Class of '98 lost in the county abyss but Academy offers hope

Six years ago the England Under-19 cricket team took on the world - and won. To date they have only 10 full Test caps between them. So what went wrong?
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The Independent Online

In December 2000, the England and Wales Cricket Board promised to produce a world-beating national side by 2007. Last winter's Ashes humiliation and World Cup débâcle suggested the need for a revised schedule. However, if the ECB's aim is to be met, it is largely in the hands of the next generation of cricketers.

The England Under-19 squad returned this week from their World Cup exploits in Bangladesh and Andy Pick's side gave an encouraging performance, only to fall short in the semi-final against the West Indies.

The youngsters won five out of seven matches on the unfamiliar tracks of the sub-continent, including an impressive, if narrow, win over Pakistan, who beat the West Indies by 25 runs in the final in Dhaka yesterday. England's only other defeat was by one wicket to South Africa in a tournament that has been fervently followed in this cricket-loving nation.

However, before thoughts turn to imminent Ashes joy and future World Cup trophies fighting for space at Lord's, it is worth noting England have had success at this level before. They won the event in 1998 and the senior side should be reaping the rewards as those teenagers hit their primes. It is not.

As Owais Shah hit the winning run against New Zealand in the 1998 final in Johannesburg, English cricket could have been forgiven for clutching at the hope of a rosier future. The senior side were once more losing a series in the Caribbean and youth was suggested as the answer. That squad, however, have mustered a meagre 10 Test caps between them. Eight to the Kent batsman Robert Key. Two to Lancashire's Chris Schofield.

Key's international career has produced an average of 18 and he was overlooked for the current senior tour to the West Indies. Schofield, the great English leg-break bowling hope in 2000, had an underwhelming Test debut, bagging a duck and not bowling. His second Test produced 18 wicketless overs.

There were also high expectations for Stephen Peters, who hit a man-of-the-match-winning century in the '98 final, but he failed to make an impact at Essex and moved to Worcestershire in 2002. His first-class average hovers around 30.

Other members of the side included Nottinghamshire's Paul Franks, who has a solitary one-day international cap. Shah, the captain, has played 15 one-dayers but averages 21 and cannot hold down a regular spot.

Five of the class of '98 are unlikely to reach Test status in the near future; they are no longer playing first-class cricket.

England's recent ability to turn rich early promise into Test players does not compare well with other countries. Members of the India Under-19 team of 1998 have gone on to earn 60 Test caps. Virender Sehwag is the regular opening bat, Harbhajan Singh their foremost spinner and Mohammad Kaif a talented batsman and spinner with four Test caps and more to come.

Ramnaresh Sarwan, Marlon Samuels and Ryan Hinds, of the '98 West Indian team, have a total of 63 Test caps. Jacques Rudolph (11 Test caps) and Graeme Smith featured in South Africa's 2000 side; Smith is now captain of the senior side with 21 caps. The Pakistan team of 2000 lead the way, with 85 Test caps among 10 players.

Surprisingly, the only team with a conversion rate as poor as England's of late is Australia. Whereas England can point to the careers of Michael Atherton, Nasser Hussain and Mark Ramprakash, of 1988 vintage, the world champions can name just Stuart Law, who has one Test cap. Shane Watson, Nathan Hauritz and Michael Clarke, members of their 2000 squad, featured at one-day level but have not broken into the Test team.

However, Australia pride themselves on their Academy which has constantly churned out Test players, and England finally followed suit, as part of the ECB's drive, in 2001. Rod Marsh - the former director of the Australian Academy - runs the show and this centre of excellence may be crucial for the current crop of youngsters.

Whereas Key played Under-19 cricket for England and then returned to the mediocrity of the county scene with the odd "A" tour to strive for, these players have the Academy to aim for as a step towards the Test scene. It will also encourage them to have seen the likes of Simon Jones and Stephen Harmison graduate from the Academy's first intake to the senior side.

The Academy cannot be a success without the raw talent to work with but there are positive signs in this regard with the Under-19 team under the stern guidance of Pick, who held individual meetings with each player after the South Africa defeat.

Alastair Cook of Essex, who played for the Under-19s at the age of 14, is receiving rave reviews from coaches and colleagues alike - his former coach Derek Randall described him as "having all the qualities to be a world-class player" - and was the tournament's second-highest run-scorer. He led the side with maturity and by example, scoring successive centuries during the Super League stage at the expense of New Zealand and Zimbabwe and nudged a fine 87 in the win against Pakistan that ensured England top spot in their group.

Cook was ably supported by the middle-order hitting of Somerset's James Hildreth, the bowling of Yorkshire's Tim Bresnan, who was among the tournament's leading wicket-takers, and Durham's Liam Plunkett, while Samit Patel of Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire's Luke Wright chipped in with both wickets and runs.

Indeed, while Australia's Under-19 team at this World Cup failed to progress beyond the group stages and lost in the Plate final to Bangladesh, and their current crop of world-beaters reach their peaks, maybe, just maybe, the ECB is on target.

What became of England's Under-19 World Cup-winners?

Back row (left to right):

Stuart Robertson (physio)

Graham Napier: Established at Essex, successful A tour of India. Batting average 29, bowling 40.

Richard Logan: Bowler made Northants debut in 1999. Joined Notts in 2001. Played two Championship games in 2003.

Jamie Grove: Essex debut in 1998. Moved to Somerset then Leicestershire. Released in 2003 after one Championship game. Doing web design course.

Michael Gough: Batsman and regular in Durham side, playing 13 matches in 2003, average 23.

Aaron Laraman: Left Middlesex to join Somerset. Batting average 40.

Giles Haywood: Figures of 10-5-18-3 in '98 final. Under-19 tourist in 1999. Failed at Sussex after debut aged 16. Released in 2000. Now a chartered surveyor.

Robert Key: Most successful in terms of Tests (eight), top score of 52 (average 18.76). Failed in last Test against Zimbabwe in 2003.

Phil Neale (manager)

John Abrahams (coach)

Front row (left to right):

Ian Flanagan: Five matches for Essex in 1998, which is career high. Joined Kent. In 2003 played one C&G Trophy match. Released.

Chris Schofield: Two wicketless Tests. Lancs bowling average 31.

Graeme Swann: Off-spinner at Northants. Solitary one-day cap in 2000. Bowling average 31.

Paul Franks: '98 vice-captain. One one-dayer for England in 2000: four runs. Notts regular, average of 25 with bat, 29 with ball.

Owais Shah: '98 captain, hit 50 in final. 15 one-day caps: top score 62, average 21.76. Middlesex average 36.

Stephen Peters: Hit century in '98 final. Mixed success at Essex, joined Worcs in 2002. Six tons in nine seasons, average 30.97.

Jonathan Powell: Off-spinner, failed to break into Essex team. Works in London. Plays for Ardleigh Green in Essex League.

Nick Wilton: Wicketkeeper failed to impress with bat at Sussex. Released in 2001. Cricket development officer at Hove.