captains. Of the 18 players called on by England for this summer's Cornhill Test series against New Zealand, 10 have graduated from the Under-19 side.

So to a certain extent the system is working, in that the supposed cream is collecting at the top. Unfortunately there it sours, because it is not enough to earn the call, they need to be helping England to win, and not just matches, but series.

Hugh Morris is the technical director of the England and Wales Cricket Board and he summed up the English approach when he said: "In the past we have been good at organising cricket matches, but we have been poor at playing them."

But that is about to change. Boon hinted there is a move afoot to extend the NatWest development of excellence so that, instead of returning to their counties when they are ineligible because of age, youngsters remain under the guardianship and tutelage of the ECB for a further two years, and until they are 21 in conjunction with the county coaches they can be reared on a concentrated diet of regular, high quality competitive cricket.

Boon said: "I feel there should be a tighter control when the boys leave the Under-19 set-up and go back to their counties. What we have to be careful of is that they don't get lost in the malaise of Second XI cricket."

That is where the old lags have traditionally held court, propounding their often cynical views on the game and the way it should be approached, turning young heads away from the straight and narrow. It is also where there is scarcely a breath of competition to ruffle the smooth progress of the old carthorses into retirement. Boon wants to pluck his charges from the jaws of such a black hole to achievement.

Marsh is head coach at the Australian Institute of Sport at the Commonwealth Bank Cricket Academy, where the youngsters are guided by sports psychologists, go on public speaking courses, and learn about financial investment. Marsh said: "We try to build the whole person, not just a cricketer. But hopefully we will have prepared them to be capable of playing first class cricket."

So unlike their England counterparts, none of the Australian Under-19s have any firstclass experience. "And from what I have seen here," growled Marsh, "none of my players would be good enough to play in the County Championship."

And few have come through. Of the last Under-19 tour only Greg Blewett and Justin Langer have played Test cricket for Australia, while their team-mate Jason Gallian won the last of his three England caps in South Africa in 1995. Other graduates include Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist and Mike Kasprowicz.

The nub of it is that the Australian playing climate is far more competitive, creating a cutting edge even at Grade (club) level. There are around 60 full-time professionals, the rest squeeze their State matches (a maximum of 10) around and in between their full-time jobs.

Boon would like to see a paring down of full-time players in county cricket. "I think contracts should be harder to obtain and there should be fewer of them. There should be more semi-professionals and more competitive matches of a higher quality."

Scoreboard, Digest, page 21