Shining eyes mean a bright future

Grass-roots cricket - Trescothick and Jones spread game's gospel - and message gets through
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The Independent Online

Marcus Trescothick stood in front of 40 10-year-old cricketers and waited for questions. The first little lad, extreme right, front row and all sincere concern, piped up: "Can you sign my bat, please?" It was not quite the sort of question Trescothick had in mind, although he gladly obliged.

Marcus Trescothick stood in front of 40 10-year-old cricketers and waited for questions. The first little lad, extreme right, front row and all sincere concern, piped up: "Can you sign my bat, please?" It was not quite the sort of question Trescothick had in mind, although he gladly obliged.

Other queries were much more pertinent and took him slightly by surprise from ones so tender in experience. "Do you get nervous before you go out to bat?" asked one shaver, middle of the back row, and England's prodigious opener admitted that he did and stressed that it was essential to do so.

This was Barnard Castle, the breezily beautiful Co Durham market town, two days before the Second npower Test. It was living proof in an isolated pocket of north-east England that cricket still has a grip on the nation's youth and that despite the doom-mongers it has a chance of being stronger than ever.

Trescothick and his England colleague Simon Jones visited Barney, as it is known to anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the place, as part of the Professional Cricketers' Association community project. The admirable manner in which Trescothick and Jones went about their task was evidence that this is not merely lip service. They arrived as distant heroes for their deeds on the field and after two hours left as something much more human - though more heroic than ever.

PCA in the community dovetails, happily if coincidentally, with Chance to Shine, the hugely ambitious £50 million project launched by the Cricket Foundation to revive cricket in state schools. Barnard Castle Cricket Club was chosen to receive the England players - two will appear at a club near each of the Test venues this summer - because of the work it has already done in promoting the game among the young. It was the club's biggest day since Geoff Boycott rocked up to a Yorkshire benefit match in the town 25 years ago.

It should also benefit from some of the cash the Cricket Foundation is making available because it is already working in all 12 primary schools in Teesdale of which Barney is the centre and the focus. Make no mistake, without the clubs Chance to Shine has no chance of shining and to their credit the project's organisers recognise that.

Until five years ago, Barnard Castle Cricket Club was a friendly, small town club with two teams and some decent club cricketers, some indifferent ones and never enough of either. The story is repeated the length and breadth of the country. For many years, this reporter was privileged to represent them and while there might thus be a vested interest, the story is breathtaking.

It was a case of the right group of people coming together at the right time. John Walker, the club's development officer, was part of the initial group who realised they had to do something to keep cricket alive. The flow of cricketers from Barnard Castle School, the local independent which is concentrating on turning out rugby players, was drying up; the state schools played the game no longer.

Walker got a coaching qualification and they sent out a letter to the area's schools explaining that the club were starting coaching sessions and pupils were welcome. "We expected maybe a dozen or so and I rounded the corner on that first night and there were 80 children, boys and girls from eight upwards," he said. "I almost got back in the car."

He didn't and the club now have 14 qualified coaches and 140 registered junior cricketers, of whom 80 were present to receive tuition from England's finest on Wednesday. They also still have their 1832 dressing rooms (sans electricity and showers) but the impetus of having so many players is allowing them to address that imminently.

Their problem is finding enough cricket to satisfy everyone. They are the pride and joy - though not exclusively - of Nick Brown, Durham's cricket development officer. "They meet all five of our criteria to be a focus club, they have made cricket part of the community," he said. Brown also emphasises the role of girl cricketers in all this, and do not rule out a 25-year-old leg-spinning female retaining the Ashes for England in 2029.

The club will be one of the first 100 focus clubs in the Chance to Shine project year. The Cricket Foundation aims to rejuvenate, nay reintroduce, in many cases, cricket in a third of state schools, some 6,700, by 2015. It knows that it has to rejuvenate teachers as well but is heartened by the overwhelming response.

In Wasim Khan, the project's operations director, they have a man of energetic vision. "There is the feeling for cricket out there and part of our job will be ensuring that we can deliver enough coaches and that there are people there to coach the coaches." In Mervyn King, the president who is also Governor of the Bank of England, they have a down-to-earth romantic.

King has talked of cricket providing role models in a way no other sport could. It put in mind slightly the left-field dream of Mike Soper, the vice chairman of the ECB, who a few years back said he wanted cricket to take football's place among the public.

Trescothick said: "This isn't about producing England cricketers though I've seen a 10-year-old leg spinner over there who looked useful. It's like that. But the whole idea is to preserve cricket's future and if I can do a bit of that, well, frankly I'm delighted."

"Cricket's not a dying sport," said Jones, "but it needs a little bit of loving care. Football was always my number one sport but one of my earliest sporting successes was reaching the Wrigleys soft ball final at Edgbaston with my Welsh primary. You never forget that kind of thing."

If it can be done in Barnard Castle, it can be done elsewhere. The future, ignoring this year's Ashes, really does look bonny, and boys and girls can be willingly snatched from football's embrace for a few months every year. As for Tresco, he was glad to survive his interrogation and fall into the gentler hands of the reporters present.