Stewart's backward glance to the future

Michael Austin asks what is being done at age-group level to nurture and encourage England's young cricketing talent
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The Independent Online
The antidote to the virulent decline of England at Test level lies in the tender hands of the Under-19s to Under-13s being identified and nurtured by the National Cricket Association's Development of Excellence scheme. Micky Stewart, their director of coaching and former England team manager, is sure of it.

Why do overseas players develop earlier? Stewart's answer is simple: "Compare the grass roots structure of England with the southern hemisphere," he said. "We are introduced to the traditional English game as part of 'social-life weekends' for thousands of people. In the southern hemisphere, there are not the facilities so players need some ability even to get a game.

"Over here, I can find anyone, even without an ounce of talent, a game of cricket every day of the week from 1 May to 15 September. Players are brought into a non-competitive situation and, as a result, an 18-year- old English player is equivalent to a 14-year-old Australian in experience. We need to quicken their progress to narrow the gap."

While England, with six former Under-19s players, were tumbling to a 2-0 series defeat by Pakistan at The Oval, the Under-19s themselves were held to a draw at Hove by New Zealand, who won the series, 1-0. Since 1974, a total of 50 former England Under-19s have advanced to either full Test or international level, and Stewart, together with Graham Saville, the age-group manager for the past 53 Tests, wants to increase the output.

With this in mind, Stewart has created an Under-13 squad. "We are in the third year of having a 24-strong group who do not play matches but join together for two sessions, each of four days. They get to know us and we teach them good cricket habits. Some of the initial squad played in the recent Under-15 World Challenge, so it is working."

Whenever Stewart starts a session at Lilleshall, no matter the age range, he asks: "Who wants to play first-class county cricket?" There is invariably a 99 per cent positive response. Stewart chooses the teams, with assistance from Saville, Gordon Lord, the former Warwickshire and Worcestershire batsman, who looks after the Under-15s, and John Abrahams, the former Lancashire captain, now manager-coach of the Under-17s.

To foster continuity, selection is based on five or six players in the Under-19 squad and four or five of the team being available for the following year as well. To the managerial panel's delight, more players have recently broken into or become established in county teams at an earlier age.

The vexed question of county or country still prompted a sharp response from Stewart. "Either we are going to do this properly at Under-19 level or not at all. The New Zealand series gave our team an introduction into the way southern hemisphere countries play, which is quite different from ours."

Saville asserted: "If our team miss two or three county games to play for us, hopefully in a 15-year career it will have been worth it. If, in four or five years, they play for England against New Zealand, they will know some of the opposition and it won't be a shock what to expect."

Stewart continued: "They have the responsibility of representing their country at this age and have to produce results. They are not batting or bowling behind established former Test players for their counties, and that's another beneficial experience. They have to learn to win. Those playing for us have signed some sort of contract, and immediately they have done that they have 'signed to win'. Not just to have a game, but to win matches, which comes as a surprise to some of them."

As a member of the Acfield working party, Stewart was eager to re-establish the England Committee. "I wanted a small number of people to be responsible for all England cricket, which includes this level, and not to have decisions made by those who were not too close to it. I am pleased that it has been done, together with an input from there to age-group cricket."

The Test at Hove was England's 75th at Under-19 level against eight different countries. They have won 14, drawn 41 and lost 20, a record which has improved significantly, with eight of those wins in the past 29 games and only five lost. In one-day internationals, they have 24 victories in 52 matches.

Next winter they will tour Pakistan, and visits to South Africa the following year for the World Cup, New Zealand in 1998-99 and Australia in 1999-2000 are already written into the fixtures strata, with annual series in England organised up to and including the visits of India in 2002.

There is no shortfall in planning, especially with the new financial assistance of NatWest, and no lack of pride in players produced during the quarter of a century since a "Young West Indies" touring side came to the United Kingdom. The first full series of international matches in the age group began in 1974, and so the evolution has gone on.

Use of first-class grounds for matches, with stumps pitched somewhere near the middle of the square, not the edge, together with the introduction of first-class umpires, special kit and winter-training programmes, have all been part of the grand design.

John Crawley and Nick Knight, two of England's three century-makers in the recent Pakistan series, are Under-19 products, and others have excelled in the past month or so, adding to the catalogue.

Mathew Dowman, the Under-19s record-scorer with 267 against West Indies at Hove three years ago, made a maiden Championship hundred for Nottinghamshire last week, Ben Smith has excelled for Leicestershire, along with Philip Weston for Gloucestershire and Matthew Walker with a double hundred for Kent.

Saville's regret about the New Zealand series was the unavailability through injury of key bowlers. Alex Tudor, Paul Hutchinson, Andrew Flintoff and Gareth Edwards were all absent but the exercise was as meaningful as ever, with Ben Hollioake, of Surrey, the all-rounder of most potential.

For some of this side, it will be England A next stop. David Sales, the 18-year-old Northamptonshire batsman, with a double Championship hundred against Worcestershire, has already served notice of his intent.

UNDER-19 ACADEMY GRADUATES

Fifty England Under-19 players have gone on to represent England in Test matches or one-day internationals. They are:

J Agnew, P Allott, M Atherton, W Athey, R Bailey, K Barnett, M Bicknell, R Blakey, S Brown, D Capel, N Cook, D Cork, N Cowans, C Cowdrey, J Crawley, P DeFreitas, G Dilley, P Downton, R Ellison, N Fairbrother, N Foster, B French, M Gatting, D Gough, I Gould, D Gower, N Hussain, R Illingworth, M Ilott, R Irani, P Jarvis, N Knight, M Lathwell, D Lawrence, N Mallender, V Marks, H Morris, J Morris, A Pygott, M Ramprakash, S Rhodes, J Richards, J Russell, I Salisbury, G Stevenson, P Such, C Tavare, P Terry, P Tufnell, A Wells.

England Under-19 record in all Test matches

P W D L

Australia 11 2 5 4

India 9 1 6 2

New Zealand 9 0 5 4

Pakistan 6 2 3 1

South Africa 3 2 1 0

Sri Lanka 12 2 9 1

West Indies 22 3 11 8

Zimbabwe 3 2 1 0

Total 75 14 41 20

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