The Marsh mantra: it's all up to you

England expectations: Academy puts the accent on individual responsibility not classroom rules
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The Independent Online

Students walk bent under umbrellas, and the rain drives across the National Academy's cricket ground. This is Loughborough University on an unforgiving late autumn day. But rain can't stop play inside the England and Wales Cricket Board's smart, new Academy building; the words to describe the internal climate are warmth, energy, and commitment. And the prevailing accent? It's less East Midlands, more Australia.

Students walk bent under umbrellas, and the rain drives across the National Academy's cricket ground. This is Loughborough University on an unforgiving late autumn day. But rain can't stop play inside the England and Wales Cricket Board's smart, new Academy building; the words to describe the internal climate are warmth, energy, and commitment. And the prevailing accent? It's less East Midlands, more Australia.

Rod Marsh, the director who was recruited three years ago by the ECB from the Australian Academy, has hired an Australian fielding coach to join Troy Cooley, the bowling coach from Tasmania. Neil Young's accent is actually American; he was bred in baseball, but he speaks the same language as Marsh. They all tell players that the most important advice they can give is about taking responsibility for themselves.

Chatting in Loughborough, you soon hear the student-cricketers replaying the message they have learnt. Ian Bell, 22, says: "The Australians teach you that you're your own coach. You speak to people, but in the end it's up to you."

Rikki Clarke, the combustible Surrey all-rounder, lost his place in the England squad last season and that hurt. "I wanted to get back in the England squad so badly I never went out and played like Rikki Clarke," he says. "From now on I'm going to do what Rikki Clarke does."

Kevin Pietersen, the wild card in England's future, fled South Africa in 2000 intent on getting into the Test team. He arrived in late winter wearing shorts and flip-flops, and was left to fend for himself in a rough area of Nottingham. Pietersen takes stick in the middle and has still to win the affection of England fans, but he survived. Marsh is an ardent ally. "He wants to play Test cricket and he's already made enormous sacrifices," he says, and since he is also an England selector, that counts.

The 12 full-time Academy students and seven young part-timers are subject to a significant variation in the regime this year. The full-timers are older, more mature - Owais Shah is 26 this week - and their weekly schedules contain 11 blank hours in which they must decide how best to spend their time. Marsh says they can, if they wish, choose to spend 11 more hours in bed, though idleness is a form of self-expression that gets no marks from him.

The meaning of the Australian accent is cultural. Like most forms of teaching, cricket coaching in England tends to be prescriptive and hierarchical: you do what you're told by your elders and betters. Marsh's regime encourages promising players to learn their own thing and how to do it. The emphasis is on responsibility, and those who can respond may end up competing with established players for a role in the Test team.

Pietersen is the exotic at Loughborough. Like most of the students, his hair is streaked and spikey. He is tall and speaks with only a faint South African accent. He has a cocktail of motives in playing for England. He believed he was a victim of post-apartheid reverse discrimination. His mother was born in Canterbury, and he cared only about being a Test cricketer.

Playing for KwaZulu-Natal against England when he was 19, Pietersen asked Nasser Hussain for advice about playing in England. When he was left out once too often by Natal, in favour of a black player, the former South African all-rounder and Nottinghamshire coach Clive Rice checked out the passport and then offered Pietersen a job at the county.

In conversation, he is indiscreet and unafraid; you could say cocky. In county cricket, he was like his hair - spikey. "I bumped my head along the way. Trying to be too independent, too strong. I've been called every name under the sun in the middle. I think it's built my character."

To find out more about his character, the selectors picked Pietersen for the Academy last year: "It matured me, sorted me out," he says. No qualms about playing in Zimbabwe - he would play in Outer Mongolia, if selected - and no regrets that he was not chosen for the ODIs in South Africa in February. Self-belief is what Marsh is looking for, and Pietersen's got it. No question.

Unlike Bell, who was tipped for England three years ago aged 19 and found the expectation a burden. John Inverarity, his Australian coach at Warwickshire, was an influence; told him he must play more side-on off the front foot. But the main thing he did was to force Bell to organise his own life in Perth last winter, taking responsibility for himself, and growing up. Quite how it infused his cricket, he is not sure, but Bell suddenly felt the pressure he had felt for three seasons disappear at Horsham last summer when he batted all day and scored 262 not out. His encouraging England debut followed.

Clarke admits that he plays less well when he behaves badly. His problem has not been an absence of passion, but too much of it. He first declared a determination to play for England at seven. "I love my cricket," he says. It has still to learn to love him. At Loughborough, there is hope.

Marsh's objective is to produce players who will not be dominated and intimidated by his fellow countrymen. His aspiration is clear: "To produce a team of Michael Vaughan and 10 guys who want to win the Ashes, rather than five who do, and five who couldn't give a rat's." Good on ya, mate.

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