AS BRUCE FRENCH looked out on Trent Bridge one morning early last summer he said: "There is undoubtedly something special about him, the way he moves and anticipates and how he takes the ball. It's the old thing about it melting into his gloves." French was observing the 20-year-old wicketkeeper and (all being well) batsman, Chris Read, and his were words from the wise. If English cricket has been searching for anybody longer than the new Ian Botham it is the new Alan Knott. Pointless quests but perfectly in keeping with human nature. French, a silky, deft keeper who was probably the most accomplished of his generation, was once himself billed as the new Knott (Paul Downton and Jack Richards were others) and fell narrowly short. In Read the selectors have a new but polished model. He went unexpectedly, but rightly, on an A tour last winter and is going to southern Africa this time. It may be an odious comparison but Read, so to speak, stands up to it. Knott was 18 when he appeared for Kent in 1964 but truly announced himself the following season with 84 victims and a maiden fifty. He played for England against Pakistan in 1967. Read began his Nottinghamshire career with a duck but he went on to score 451 runs (in a weak side with two fifties) at 25.06 and in 13 matches had 41 victims. He is not the finished article - the A tour may tell more - but England should blood him this summer and then look onwards.
GOLF IS lucky in that there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to young talent. Great Britain and Ireland won the world amateur team championship in Chile where Luke Donald, who is on a scholarship at an American university, took third place in the individual tournament. But they were only keeping up with the England boys team, who won their own world championship in Japan in June. David Griffiths, Adam Frayne, Nick Dougherty and Jamie Elson also helped England to a clean sweep in the Home Internationals, but it was one of their team-mates who took the year's biggest honour. With eight rounds over the Newmachar course in Aberdeen when he never once scored worse than a bogey, Andrew Smith first came through the European qualifier and then won the world junior championship by two strokes from Colombia's Camilo Villegas. The 17-year-old, from the Enville club in Stourbridge, was also a member of the Staffordshire team who took the Midlands Youth title. After opening with three rounds of 74, Smith drew level with Villegas by going to the turn in 31 on the final day and then birdied two of the last five holes in a closing 70. Smith, who will move up into the full amateur ranks this season, received the Doug Sanders Trophy from the American former Open runner-up himself. However, Smith may soon be chased along by Banbury's 11-year-old Gary Boyd, who won, off a handicap of 13, the English Golf Union's Gold Medal in an event at Woodhall Spa open to all club golfers.
THIS 21-year-old Welshman started the season at 26 in the world snooker rankings but he is now up to ninth on the updated list with just three of this campaign's nine counting events completed. Stevens already seems to have both the technique and temperament needed to become a winner of the game's major prizes. Two semi-finals and a World Championship quarter- final appearance last season showed how quickly he was developing. Reaching the United Kingdom Championship final in November - even though he lost 10-6 to the World Champion, John Higgins - showed that he is not going to be fazed by big occasions. Experience is all that he lacks: taking just the extra couple of seconds to compose himself for the tricky key shot rather than taking it at his natural brisk pace or even hurrying just a shade when he is in a winning position and already thinking of the next round. His cue action is the one he was born with. When his father, Morrell, invited Terry Griffiths to look at his nine- year-old son, the former world champion saw nothing to change. Griffiths has never coached him, but his club in Llanelli provides his practice base and they chat about shot selections and the like from time to time. Cheerful and heavily in love with the game, Stevens is intensely focused with a secure support system which includes his father, a Carmarthen accountant who now travels on the circuit with him, and an increasingly well-regarded management team, Wheels in Motion.
ONE OF the markers when judging the skill of a racehorse trainer is strike rate. No one can win elite prizes without top-class horses but a high winners-to-runners ratio is a sure-fire indication that the handler is not only getting the best out of the ammunition to hand but aiming it precisely and efficiently in the right direction. Chasing's newest star, the King George winner Teeton Mill, may have projected Venetia Williams into the public domain but within the sport it has been apparent since she took out a licence just three years ago that here was a talent out of the ordinary. For since then 27 per cent of the raiders, more than one in four, from her Herefordshire yard have returned in triumph. And that's just about as good as it gets. At the age of 38, Williams might not seem a precocious sporting talent, but she is a refreshing addition to the ranks of a profession whose established old guard does contain some who could be boorish and pompous for Britain. But then surviving a broken neck - in a race-fall 10 years ago - probably keeps life in perspective. She has a thorough, absolutely focused, knowledge of horses and their strengths and limitations as athletes, absorbed during time as assistant to John Edwards and spells at the feet of Martin Pipe, Barry Hills and Colin Hayes, plus the priceless gift of a feeling for them as individuals. Her team strength has rocketed to 70-odd and now that quality, the reward for results, is also along for the ride, her first championship is a matter of when, not if.
