Schools the cause for scandal

As England struggle in the World Cup, Tom Chesshyre finds that a talent drought is damaging the nation's grassroots
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Everyone agrees English cricket is in a mess. The national team's poor performances in the World Cup have brought home just how steep the decline has been. Professional commentators - like Derek Pringle in these pages yesterday - are inclined to blame the county structure.

But the reality is that, given the lack of young players coming into the game, there is little by that stage that the counties can do about it. Our problems lie in a crisis at school and junior club level. However keen and athletic a boy may be, the chances of him being able to take up the game in a meaningful way are now often negligible.

Having just returned from South Africa where, despite the odds against them, I met young black players dedicating themselves to cricket with an enthusiasm you would have to go back 40 years to find in this country, an inquiry at grass-roots level confirmed how perilous the foundations of our summer game now are.

"We've never been properly taught the basics of cricket here," said Joseph Hillier, 15, a pupil at Shene School, a comprehensive in the London borough of Richmond, during a break from his GCSE PE class. "We've played just four games against other schools in the last three years."

His class-mate Nick Smith, 14, added: "I'd love to play regularly in a school side, but it's not an option. Football's the main game here. If you don't like it, tough."

The decline of cricket in state education, particularly in cities, is nothing new - John Major, a keen batsman, has recognised the problem and, through the national curriculum, encouraged comprehensives to link up with local clubs. But it has now been going on for so long that - despite Major's rearguard action - many state schools, even in the leafy suburb of Richmond, have developed a culture that almost completely shuts out cricket.

Andy Killick, head of PE at Shene School, said: "Some talented sportsmen and women have come through our school. A lot of them could perhaps have played for county teams. We are in a desperate situation that is bound to have far-reaching consequences, and it will get worse unless there is a reversal of sports policy in state schools."

The problems a school like Shene faces are endemic. It does not have a pitch of its own and has to rent a "cow-field" on a nearby common. This costs pounds 10 a time, and although this sounds inconsiderable, it "adds up" according to Killick. Other costs include the price of petrol to ferry teams to away matches. To combat expenses of this sort, Shene now has combined sides of two years' intake for the few matches played.

Finding coaches among non-PE department staff - at most public schools teachers are bound by contract to help out - is another stumbling block. Since the industrial action of the mid-1980s, many teachers have been reluctant to take part in unpaid extra-curricular activities. This has been particularly so recently, with a burgeoning number of after-school meetings required to administer the national curriculum.

Parent volunteers are increasingly called upon. But this can create its own problems. A father who offered his services as a coach at another outer London comprehensive was dismayed to find that only four boys out of 100 in the year turned up. They were keen but did not begin to understand the rudiments of the game: the difference between the on and the off sides; the distinction between run out and stumped; how to hold a bat or where to put it at the crease; how to bowl with a straight arm.

"With so few showing an interest, it was no go", he said. "What really saddened me was to discover that the head teacher had been a very good and enthusiastic player. Yet he presided over a school that was denying its pupils even the chance to discover how the game is played."

There is growing frustration among grassroots instructors. Tim Bayne, head coach at the Surrey Cricket Centre, a training clinic in Wandsworth, said: "Everyone seems to be running away from the problems and pretending they're not there. The deterioration in state- school cricket has been stunning over the last 20 years. Fewer and fewer comprehensive school kids are coming through. We've got to face the fact that England's supply of talented youngsters is running dry. We can't rely on the likes of Robin Smith and Graeme Hick to come from abroad any more; they'll want to play for South Africa or Zimbabwe or whatever."

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Cricket at a dwindling few state schools is flourishing. Despite suffering many of Shene's problems - no pitch, having to rely on extra work from non-PE members of staff - Isleworth and Syon Comprehensive School regularly wins the Middlesex County Cup. Its best achievement was to make the quarter-finals of the national schools cup, narrowly losing to Eton. Owais Shah, 16, a batsman who is currently touring with England's Under-19 side in Zimbabwe, is a recent GCSE-graduate. He has already played in three Sunday league matches for Middlesex's first team, on one occasion top-scoring.

What is the secret? "The PE staff are keen and qualified," Barry Goldsby, head of PE, said. "Non-PE staff help out and the senior teachers are 100 per cent behind us, letting us take kids off to play matches when needs be during the week. It has taken years to build up the tradition we now have."

Isleworth and Syon have developed a reputation that has led to invitations to take on public schools, with the chance to play on well-prepared pitches against competitive, specialist-coached opposition. No matter how good the nearby state school side, however, some public schools simply play among themselves. Peter King, who runs the second team at St Paul's, an independent school in west London, said: 'We don't play comprehensives. We have our own fixture list against other independent schools and have little spare time for other matches."

Outside the cities, state school cricket has traditionally fared better. This is particularly true at the moment in Cornwall, where the county's cricket association has just sent 28 of its best, mainly comprehensive- school, players on a two-and-a-half week tour of Cape Town and Johannesburg. The trip is costing pounds 39,000, which has been raised through a donation from the Foundation for Sport and the Arts and various private fund-raising activities.

Malcolm Broad, secretary of Cornwall Schools' Cricket Association, explained: "Being a peninsula there is more of a community spirit than I've found you get in cities. We've all rallied together, the parents and the teachers, to help arrange this trip. We hope to make it annual."

Can the likes of Shene School ever catch up, or will cricket continue to decay? "Most kids now have little interest in cricket because older brothers and sisters didn't play. The tradition has gone," Killick said. "The longer it goes on the worse it gets. As far as Mr Major's prescription of schools linking up with clubs, in my experience I have found kids try out for club sides, but they don't feel happy and confident in the middle-class surroundings of a club. They don't know the etiquette or the right clothes to wear. Club coaches are mainly part-time so they cannot normally make it for after-school sessions at three o'clock."

For the time being it looks as through little will change. Nick Smith - who is annoyed that many of his class-mates at Shene consider cricket "posh" - said: "It's such a waste. Many pupils with Mike Atherton's talent might have come through our school and never been discovered: who knows?