The grim picture so often painted in stories of inadequate facilities and hard-pressed teachers unwilling to give of their time is not the one which Lake, general secretary of the English Schools Cricket Association, tends to see. "I feel upset for all the teachers who work so hard to keep cricket going when they see headlines that say it is the schools who are letting the game down," he said. "They must wonder why they bother. There are a lot of good people putting in a lot of hard work for the benefit of cricket in this country. People who say there is nothing going on do not know what they are talking about."
As the key administrator in a well established youth development programme he is well placed to judge whether there is a crisis at the grassroots. And it is his conviction that no such crisis exists. Even taking into account the disappearance of the grammar schools, traditional breeding ground for young cricketers, he believes the breadth of opportunity has never been wider.
Evidence of that can be witnessed at the National Sports Centre at Lilleshall this week in a gathering of 25 of the most talented young players in the country, who are beginning 16 months of preparation for a unique opportunity. Their aim is to be selected for the first Under-15 World Cup, a competition organised by the ESCA which will take place in England next summer. Funded by a substantial sponsorship, the Lombard World Challenge has attracted entries from eight of the nine Test-playing nations, plus the Netherlands. Provided they can find financial backing, New Zealand will also take part.
The 10 participants will form two groups of five, from which two will progress to the semi-finals with the final at Lord's on 20 August, broadcast live by Sky. The semi-finals, probably at Headingley and Trent Bridge, are also likely to be televised live. All matches will be 55 overs per side.
"For the boys who take part it will be tremendous," Lake said. "The idea of a lad walking down the steps at Lord's for a Cup final - it is king for a day stuff, really. And it will provide our youngsters with quality competition against youngsters from other countries. They will be subjected to all the pressures they will have to learn to cope with if they are going to be top cricketers."
As such, it will be a target each of the Under-14s assembled at Lilleshall will aim for, although much of the preparatory work will be no different from that which they would have undergone in any event, under the TCCB's development of excellence programme, which the ESCA runs.
"What is happening here would be going on anyway as part of TCCB activities," Lake said. "The boys here have come through the county schools and ESCA regional courses, which finished in January, and been nominated by the North, West, South and Midlands areas."
Three and a half days of structured coaching, supervised by the ESCA national coach, Gordon Lord, the former Worcestershire and Warwickshire batsman, marks the start of a series of squad sessions and festival appearances, culminating in the selection next summer of 14 players for the World Challenge.
"The Lombard Challenge is special in that after they have been part of this development of excellence scheme, we are giving them excellent opposition, something to aim for," Lake said. "But there is a great deal going on here to help the development of young cricketers and while we are not complacent, I think we have a good system.
"Having entered the World Challenge, other countries are putting in a structure to select their sides, like the West Indians, like the Australians. They are looking at how we do it. And if there are parts of their systems which would help us, then use them, but let's not decry what we've got. We have some very good cricketers in this country and over the next few years we will see the benefits of continuity in development, of quality people working with quality players."
Among them, perhaps, 14-year-old John Francis, an all-rounder from Southampton hoping he might get the chance to walk in the footsteps of a few legends at Lord's next summer. "I think what is happening is really good," he said. "They help you without putting you under pressure. They coach and teach without making it a trial. You get a lot of encouragement.
"The opportunity is there for people who want to play cricket in this country but you have to have a positive attitude. You have to work hard with the coaches and listen to what they say."
And, contrary to the impression sometimes created by gloomier analyses of the state of the game, persuading youngsters to play is less difficult than seeing that they do not play too much, according to Lord. "One of the big problems at this age is over-use injuries, particularly among the bowlers," he said.
"It is only natural that if a young bowler is winning matches for his team he is going to be asked to bowl a lot, but too much can be very damaging at this age. We recommend a maximum of 25 overs per week at under-15 level and no more than 12 in one day, and we will be trying very hard with these players to get that message across."Reuse content