National Cricket Academy: Lessons of a hard school

How a promising cricket career petered out, but the glory stories outscore the sad tales
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sometimes Derek Kenway thinks wistfully of the road not travelled. What a journey it would have been. Had he followed different signposts, he might have been booming away for England this very week in the one-day finals in Australia, with the World Cup to consider beyond.

Instead he has been plying his trade for the family roofing firm, wearing a hard hat on Hampshire building sites rather than at Melbourne Cricket Ground ready to repel Brett Lee today. It is two years since he played what will almost certainly be his last county innings. He is not bitter, he is barely regretful, but he knows it could have been different.

"You've always got to look forward," he said. "I like what I'm doing but I'd be a fool if I said I didn't still want to be playing. I'd bite their hands off for another chance, but that's probably not going to happen now."

Kenway, still only 28, was among the first intake of the much vaunted National Cricket Academy, one of the bright young things invited to stake a claim to a glittering future. If he graduated that inaugural winter of 2001-02, it was hardly with honours, and while it was not all downhill thereafter the fact is that four years later he was out of the professional game.

"I used to think of playing for England but not any more," he said. "When you get that first call-up as I did to the Academy you think one more step and it's the England team, which it is. Look at the people in my Academy year, and who went on to play for England. You are that close."

That is the point. Kenway, still amiably perky, might be deemed a glorious failure but the institution, so long in gestation, has served its purpose in grooming international cricketers. Of the 59 players who have officially crossed its threshold since the Class of Kenway first assembled at Sandhurst en route to Adelaide in October 2001, no fewer than 21 have played Tests, while another 10 have represented England in one-day internationals.

It is almost too many, as if the Academy is too keen to earn its keep. Yet when England needed, or felt they needed, a biff-bang opener and yet another wicketkeeper this winter, they went for, respectively, Mal Loye and Paul Nixon, who have never been invited through the Academy door.

Next Wednesday, the class of 2006-07 - or a large part of it - will embark on its main playing business of the winter, England A's tour of Bangladesh. Fourteen players were based in Perth for intensive practice in the first part of the winter and as Ashes cover, and seven are being replaced. The trip's objective is familiar, especially since the establishment of the Academy lent a more rigorous air to proceedings: to discover which scholars are fitted for higher purpose.

Peter Moores, the Academy director and maybe (deservedly) the next England coach, said: "We won't know about this group until we get back. But they will all be challenged. It's hard to make an assessment in a day because everybody can be driven for a day. But to be driven all the time is different, because it has to come from yourself."

The first Academy intake has been the most conspicuously successful. Of the 17 players, five went on to be members of the team who regained the Ashes in 2005 (though four, it should be added, were also in the team who have just surrendered them). But there is a reason for that.

"The system by nature is flawed if you pick a class of 18-to 22-year-olds," said Moores. "There aren't enough year on year. When you start there are because you're picking the cream of the first crop. The following year you can't replace them so you bring some back again. If the system remains the same, the bloke you bring two or three times becomes a bit stale."

The Academy has still managed to offer, on average, 10 different cricketers a year a chance to prove their worth. But the general point is instructive. The initial Academy which bore such fruit had comfortable wins in 2001-02 against the Australian Academy. Andrew Strauss, Ian Bell and Rob Key all scored hundreds in the three-day innings victory (Kenway made 60, Stephen Harmison took seven wickets). But none of the Australian team that winter has gone on to play international cricket.

For once, England have not followed slavishly the Australian model. The Academy, based for the past three years in an all- singing, all-dancing, custom-built centre at Loughborough, is changing. "We're in transition, moving from the National Academy to the High Performance Centre," said Moores.

"It has to do lots of things: rehabilitating injured players, creating an opportunity for younger players, taking players who are one day going to play Tests, giving support to a player who has played for England and is looking to get back, organising players back from tours.

"My impression was that the Academy was a place where you would take talented young players, give them a flavour of what they would need for the next level and a bit of a culture shock to those who needed it. It also looked at the commitment levels expected, and in that way it has been very successful."

It is tough, and it is meant to be. Perhaps Derek Kenway failed to meet the challenges, perhaps the Academy sets out to discover such things, perhaps both parties might have done more. His is the most glaring name on the register, though others have also not quite made it. He had the required talent, as an attractive batsman with abundant time who liked to impose himself early. But he did not receive glowing commendations from the Academy and, having burst on to the circuit by scoring 1,000 runs in the summer he turned 21, he never averaged 30 in a season again for Hampshire.

"When I got picked for the Academy I was very excited," he said. "The fitness aspect was very hard and I wasn't great with that. Rodney Marsh, the director then, was as good as gold, but he didn't give too much away and you never knew quite where you stood with him. Six months is a long time to be away, and you're going to have good weeks and bad weeks."

Kenway's career fizzled out. He had turned down an offer from Nottinghamshire that he should have taken, but essentially he showed that talent alone is not enough. When his mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2005 (she is now happily recovered) his priorities clearly lay elsewhere. But there were always questions about his desire, preparation and refuelling habits.

