Bell leads youth brigade into Test battle

To lose your captain (and wicket-keeper) on the eve of an important one-day international series is not exactly ideal preparation, but England Under-19 have had to shrug off the setback.

To lose your captain (and wicket-keeper) on the eve of an important one-day international series is not exactly ideal preparation, but England Under-19 have had to shrug off the setback.

However inauspicious the start of the England Under-19s' summer they have to get on with it, like the budding professionals they all aspire to be. Mark Wallace sustained a broken thumb in a practice match on Wednesday and is expected to be out for at least three weeks, making the Glamorgan youngster at best a doubt for the first Test of the three- match series beginning at Trent Bridge on 15 August.

Wallace, who has been replaced by the Somerset wicketkeeper, Carl Gazzard, with the captaincy passing to the hugely talented batsman Ian Bell, will now be reduced to the role of frustrated spectator instead of leading out the team on his home ground in what is for many young players one of the most critical stages of their burgeoning professional careers.

Since the early 1970s, when the Under-19 level was introduced, an impressive 59 players out of 232 who played in Tests for their age group, have gone on to play Test cricket for the full England side.

With coaches themselves being coached as well, to ensure more consistency in spotting the talent in the first place and then bringing out the best in them, as well as improved techniques and more opportunity for exposure with the Under-19 World Cup and so on, there is no reason why that success rate of 21 per cent should not increase steadily.

All that suggests that Under-19 cricket is crucial in the preparation of future international stars. The coach, Tim Boon, has no doubts about the role Under-19 cricket plays. "At this stage in a young guy's career we look for the necessary attitude, aptitude and athleticism and the flair to go on to succeed at the top level," he explains.

"We are looking at boys who have the basis on which we can build. What we are looking to do here is develop the players, and boys develop at different stages. There are young players who do not make it into this age group and emerge later.

"We work closely with the counties. We only have the boys for a short time, but while they are with us they are exposed to the highest level of the game in that age group. They have an opportunity to match their skills against the best around the world."

Their most recent opportunity was in the World Cup last winter, when they got to the Super League stage before falling disappointingly short of expectations.

For the one-day series against Sri Lanka six changes, for various reasons, have been made to the squad, which certainly shows some imagination, since among the chosen few is a Northamptonshire left-arm spinner with a great future.

Mudhsuden Singh Panesar, mercifully known as Monty, is just 18 and is determined to become a Test cricketer. And an England Test cricketer at that. Monty does not suffer from the clash of cultures that seems to afflict so many young Asians, who are exposed to Western ways at school but return to tradition when they step over the threshold of their home.

"I definitely want to play for England," said Monty. "I was born here, I learned my cricket here. My family are broad-minded, I have been brought up in the Sikh tradition and they know I am not going to forget my roots. I like to have an open mind about these things. I enjoy communicating with other cultures."

If Panesar is anyone to go by then this crop of youngsters should already have adopted a work ethic. In one match for Bedfordshire last season he bowled 61 overs taking three Hertfordshire wickets for 120 runs.

"I bowl as much as I can," he says, gesticulating with his remarkably lengthy fingers. His hands indeed seem to have a life of their own, the long hands seemingly lacing together his words as he speaks. "I do not set myself any number of overs to bowl when I practise, he says. I just bowl as much as I can. I would bowl all day if I could. It is important that I become as fit as I can."

Bell, Panesar's captain, is considered by many to be another tremendous prospect. Today and for the rest of this brief series though, he has the prospect of captaining his country.

Although the responsibility was thrust upon him at the last minute Bell did not seem in the least bit worried. "I am not too bothered by it," he said. "I have captained other sides in the past, so it is not exactly a new experience for me."

He is a sportoholic, having been to Coventry City Football Club's school of excellence before deciding that cricket was where his future lay. He is on Warwickshire's books and any thoughts of further education have been put on hold as he concentrates on making the grade.

He will be leading a team packed with talented players all eager to make their mark. On the batting front, James Dalrymple of Middlesex promises much, while Nicky Peng of Durham has already impressed against Surrey earlier this season when he scored 98.

Michael Carberry is one of two Surrey players in the squad, the other being the pace bowler Tim Murtagh. Carberry is regarded as a another batsman of promise. Murtagh is part of a useful looking attack which also features Kabir Ali, who has had a remarkable impact on Worcestershire's season.

However grim their World Cup might have been there is still the impression that this might be the best crop of Under-19s yet. If so, that figure of 59 is likely to undergo some significant changes in the not too distant future.

England under-19s

SQUAD (One-day series v Sri Lanka)

I Bell (Warwickshire, capt), J E Bishop (Essex), M Carberry, T Murtagh (both Surrey), M Davies, D Harrison (Glamorgan), I Pattison, N Peng, G Pratt (all Durham), J Sadler (Yorkshire), M S Panesar (Northamptonshire), K Ali (Worcestershire), P Trego, C Gazzard (wicketkeeper) (both Somerset), J Dalrymple (Middlesex).

ITINERARY

One-day internationals: Today: at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff; Tomorrow: at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff; Monday, 31 July: Hove (day/night); The first and third one-day internationals are live on Sky television.

Tests* (all matches four days): 15 August: Trent Bridge; 21 August: Northampton; 29 August: Worcester.

*Test squad will be announced at the end of the one-day series.

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