Down the corridor from the Ugandan Community Relief Association, London's cricket college can return to business of producing players

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The Independent Online
There has been a lot of talk this summer about the need for an English cricket academy built along smart Australian lines. John Major went so far as to pledge millions of pounds to the cause, and poor Iain Sproat, the Minister of Sport, was sent on an exhausting and no doubt inconvenient business trip to Australia to inspect the magic formula that turned out Shane Warne and Michael Slater. He need not have bothered.

He could simply have caught the bus to Haringey and visited the London Cricket College, which for the last 10 years has, with very little help from the game's establishment, turned itself into a refreshing cricketing force. The College was set up in 1984 as a scheme to help unemployed Londoners. It runs two-year courses which include both vocational training and a high-class fixture list against county second XIs and universities.

Several graduates have gone on to play county cricket. It is both a high- minded social scheme - to help mainly black and Asian inner city boys - and an attractive blueprint for the future of cricket. But it has been a constant struggle to keep afloat, and in recent weeks the ship looked like sinking.

The College has always been strapped for cash - it does not even have a pitch - and for years the team bus was a knackered old ambulance. And this year the delicate balance of grants - Sports Council, European Social Fund and Lord's Taverners, with guarantees from Haringey Council - seemed sure to collapse. The College was given to understand that TCCB support - on which all the other financial pledges hung - would be forthcoming by June.

By August, when nothing had happened, the College prepared itself to be wound up. Its director, Reg Scarlett, suspended operations. Just when talk of an English Cricket Academy was reaching its peak it looked as though our only school of excellence would have to shut.

But this week the college was given a reprieve. After a burst of last- minute ear-bending, and some sympathetic noises in the media, the TCCB gave in.

All along, it seemed, it had been alarmed by the prospect of setting a precedent, even when the precedent was so clearly a good one. It was not keen to formally recognise ventures that had no county affiliation. But on Thursday Scarlett received a letter from the TCCB which included two cheques. He is far too tactful and grateful to mention the sum, which was hardly princely - a laughable fraction of the pounds 60,000 mentioned in some quarters. But getting the TCCB endorsement was the key. The London Cricket College is back in business.

And a very good business it is, too. One of its graduates, Keith Piper, will appear at Lord's today in the NatWest final. Scarlett remembers him fondly. "He's the best natural keeper I've ever seen," he recalls. "I used to throw balls into the corner of the room and get him to catch them on rebound, to sharpen his reflexes. Or we had another student with an arm like an M-16 rifle. Made him cry sometimes."

It might be that the London Cricket College is not quite what springs to mind when the government, or the game's bigwigs, speak of a centre of excellence. Housed in a shambling civic complex off White Hart Lane in Tottenham, it occupies just one room on the second floor, above the Kurdish centre, just down the corridor from the Ugandan Community Relief Association and the Pragati Asian Women's Association. You can hear grunts from the Wood Green Weightlifting Club in the basement.

It's not exactly St John's Wood but Scarlett was in a buoyant mood yesterday. He blinks a lot when he recalls the day (4 August) when he sat the students down and told them the game was up. "I could hear the groans of despair. One lad was so upset he didn't even come. They knew what I was going to say. It was awful."

That's in the past now. The college can revive its plans to develop a ground in Waltham Forest. Maybe it will even be able to afford a bowling machine. So when Scarlett took a call from a student who had just passed his maths exam (all the students do City and Guilds maths and English - er, sorry, numeracy and communications skills) he could afford to be upbeat. "What's all this about passing exams," he said. "Have you been cheating on me?" He smiled, then got down to business. "Anyway, how's your arm. Can you bowl on Tuesday." Roll on next season.

l Jim White is on holiday