SINCE he won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in September, Audley Harrison has been inundated with lucrative offers to turn professional. One agent guaranteed the 6ft 6in, 17st Londoner pounds 100,000 in his first six months as a professional boxer, another promised a pounds 25,000 signing-on fee. As the superheavyweight is a penniless student, living off a minimal grant and deprived of funds by the National Lottery's refusal to fund the Amateur Boxing Association, the temptation to take the money and run is overwhelming. That Harrison has turned down all the offers and set his sights on Olympic gold says a lot about the character and maturity of British boxing's latest prospect. At the age of 26, Harrison is hardly an overnight sensation, but such was his dominance of the heaviest division in the Commonwealth Games, a gold in Sydney - and, as Lennox Lewis can testify, a passport to untold riches - seems within his considerable grasp. A southpaw, blessed with quick hands and an explosive punch, he took just 63 seconds to win gold in Malaysia while four of his five bouts ended in knockouts. Outside the ring, Harrison has formed his own trade union, the Amateur Boxing Union of England (motto: "In the ring we entertain, outside the ring we educate"), and is finishing a BSc in Sports Studies and Leisure Management at Brunel University. But good judges regard Harrison as the best superheavyweight to emerge from England since the division was first created 15 years ago.
THERE IS a sense of anticipation when that rare British species, a top-class sprint cyclist, comes within binocular range. The next two years, from the age of 24, will show whether Jeremy - or Jez as he now prefers - Hunt will take the final step into that exclusive band of bravehearts who jostle, pump and weave their way down the high streets of provincial France each summer. Not since Barry Hoban and Malcolm Elliott has Britain produced a sprinter of Hunt's power and potential. The strapping Devonian can already number Mario Cipollini and Erik Zabel, the world's fastest, among his scalps, but this could be the year he tackles his first Giro d'Italia and stamps his muscular presence on the early season classics. Milan-San Remo, generally a sprinter's race, is well within his compass, if not this year, then into the Millennium. Ten victories in 1997, including two stages of the Tour L'Avenir, put Hunt's name firmly into the spotlight, not least because his Spanish Banesto team, once the domain of Miguel Indurain, are better known for their climbers than their sprinters. Without a team to lead him into the closing stages of a race, Hunt has to rely on his wits and, as he says, a "little luck" to get him in the right position for the final thrust. He will not be displeased to see the back of 1998, a season marred by illness and injury. His contract with Banesto is due for renewal at the end of this season and a return to the form of 1997 would see his currency rise dramatically within the ranks of the peloton.
FROM THE moment he stepped out at Upton Park into the maelstrom of a London derby on the last Saturday in November, the 19-year-old demonstrated a supreme composure, confidence and versatility. Few present could doubt they were witnessing the revelation of a potentially gifted young defender to join such names as Leeds' Jonathon Woodgate, Wes Brown of Manchester United, Aston Villa's Gareth Barry and the home side's Rio Ferdinand, already among the riches in England's defensive reserves. There was a wise head on Luke Young's shoulders, and while that day he was given his chance by George Graham purely because of injury, the manager has kept faith with a youngster who actually prefers right full-back but has successfully made the transition to the centre of defence. If a measure of a teenage debutant's potential is that he can give the illusion of being a seasoned performer when confronted by strikers like John Hartson and Paul Kitson then Young's exhibition was such an introduction. Yet, if that was a daunting enough start for the lad from Harlow, the seven games since have included facing Vialli, Flo and Zola, Sheringham, Cole, Solskjaer, Fowler and Owen. The fact that the England Youth and Under-18 international, who played for England in the Uefa Championships in the summer, has coped with aplomb is at least partly attributable to the proximity of his captain, Sol Campbell. As a model, he couldn't set a better example of what Young can achieve.
THE EXTENT of Christian Malcolm's exceptional sprinting talent can be gauged by comparison with the best of times enjoyed by Allan Wells. At 19, Malcolm is only now making the move from junior to senior competition, yet already the young Welshman is running times comparable to those Wells achieved as a 28-year-old at his peak. The 10.12sec Malcolm clocked when winning the World Junior 100m title in Annecy last summer is a mere 0.01sec slower than Wells's best, recorded in the second round of his successful Olympic campaign in Moscow in 1980. And the 20.29sec Malcolm ran for second place in the Commonwealth Games 200m final in September is only 0.08sec slower than the personal best that earned Wells the silver medal in Moscow. Last year was a vintage one for British speed-merchants, with Darren Campbell and Doug Walker striking 100m and 200m gold at the European Championships and Julian Golding taking the Commonwealth 200m title. But Malcolm showed he has the potential to emerge as the ultimate leader of the post-Linford Christie pack. His silver-medal winning run behind Golding in Kuala Lumpur was remarkable enough for one so young. But it was in Annecy that the Cardiff athlete made his mark on the global stage, emulating Ato Boldon's 1992 feat by winning the World Junior 100m and 200m titles. Having turned down the chance of a football career with Nottingham Forest, a place in the premiership of world sprinting beckons.
