Desire the key

Derek Pringle recalls the pivotal moments of his cricket education
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AS carefully bred underdogs we've always had plenty of excuses for losing at cricket. Broadly speaking, the West Indies beat us because they are more motivated, using the game to escape deprivation; Australia, because they are more competitive and have better facilities.

Not any longer. Millions of pounds are to be pumped annually into improving sport at all levels, particularly in schools, as John Major sets about removing the crutches upon which we have traditionally relied to explain away our mediocrity.

More sporting choice for more people can only be a good thing, though I do have misgivings about a British Academy of Sport, particularly if an elite is gathered before reaching their late teens. What Britain needs is well-rounded (not in the physical sense) sportsmen and women of character, not automatons and clones that operate in a vacuum of self-absorption.

My own experience of getting to the top (if 30 Test matches can be said to reach that height) was varied and perhaps unconventional, though not dissimilar to that of some ex-team-matesbrought to account by Robert Henderson's repugnant article in Wisden Monthly. Born and brought up in Kenya, I eventually went to boarding school in Essex at the age of 15, so mygrounding in cricket came mainly from my father, who represented East Africa in the 1975 World Cup, and was played largely on matting pitches.

It was only when I arrived at Felsted school, in Essex, that I specialised in cricket; my other favourite sports, tennis and golf, simply couldn't be fitted in. Facilities were excellent, but more crucial was the presence of a first-class coach Gordon Barker, whose old Essex connections meant that he tipped the county off about players like Nick Knight and John Stephenson, whose talent he had lovingly nurtured.

This contrasted sharply with the experience of those in most grammar schools and comprehensives. Two of my cousins, who went to Ashford Grammar, near Staines, recall cricket being played solely by fifth and sixth formers, their season taking in two or three "friendlies", as the school's huge playing fields remained largely unused by organised sport. Glenn Chapple, Lancashire's fast bowler, only played twice for his school, before turning to his local club to continue his cricket education.

Playing against bigger and better opposition is probably the only way to improve rapidly in sport. Which is why Michael Atherton, John Crawley and I would all acknowledge that playing against county sides at Cambridge was crucial to our development as players, by forcing responsibility upon you, as a challenge rather than a routine.

Jason Gallian, who went to Oxford before joining Lancashire, also attended the Australian Cricket Academy, though he felt he actually learnt more by playing for his university and Lancashire seconds. "What you got there was a group of talented young players all the same age, being taught by coaches who have retired, before being fed into State squads," Gallian said. "However, I believe the new coach Rod Marsh is achieving better things."

What we really lack as a sporting nation is consistency and desire, not a pounds 100m facility.