Devotees' dream is to be a Lord's player

Chance to follow in Botham's footsteps draws the hopeful to headquarters and a decidedly new-age MCC

To be perfectly frank, the modern Denis Compton and the latest Ian Botham were nowhere in sight at Lord's yesterday. Looking at some of the batting on parade, Denis Thatcher and Ian McKellen might have had better footwork.

To be perfectly frank, the modern Denis Compton and the latest Ian Botham were nowhere in sight at Lord's yesterday. Looking at some of the batting on parade, Denis Thatcher and Ian McKellen might have had better footwork.

It would have been remarkable had it been otherwise. All you can do is dream that one day it will happen again, that on a cold, dank Saturday in November an unknown boy from nowhere will strap on his pads or wrap his fingers round the seam and proceed to put a song in the coaches' hearts.

Compton and Botham are perhaps the two most accomplished English alumni of the MCC Young Cricketers programme. They each spent two of their teenage years on what was then known as the Lord's groundstaff, and not long afterwards they were imperishable legends of the game.

This is possibly why there remains such a desire to be awarded a place on the programme. The final trials were being held in the MCC indoor school yesterday for a maximum three places on the 2005 programme. There were 30 young cricketers on view, aged from 15 to 19.

All were talented, few were talented enough to make it. "We don't reject anybody who writes in," said Clive Radley, MCC's head coach. "We'll already know about many, but there are about a third here today that I don't know. It is possible to get a boy coming out of the blue and impressing you enough to get a place, but it isn't likely." This conjured visions of a young Wilson, the comic-book hero, coming down from his eyrie high on the Yorkshire moors, running to Lord's and wowing the MCC coaches.

Radley offered the name of Matthew Church, who came to trials a few years ago completely unheard of outside his local club. While he did not quite win the Ashes back single-handedly, he did two years at Lord's and a few more at Worcestershire and Gloucestershire.

A place on the Lord's groundstaff used more or less to mean you were an apprentice cricketer, rather as your mate might have become an apprentice joiner. You were also a cricketer's mate, like a plumber's mate, somebody to do the rotten jobs (although bowling at MCC members whenever they wanted was probably better than cleaning out U-bends). In those days the training used to consist of helping daily on the ground, selling scorecards and performing factotum duties. That has been abandoned.

"They don't sell scorecards any more because they did such a pisshole job of it," said Radley. "They did that deliberately, because they didn't want to do it.

"But they still get a good cricketing education, which makes them more rounded as people. They go on groundsmanship, scoring, umpiring and IT courses, and all of them take coaching badges. I reckon we come up with three or four professional cricketers a year, but I hope we also equip them to get other jobs not involving playing."

The MCC, of course, have a wider role to play than simply producing English county cricketers. If anything, since the club entered the 20th century in about 1985 and startlingly almost reached the 21st ahead of everybody, they have under-taken their global role more vigorously. Radley buys into this as much as anybody, and thus had reasons to be cheerful.

Two of the best players on parade, whose talent could easily be spotted without a level four coaching badge or seeing them perform in a match outdoors, were from Barbados and South Africa.

Ruel Brathwaite is on a scholarship at Dulwich College, hopes to gain a place at Loughborough University and bowls at mean pace with late away-swing. "If I was offered a place at Lord's, I would love to take it," he said. "It could only help with my bowling and that's what I want to do, bowl for West Indies." He is 19, tall, well-built, amiable and, yesterday, deeply impressive.

Kyle Hodnett got off a flight from Durban yesterday morning having done his final Matric exam on Friday. If he was tired, he did not show it. "I am here because it was recommended to me as excellent and I really want to play county cricket," he said. "Two years at Lord's would be an ideal grounding, just to learn." Hodnett, 17, attended Northwood, the same school as Shaun Pollock, which might not be all they turn out to have in common.

It was the sort of day and the type of session which emphasised that although the MCC's role has changed, it might be more valid. Last week, apart from the trials, they announced the latest successful candidates for the positions of MCC cricket artist and photographer.

Radley is aware that the cricketers' programme has changed because counties have their own academies: "It's probably a bit more difficult because players want county contracts, but it offers wonderful opportunities." And as one dad observed while watching his son bat: "He's probably not quite good enough to get a place, but he's had a good long winter net in one of the best indoor schools." Compo and Beefy would drink to that.

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