England's winter of cricketing promise

While the Test team have struggled again, there have - believe it or not - been encouraging signs for English cricket in the last few months The under-19 squad hinted at a bright tomorrow during their recent tour to the West Indies. Tony Cozier repor
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Mike Atherton's frustrated plea for England to give youth a chance found at least one especially sympathetic ear half-way across the world.

David Lloyd, Atherton's fellow Lancastrian, coached England's under-19 team through a month-long tour to the Caribbean, which finished this week. He says: "If anyone asks back home what's wrong with English cricket, the answer at this level is not a lot."

His young England side did their best to prove that in a three-Test series followed by three one-day internationals. They had the West Indies clinging on desperately to a draw in the first Test, lost the second by 34 runs, and drew the third, and then won the one-day series 2-1, rounding things off with a massive 90-run win in the final game in Barbados on Tuesday.

When the age-group teams last met in England two years ago England won the only Test and all three limited-overs matches besides. So can we now expect England's subservience to the West Indies, which stretches back to 1969, to be nearing its end?

"We have the talent, always have, and our Development of Excellence programme, which has been going now for a few years, is identifying and developing the best of it," Lloyd says.

The DOE, as its known, has put England teams in international competition at under-15, -17 and -19 levels, giving the teenagers an early taste of international competition. Although the under-19 Test encounter goes back to the early 1970s when the West Indies came to England, it was on an ad hoc basis until recently.

According to Lloyd, reaping the long-term benefits is "really now up to the counties".

And therein lies the rub, for whereas promising youngsters in the West Indies, Australia, India and elsewhere are guaranteed an early introduction into the first-class game, the current structure of county cricket mitigates against such innovation in England.

Lloyd points out that during his career for Lancashire, one-day cricket and sponsorship were in their infancy. "There wasn't as much pressure on the counties to win as there is now and they were more inclined to put in a young player or two as an investment," he says. "All you got for winning the Championship back then was a flag, but there's a lot of money in it now so the counties are pushed to play their strongest 11."

His point is supported by the examples of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Matthew Dowman. The two left-handers scored double-centuries in the youth series in England in 1993 and while Chanderpaul was in the West Indies Test team six months later, taking four half-centuries off England in his first six innings, Dowman could hardly get a game for Nottinghamshire last season.

At Lloyd's own county, it took Phillip DeFreitas' departure and Wasim Akram's commitments to Pakistan to give Glen Chapple a settled place. Chapple had been an England under-19 fast bowler since he was 16 and he responded to the chance with more than 60 wickets last season to earn selection on the current A team's tour of India.

There is another significant constraint in the preparation of young Englishmen for Test cricket, Lloyd notes. "All of our schools, clubs and leagues play their cricket on an overs basis. Batsmen can't learn to build an innings and make big hundreds, bowlers don't bowl long spells, spinners have a very minor role and captaincy is purely defensive. All of that doesn't add up to the kind of grounding needed for Test cricket.

"When I asked my lads before the first Test here how many had ever played a three-day match, there were only three out of the 16," he says. "In Australia, the West Indies, India and elsewhere the kids are still raised playing proper two-innings cricket over a weekend or even two weekends at school and club level. We've got to try to wean ours back to the longer game."

Lloyd is not against all one-day cricket, because "it pays the rent and has established a place for itself". But he is adamant that it does not produce Test players.

So what about an academy, the game's flavour of the month following the Australian prototype? "It's a good system that works for them but it's more suited to their cricket than ours," Lloyd says. "It's a finishing school that creams off the lite players between the ages of 18 and 22. We're interested in talent as young as 12 and trying to develop it and follow it through."

So who of the crop from the Caribbean trip would Lloyd plump for as Test players of the future?

Marcus Trescothick, the captain who scored two Championship hundreds for Somerset last season at an average of 48, and a century-maker in the first Test in Trinidad, is, according to Lloyd, "a left-handed Gooch in the making". He also lists David Sales, only 17 and a natural striker of the ball, Matthew Dimond, a fast bowler who will get faster and better as he fills out and David Thompson, "a natural athlete", who was indisputably the quickest bowler on either side.

They are names that, should Atherton have his way, could well be in England's senior team sooner rather than later.