...meanwhile, back at the Academy

Simon O'Hagan visits the cricket school in Yorkshire which could be a national model
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The Independent Online
AS SNOW lay on the Headingley outfield last week, the Darren Goughs of the future were pounding away in the indoor nets across the road. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the most famous graduate of the Yorkshire Cricket Academy was baski ng in the glory of his Ashes exploits.

For the class of '95, Academy members like 17-year-old Jamie Middlebrook and Paul Hutchison, and 16-year-old Ryan Sidebottom, Gough has become a role model. Why did they think he had done so well? "Enthusiasm," said Jamie as he sat on the balcony overlooking the nets where he had just finished his knock. Paul, 6ft 4in, left arm over, agreed. "A great trier," he said. For Ryan, another 6ft 4in pace bowler and the son of Arnie Sidebottom, once of Yorkshire and England, it was the fact that Gough "always gives 100 per cent".

This is what everyone says about Gough. Indeed, Steve Oldham, Yorkshire's director of coaching, stresses that when Gough was a member of the Academy six years ago, there were others with more talent. "He wasn't really fancied to begin with," Oldham said.

"But he had something about him, a self- belief. I used to say to him, `You'll be pulling up at the ground in your Rolls-Royce one day, while I'm standing in the queue with my flask'."

So what exactly is the Yorkshire Cricket Academy? And do places like it represent the solution to the problems of English cricket?

The Academy was the brainchild of Bob Appleyard, the former Yorkshire and England bowler and leading anti-Geoff Boycott committee member during the 1980s. For Appleyard, a member of the powerful Yorkshire sides of the Fifties, the decline in the county'sfortunes was more than he could bear. "I felt we had the same number of youngsters coming through, but they were not being properly coached," he said. "Something had to be done. I'd heard about the Australian Cricket Academy, and it seemed like a good idea to try to set one up on similar lines here."

With money from the local authority, sponsorship, and a charitable trust set up by the club, Yorkshire established the Academy at Bradford Park Avenue, on the ground the county once played at next to the former Football League team. With 50 outdoor practice pitches, it operates from May to October, provides places for around 20 of the county's best young cricketers, and costs about £90,000 a year to run. The players may or may not still be at school, which means some can attend more often than others. They are paid by the day, at an equivalent rate of between £100 and £160 a week depending on age and ability. But they are quite separate from the professionals who make up the first and second XIs and whose ranks they all aspire to.

What is required of them in return is not just that they work hard playing cricket. An Academy player is an apprentice - rather like a member of the Lord's groundstaff - whose days are as likely to be spent weeding the outfield or cleaning the pavilion as they are in the nets or the weight training room.

As well as Mike Bore, the former Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire all-rounder who runs the Academy, specialist coaches are employed - among them Peter Philpott, the Australian spin coach who helped make Shane Warne what he is, Alan Knott for wicketkeeping, and Arnie Sidebottom. Frank Tyson, over from Australia where he now lives, will be helping with the fast bowling this summer.

Then there is what Oldham calls supplementary training - for example a talk offering financial advice or explaining the role of sponsorship. And once a year the lads are sent to work as stewards at York races. It adds up to an all-round cricket educationof a kind not available at any other county. "The Academy gave Darren two years' playing cricket every day that he wouldn't otherwise have had," Steve Oldham said. "That helped him skill-wise and strength-wise. I think it's been excellent."

Oldham, a former Yorkshire and Derbyshire fast bowler, ran the Academy for the first two years, 1989 and 1990, the era of Gough and four others who have since gone on to play for the Yorkshire first XI - Bradley Parker, Paul Grayson, Stuart Milburn and Colin Chapman. He looks back to those days as a time when "he was stumbling about in the dark". But the Academy has evolved into an integral part of Yorkshire cricket, which in its six seasons has given a chance to more than 50 players of whom 13 have made it into the first XI. Everything is geared towards the ultimate aim of making Yorkshire a force in the county championship again.

Some ex-Academy players, not taken on as professionals, have fetched up at other counties, giving rise to the criticism that Yorkshire are not good judges of players. "We can't keep everybody," Oldham said. "If some of our boys go on and make it elsewhere, then that's fine." And if, as with Gough, the Academy helps unearth a future England star, then that's fine too.

But what isn't fine by Yorkshire is when their good young players are hauled off to play for England junior teams. Last season the loss of Michael Vaughan, an Academy player in 1992, to the England under-19 team particularly upset the county. They could not see how such cricket could benefit a player who was already becoming established in the Yorkshire first XI.

Issues like that get to the heart of the question of how to bring on England's best young cricketers. And beyond that lies the even bigger question: who comes first - county or country? While Yorkshire resolutely do their own thing, the Test and County Cricket Board has seen what the Australian Cricket Academy has done for cricket there and is considering whether to set up a national cricket academy of its own. But that is a development many counties believe would detract from their own efforts to buildsuccessful futures for themselves. Brian Close, the Yorkshire cricket chairman, is adamantly opposed. "You've got 18 professional counties in this country. That's where we should be finding our young cricketers."

Steve Oldham is reluctant to start an argument over Yorkshire's way of doing things. "Let's just say we think our system is the right one for our boys." Mickey Stewart, the former England manager who is now director of coaching at the National Cricket Association, acknowledges what the Academy has achieved. But he knows that the big problem is the fragmentary nature of English cricket, awash as it is with governing bodies whose often conflicting interests can mean good young players slipping through thenet. Hence the likely setting up of an all-embracing English Cricket Board next year.

This being a Yorkshire cricket story, there are other dissenting voices, notably that of Bob Appleyard, who feels that the Academy he was chiefly responsible for founding has not produced the players it should have done. His ideal would be four regional academies. "A national academy would be too unwieldy."

The Yorkshire Cricket Academy may or may not be what English cricket needs, but if nothing else it has helped open up the debate about how to make the most of the country's talent. There seems little doubt which side of the argument young Jamie, Paul andRyan would be on.