Durham power the game's new wave

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The Independent Online

By tradition June is the high water mark of university cricket, when Cambridge play Oxford at Lord's in the oldest first-class fixture in the world.

This year, however, a cornerstone of the game since 1827 will be removed. The two sides are due to meet at Lord's later this month but for a one-day match only. The first- class fixture, in which the opening delivery was sent down 10 years before Victoria ascended the throne, will now alternate between Fenner's and The Parks.

The balance of power in university cricket has long since shifted away from Oxbridge. On Monday four of the five finals of the British University Sports Association Championships will be between Durham and Loughborough; that it was not all five was merely because the two met in one of the semi-finals. Durham, who have won 10 of the last 14 finals and lost last year's by one wicket, will start as favourites.

Somewhat belatedly, the new order was recognised by the England and Wales Cricket Board, which last year created six university centres of excellence, funded to a tune of £1m over three years, with Durham, Bradford, Cardiff and Loughborough complementing the old Oxbridge order. Those left out, like Birmingham, have struggled to avoid a collapse of their cricketing structure.

At the Racecourse Ground, where the triple institutions of prison, cathedral and castle peered out from a sullen sky yesterday, Durham have emerged as the powerhouse of the new wave. This is partly because they have long had a tradition of producing high-class cricketers, not least the England captain Nasser Hussain, and because they started before anybody else.

Graeme Fowler, who still looks little different to the man who steered England to their last home series win against Pakistan in his debut Test in 1982, was appointed director of the university's academy five years ago. Since then, around three cricketers a season have graduated into the county game. Seven of the Durham side playing Lancashire this week are contracted to county staffs while one, the wicketkeeper James Foster, has toured with England A. By a neat twist, Ryan Driver and Mark Chilton, Lancashire's openers, have been through Fowler's hands.

But for a century from Andrew Flintoff, which had all the force and destructiveness of a runaway freight train, Durham might have given a young, strong Lancashire side a run for their money.

"They are better equipped to handle pressure than when I was a student here,'' said Fowler. "It was a completely different set-up. It was student-run, we didn't have a coach and there was no great fixture list. Almost every week I would disappear to play for Lancashire Seconds. At Durham we didn't leave any better cricketers than we arrived.''

Not only do his squad have the benefits of a former England opener, they attend lectures on diet, training and fitness regimes. "There is some sports psychology but I would only really be keen on it if it came from someone who has played a lot of cricket and is also a qualified psychologist,'' said Fowler. He will have to check the availability of Mike Brearley, who, in fact, is a qualified psychotherapist.

The model is American. However, although university sport is central to the United States, it is not so regarded in Britain. "The majority of athletes come from the independent sector,'' commented the University's director of sport, Peter Warburton. "Of the side playing today only one does not come from an independent school. And yet the strategy for English sport when it was laid out in the document 'A Sporting Future For All' did not mention either the independent sector or the universities.

"I like Trevor Brooking and his work at Sport England ­ they have put more money into sport in the last four years than in the previous 66 ­ but they have ignored two key players.''

Fowler estimates that if the six centres of excellence each produce two or three professionals a year, half the contracted cricketers in the county system will have been through university a decade from now. "And that's probably right. Just under 50 per cent of 18-year-olds are in higher education.'' It remains to be seen how far the universities will stretch their admissions policy to accommodate promising cricketers. Cambridge have traditionally been the least flexible.

In 1989 a Combined Universities side which for the first time included non-Oxbridge players came within a boundary of reaching the semi-finals of the Benson and Hedges Cup under the captaincy of Michael Atherton. They might have beaten Somerset that May day in Taunton had Cambridge allowed Steve James to reschedule one of his examination papers; Durham were more understanding, allowing Hussain to make a century.

Cambridge have stuck to their policies and significantly did not field a single freshman in last year's Varsity match. ''Universities vary,'' Fowler said. "Part of Loughborough's mission statement is to be the best sporting university in the country while at Cambridge, although its not officially admitted, a lot of academic departments don't want sportsmen because they don't want them spending time away from their studies.

"At Durham, if we have two lads to choose from, we will take the one who has something else to offer, like cricket, rowing or rugby.''

It is a fact that more than 98 per cent of Durham's students play some kind of sport. Fowler does not pretend that the products of his academy are the finished article, but the impact made by Foster and Ben Hutton, Sir Leonard's grandson, who last month struck his maiden Championship century for Middlesex, shows they have an edge.

"John Stephenson, Nasser Hussain and Martin Speight were all at Durham together but they were not good first-class cricketers ­ they became so later,'' he said. "When they leave here, it will still take them time to get used to the full rigours of the county game but it will not take them so long to break through because of the cricketing education they receive here ­ something they could never learn in three years of county cricket.'' Since a county cricketer's education was supposedly based on a knowledge of decent pubs and a subscription to the Sporting Life, this might be just as well.