Grassroots give hope for future

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The Independent Online
Every gardener knows that a plant cannot flourish without healthy roots. Cricket's roots are the game as played in schools and the junior club sides, where most players take their first steps. It is an area in which, more than once, English cricket has been accused of neglect. As debate continues on the latest crisis at the top, is such a charge still valid?

Few would deny that cricket in state schools is in serious decline, nor contradict the view that talent nurtured in education's private sector is too often lost to the professional game once career choices loom.

But the notion that young English players are technically backward and poorly schooled is contested, and not just by those who would be blamed for any shortcomings. More surprisingly, perhaps, there is a view from within the county game, from those most likely to be critical, that professional cricket is still welcoming high quality recruits.

On the face of it, the structure of cricket at schools and youth level appears confused, with responsibilities shared between the National Cricket Association, the English Schools' Cricket Association, the league clubs and the counties. It is one reason why there has been support for the umbrella of an English Cricket Board.

These interest groups sometimes pull in different directions. But since they were linked under a national development of excellence programme, the fruits of their labours have been pooled to such good effect that Young England sides up to under-19 level are a match for any in the world. This summer, countries competing for in the inaugural Lombard World Challenge, an under-15 world cup, will envy this country's productive grassroots.

"On the whole, cricket at youth and schools level is very healthy," Mike Dunn, one of the NCA's regional development officers, said. "It is not perfect, but we have a much better system than we once did.

"Over the last three or four years there has been an explosion of cricket. Previously the secondary schools and ESCA were the first points of contact for young players but the clubs have brought their influence to the fore, running junior sections even down to under-nine level.''

This has come about despite the huge erosion in cricket played in state schools, although the game at that level appears not to be facing extinction yet, bleak as the picture may be. Dunn said: "Much of the early talent is public school or prep school based, but I know that in my area, Hertfordshire, there are a lot of state schools playing, and a lot of teachers willingly giving their time."

"If there are areas to be improved, one is the quality of coaching. There is an abundance of coaching and many dedicated, enthusiastic people, in state schools as well as elsewhere. But it is not always good coaching.''

It is an opinion with which the Nottinghamshire and former Lancashire coach, Alan Ormrod, would broadly concur, although he has concerns over the development of young bowlers.

"The product on the batting side is excellent," he said. "But I feel we have to relook at the way we coach young bowlers. If we could get the coaching right at under-16 level, bowlers coming into the game would have more idea about getting batsmen out and it might just eliminate a lot of injuries.

"Bowling is the hardest part of the game to coach and it depends on the quality of people involved. I would like to see more county bowlers, especially those who have had to work at their game, working with clubs to pass on their experience.

"The flow of players from state schools is not as it was in the past but the clubs have taken over the mantle of trying to bring on young players and if we can get more county players involved, the clubs can become more professional in their approach.''

If the English game's nursery is, essentially, functioning well, the matter of why it appears not to breed winning Test teams remains an unanswered question.

Ormrod's belief is that technique is not the problem. "If you want to be nit-picking about technique, you could look at players from all countries and find flaws in the way they play," Ormrod said. "I'm inclined to think it is an attitude problem. Players want to be successful as individuals but maybe they are not determined enough, in the team sense, to win matches.''