THERE WERE no hurdles for Allison Curbishley in 1997, much to her chagrin. Instead of clearing barriers and following in the spikemarks of the retired Sally Gunnell, the richly talented young Teesside athlete was restricted to honing her speed on the flat. She did an impressive job too, lowering her Scottish 400m record to 50.71sec and taking the Commonwealth 400m silver medal behind Sandie Richards of Jamaica. It is as a 400m hurdler, however, that Curbishley is likely to make her most marked impression on the international track scene. Having been a hurdling prodigy as a teenager, the 22-year-old will return to the event with great expectations sitting upon her shoulders this summer. A knee injury, aggravated by hurdling practice, forced her to spend another season concentrating on the 400m last summer. Following key-hole surgery, though, Curbishley is now preparing to re-emerge as a 400m hurdler in 1998. "With the speed I have been showing over the flat, I'm definitely going to give it a go," she said. "I've got a great support system, with Malcolm and Sally." Malcolm is Curbishley's coach Malcolm Arnold, a man who has guided both John Akii- Bua and Colin Jackson to hurdles gold at world level. And Sally is Sally Gunnell, Curbishley's close friend, whose British record of 52.77sec, could soon be living on borrowed time. Gunnell never broke 51sec as a 400m flat runner, one barrier her would-be successor has already cleared.
FUNNY rugby team Sale. John Mitchell, their New Zealand coach, is exasperated by the inability of the pack to compete with the best. Yet when they get the ball, the Manchester club are as dangerous as anybody - not much fuselage but plenty of wings. Mitchell, also the England assistant coach, has found another try scoring flyer in Steve Hanley, who joins David Rees, Matt Moore and Tom Beim. Hanley has made such a big impression in such a short time that Beim, an England tourist, is looking for another club. "Steve has got a great future," Mitchell said. "He's got bags of talent and it's very encouraging for England that players of his ability are coming through." Hanley graduated from Cockermouth Grammar School and the Cumbrian club Aspatria. He is just 19, 6ft 3in and 16st. They say Hanley is faster than anybody in the squad - he certainly seems a fast learner and a natural try scorer. When he toured Argentina with England Colts last summer he scored a try in every match, and did so again in the England Under-21 victory over South Africa last month. Hanley, who was born in Whitehaven and is a converted from a centre, scored a try against Newcastle, two against Gloucester and one in Sale's 17-15 defeat by Harlequins last Sunday. A sponsor has an awards scheme for the Sale players in which the man of the match receives three points and the total is added up at the end of the season. In only six senior appearances Hanley has been awarded three points on three occasions.
ONE OF Leeds rugby league team's most remarkable feats last season - apart from leading Super League for months and reaching the inaugural Grand Final - was holding back the talents of Kevin Sinfield when the temptation to throw him into senior rugby for more than just a couple of appearances must have been strong. Sinfield did not turn 18 until after the campaign was over, so there is plenty of time. The signs are, however, that he cannot be held in reserve much longer. Still working on his A- levels in his native Oldham, Sinfield shows an astonishing maturity as a player. Last season, he led Leeds' all-conquering Academy side and then did the same for Great Britain in their Tests against France. As a ball- handing loose forward or a stand-off with a formidable kicking game, Sinfield already stands out as an old head on young shoulders. His Academy coach at Leeds, Dean Bell, also says that he has the attitude to match. "He would have played in the first team more, but he was only 17 and we were winning matches, so there was no pressure to rush him," says Leeds' chief executive, Gary Hetherington. Now, though, his time has almost come. Sinfield played loose forward in the Boxing Day friendly against Halifax and, although many of the 14,000 crowd at Headingley had turned up to see Wendell Sailor, he outshone him. Not only did he score the vital try with a fine burst of acceleration through a fleeting gap, but his tackling came through with honours as well.
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MIKE WALKER harbours a belief that goalkeepers make good managers because, throughout their career, they have been able to watch the whole pitch as events unfold before them and thus accrue a perception of the game denied outfield players. Another theory, of course, is that most goalkeepers have a touch of eccentricity, bordering on insanity, that should rule them out completely from such a calling. Generally, one would concur with the latter view, when a mental roll call is taken of the country's elite. But in Peter Schmeichel there is surely a "boss" in the making. He has, after all, experienced it all since starting out with Danish side Hvidovre in 1984. He has captained Manchester United, for whom he has been a mainstay of four successful championship campaigns, played over 100 times for his country, and certainly has a detailed knowledge of the opposite penalty area. He even scored once for United, in Europe, and actually netted eight times for Hvidovre and his last club Brondby. But the most important aspect, as any Premiership manager will tell you these days, is looking and feeling comfortable before the TV cameras, and as a front man, the highly articulate Schmeichel would have few peers. And when it comes to giving his men a rollicking he has 14 years of lambasting unfortunate defenders to put on his cv. This summer, the 35-year-old is off to southern Europe to end his net-minding career. None of us should be surprised if he returns to Britain as a guv'nor par excellence.
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