Batting, bowling and learning

Young musicians and dancers hone their skills at specialist academies. Now cricket has its equivalent. Richard Garner reports on a unique scheme that is turning cricket-mad youngsters into professional players
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The Independent Online

The cricket season begins in earnest today with England's cricketers going into battle against Sri Lanka at Lord's. Meanwhile, 100 miles away on a school pitch in the Home Counties, a dozen young fellows are dreaming of the day when they are the next Nasser Hussein striding out in front of a reverential crowd in their whites.

These 12 young people have been taken on at the Cricket School, a unique private development that specialises in training would-be county cricketers and giving them an education at the same time. At the moment, it is a fee-paying academy attached to a private school – Homewood in Winkton, Hampshire. Parents pay a little more than £2,000 a term to send their offspring to it. In return, their boys are trained intensively in cricket in the same way as young ballerinas are put through their ballet steps or budding violinists are taught to play their instrument at the Yehudi Menuhin School.

The school is thought to be the only one of its kind in the country. Most county cricket clubs run their own academies for youngsters nowadays, but they do not combine cricket with education in the same place as the Cricket School does. The hope, according to its founder, John Lucas, is that by immersing the 11- to 16-year-olds in cricket every day, they will produce an élite of fantastically skilled bowlers and batsmen.

However, Mr Lucas, a former Royal Navy all-rounder and maths teacher, is very keen to recruit boys from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible, which is why he is seeking sponsorship from the England Cricket Board and Hampshire County Council's cricketing academy. He is hoping that this will enable him to fund places for young people whose parents cannot afford to pay the fees.

"Two thousand pounds a term is a lot of money – especially if you come from a single-parent family as some of our youngsters do," says Mr Lucas. "All those who come here want to play cricket for a living. At the same time, we give them a good education up to GCSE level."

Every morning, the children at the Cricket School undergo a training routine. The routine varies but on a typical day, the young people do some regular physical training such as jogging before ending up at the nets and slip-catching machine to practise their cricketing techniques. Coaching in the finer points of batting, bowling and catching are combined with lessons throughout the day.

Homewood is happy to let the Cricket School have the grounds and building for a peppercorn rent. (Homewood also allows a tennis and girls' soccer school to lease its playing fields.) So far, around 25 youngsters have been through the Cricket School, which was founded in 1996 – many of them ending up playing for top league teams in Hampshire and with the county's youth teams. Two of the current crop of players who are keen to make it on to the county circuit are Naqeeb Alimohammad, 17, from Kenya who plans to stay in England and qualify for a county, and Dougie Belchamber, also 17, an all-rounder. Both have played for Hampshire's under-17 team.

"There's a good balance between cricket and education," says Dougie. "I got several grade A to C passes in my GCSEs, but now I want to pursue cricket as a career and get a place in a county team."

Naqeeb, who has played for a Kenyan under-19 side, has similar ambitions. He has been told that if he went back to Kenya (which recently won One Day international status to play first class matches against the Test nations), he would have to undergo a period of qualification.

"I saw an advert for this school in The Cricketer magazine and asked if I could come. I'd love to get a contract with Hampshire or some other county and become a professional cricketer."

The school has four teachers on its books, as well as a professional cricket coach, Matthew Keech, a former Middlesex and Hampshire county player. Former spin bowler Raj Maru, who now works with Hampshire on professional development, also looks in from time to time to help the youngsters with their coaching.

The new Cricket School should help future English teams better compete with the Indian cricket team. According to John Lucas, the nearest school offering a similar combination of cricket and academic lessons is in Bombay. "Quite a long way to go," he says. County academies are making more effort to identify and nurture young players nowadays, but do not offer schooling with the coaching.

The boys are often loaned to various teams, including Homewood's itself. "We only give the teams two or three at a time, so there's still a chance for the youngsters to play at the school," says Mr Lucas. "They have been winning, though." At weekends they play for local league teams and also for some of Hampshire's youth XIs.

The school has been given a licence to operate by Ofsted, the Government's standards watchdog. Beforehand, however, Ofsted inspectors queried whether the school was doing enough to offer an adequate education in technology to pupils, as laid down by the national curriculum. They were satisfied after being told that the young people used the internet to brush up on county scores and were taught how to repair their own bats if they become damaged. It's a question of tailoring the curriculum for would-be cricketers.

For the school, the most important thing is that it is giving a chance to cricket-mad youngsters to pursue their favourite sport as a career. And it looks as though it has a good chance of success. Maybe in a few years' time, one of its pupils will be stepping out at Lord's – the new Darren Gough of the cricketing world waving hello to another international season.