New Academy fuels ECB's global ambition

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The Independent Online

No longer can anyone accuse the England and Wales Cricket Board of lacking ambition. Writ large in their mission statement covering the span between the World Cups hosted by Southern Africa and the West Indies is the intention to become the sport's leading nation again by 2007.

"It's a bold statement, is that," Geoff Boycott said when questioned on the subject. Some might have interpreted that as a euphemism for: "Aye, and I'll come back and make another hundred hundreds." Certainly, that ambition - of the domestic game's rulers, not the former England opener - will only be realised if the ceremony he witnessed yesterday proves to be every bit the turning point it is proclaimed to be.

Boycott was among the guests at the official opening by the Queen of the new ECB National Academy at Loughborough University - a £4.5m complex that will draw in the country's best young cricketers each winter under the tutelage of Rodney Marsh.

Hitherto, the great former wicketkeeper-batsman has assembled such English cream in his native Australia. However, the new set-up in this corner of wet and windy Leicestershire, costing £350,000 a year to run, is the best of its kind on the globe. Located in a celebrated seat of academic and sporting learning, its hub is the 70m by 30m hall containing six lanes and enough space for bowlers to pound in off full run-ups and for wicketkeepers to stand back the appropriate distance.

Above each net, Hawkeye does its technological bit and there are cameras side-on to make further studies that are then dissected by Marsh and the likes of John Abrahams and Troy Cooley.

Bowling machines can ping balls down at the same 100mph velocity with which Shoaib Akhtar is said to have rattled Nick Knight's defences in Cape Town last winter. And technical advancement should soon see to it that there is a contraption capable of recreating the dream Shane Warne v Mike Gatting delivery from 10 years ago.

"I don't think I've come to grips yet with how good this all is," Marsh, the Academy director, said. "I'm not sure England has the best cricketers in the world yet, but we know it has the best indoor facilities in the world.

"It's so much better than Adelaide because everything is under one roof. We have an analysis room, seminar room, gym, medical room, recovery room, offices and the main hall in one building."

The ECB chairman, David Morgan, described the complex as central to the aim of making England the world leaders. No pressure there then, Rod.

But the erstwhile critic of English standards added: "You have to aim for No 1. There's no point aiming for second best.

"Australia have been a terrific side for a long while but Steve Waugh, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and possibly Adam Gilchrist are going to need replacing in the next few years. The mantle is going to pass to another country eventually and it's a case of who puts their hands up. Why shouldn't it happen here?

"We've had Jimmy Anderson, Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison through the Academy," continued Marsh, who particularly rates Nottinghamshire's Kevin Pietersen and Matt Prior of Sussex in this year's group. "If we get one player per intake into the England teams, most of the side will have graduated this way in 10 years' time."