"Funnily enough I worked very hard towards the end, and actually remember getting a lecture for not socialising enough. It's about personality as well, and it probably didn't help me. I'm pretty laid-back, and there were times when everybody was buzzing and I'm just cruising around. It's not that I didn't have desire. Life goes on, it can't stop because I was released by Hampshire. Cricket wasn't my life, and that's probably where I went wrong."

That is precisely where the Academy comes in. "The question of what role the Academy plays in development is nearly non-measurable," said Moores. But it is also immeasurable, which is an entirely different thing, as Bangladesh in the next month will show.

The Pioneers: Robert Key

Perhaps the unluckiest nearly man of the inaugural class. He has abundant style and class and an ever-tightening defence. If an occasionally carefree concentration has been a shortcoming, his stoically droll attitude should have graced England more often. As a member of the inaugural squad - the first of his three winters at the Academy - he scored 177 against the Australian counterparts. His batting has matured incrementally and in 2004 he made nine hundreds, including 221 against West Indies, the highest Test score by any current England batsman. Key has been hampered for the past year by injury, especially one to a shoulder which required surgery and is still not fully recovered. His lack of a decent throwing arm may inhibit him, but it would be plain wrong were he not to add to his 15 Test caps. He captained England A last summer (and made a hundred) but has been left out of the Bangladesh tour.

The Pioneers: Chris Schofield

The razzmatazz surrounding the Lancashire leggie was quite something. His rarity value alone singled him out. A wrist-spinner at the age of 21? In England? "Pick him," went up the cry. So they did (for two wicketless matches against Zimbabwe in 2000, though he scored an idiosyncratic half-century). Not only that, he was one of the first 12 players to be awarded a central contract. It quickly went sour when the selectors saw sense, but he was a shoo-in for the first Academy. He took 5 for 72 against Western Australia 2nd XI, but an abrasive personality did not help his cause. Lancashire showed only intermittent faith, but after being sacked at the end of 2004, he won an industrial tribunal case for unfair dismissal. That seemed to be that, however, and a career bamboozling Minor Counties batsmen seemed likely. Surrey, however, offered a lifeline last summer, which he grabbed. He still might make it.

The Pioneers: Mark Wagh

Only Jack Hobbs has scored more runs in a Championship innings at Lord's. Wagh made 315 there for Warwickshire against Middlesex in 2001 (Hobbs made 316 not out in 1926) and it effectively booked him his Academy place. He performed well enough against the weak opposition which the young thrusters were confronted with, and made 167 against Australian Capital Territories. A former captain of what was then still Oxford University, he was banned from bowling in 2000 for a dodgy action which he remodelled successfully. But a serious knee injury that kept him out for virtually the whole 2005 season has now staunched his off-breaks completely. A career average of 37 hints that this attractive strokeplayer has never quite broken through, although it has probably been the wrong time to be an opener. He and Warwickshire parted company last year and he will attempt to revitalise his career at Nottinghamshire.

The Pioneers: Steve Kirby

He was selected following a mind-boggling maiden season which propelled Yorkshire to their first Championship for 33 years. Taking a county-record 7 for 50 on debut, he gathered 47 wickets in all at 20.85 and generated thrilling pace. He also garnered a swift reputation for being fiery, bizarrely telling Michael Atherton in the Roses match that he had seen better players in his fridge. The Academy stint was partly successful and he took 4 for 100 against the Australian scholars. But his sensational early form has been elusive. He left Yorkshire in 2005 for Gloucestershire, where he has been adequate but no more. Kirby's competitive zeal led to his receiving a suspended ban for rubbing a ball on car-park tarmac in 2005, and he was removed from the attack for bowling a beamer in 2006. Nothing can ever erase the memory of his wonderful first season, but it was his only journey to the stars.

The Pioneers: Graeme Swann

The one that got away. It is not as if he has spent his career as an ugly duckling - he has too much joie de vivre for that conclusion to be reached - but he has never flourished as predicted. By the time he enrolled at the Academy, where he performed adequately in both his roles, Swann, an off-spinning all-rounder, had already played for England in a single one-day international in South Africa in 2000 and had been 12th man in a Test match (against New Zealand at The Oval in 1999, when he was still only 20). A career of at least 40 Tests looked probable. It will now never happen. A maverick tendency, though hugely likeable to some, has not endeared him to all coaches. First-class averages of 25 with the bat and 33 with the ball also suggest that he may not be quite good enough, though having switched counties in 2005 from Northamptonshire to Nottinghamshire he has years left as a journeyman pro.

The Pioneers: Mark Wallace

When was it, you wonder, that the selectors first showed their egregious approach to nominating wicketkeepers? Perhaps it was when they alighted on Wallace to be the Academy's first gloveman. He was 19 when he grabbed Glamorgan's keeping place in 2001 and, turning 20 that winter, he impressed enough to be Academy captain in four of their 11 matches. He was picked again the next year, but by then Chris Read was back in favour. After that, he was dispatched back to Cardiff, the selectors having seemingly moved on to Read, then Matt Prior and now Steven Davies. Wallace is still only 25, young by any cricketing standards and a wicketkeeping infant. His glovework is solidly unspectacular and his batting (average 27) may be lacking by extravagant modern standards. But it would be unwise to trust the selectors: in naming keepers they are all fingers and thumbs.

Stephen Brenkley

Comments