Students use grants to take gradual steps

Loughborough UCCE 237 - Sussex 15-0

Start of the cricket season: university players get their chance to play first-class cricket. County batsmen fill their boots and bowlers aim for a five-for; few undergraduate cricketers actually graduate to county cricket, though they are able to boast to their children that their names once appeared in Wisden.

Start of the cricket season: university players get their chance to play first-class cricket. County batsmen fill their boots and bowlers aim for a five-for; few undergraduate cricketers actually graduate to county cricket, though they are able to boast to their children that their names once appeared in Wisden.

But this nursery for promising young sprigs has produced two of England's last four captains, Mike Atherton of Cambridge and Nasser Hussain of Durham. Andrew Strauss is a Durham graduate. Yet only last summer this piece of the fabric of English cricket was in danger of extinction. The England and Wales Cricket Board, who had injected some £350,000 a year into University Centres of Cricketing Excellence, decided that they had more pressing priorities. In the nick of time, in the autumn of 2004, MCC stepped into the breach and, as evidence of their commitment, increased their handout to six universities from £50,000 to £65,000 a year.

"It's absolutely brilliant," says Guy Jackson, Loughborough's director of cricket: "Without that money we might well not have been here next year." Without it, university cricket would have been terminally underfunded, and the tiny band who turn up to watch these games would have had a less colourful start to the season. Yesterday at Hove we had blue sky with patchy clouds, and grass so green and cold that the groundsheets were frozen to the square when the groundsman arrived first thing.

The cricket was in more muted shades as Loughborough sought to justify their presence. They made a decent fist of it. Against an experienced attack - the opening pair were James Kirtley and Jason Lewry - the first three wickets put on 142, mostly ground out but enlivened by brief flurries of boundaries from Richard Wilkinson, Richard Clinton of Surrey and Nottinghamshire's Vikram Atri.

MCC guaranteed £400,000 a year for three years to six teams that will be known as MCC Universities, and whose kit will bear MCC's egg and tomato colours. Loughborough are joined on the payroll by Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Leeds and Cardiff, though as UCCEs they also draw from neighbouring universities such as Brookes in Oxford. Each of them has a mentor from MCC.

"It's one of the biggest initiatives we've undertaken in recent years," says John Stephenson, the MCC head of cricket. "It fits in neatly with our development programme, but I really want to make sure we get involved. I don't want to sit back and say, here's the money, get on with it."

Three years or so ago, MCC decided it ought to dig deeper into its collective pocket to sustain programmes dedicated to improving the quality of young cricketers, which helps to explain why MCC's grant is some 30 per cent more generous than the ECB's.

The extra money means more secure employment for coaches such as Graham Dilley, who was keeping an eye on his students here and was chuffed by a gutsy performance from the top order against a Sussex side that was not far from full strength.

The run-rate was modest but Clinton showed why Surrey regard him highly, taking full advantage of anything short from the pace bowlers and driving the spinners hard and straight. The top scorer was Atri, in his fourth and last year at Loughborough. Short of stature and good off his legs, he made 67. After him there was a bit of a deluge, with four wickets falling for 18 runs, but the tail wagged. None of the bowlers managed a five-for, and MCC can feel they got their money's worth.

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