Trouble hits the tourists

Simon O'Hagan reports on a bright idea which may have a gloomy ending
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The Independent Online
WHILE the need for the country's best young players to develop their skills in the winter has probably never been more urgent, a scheme backed by the Test and County Cricket Board to take a group of them to South Africa was last week being rapidly scaled down as doubts surfaced about its organisation and the strength of its financial backing.

The idea was an excellent one: choose 18 of the country's brightest prospects - one from each county - and arrange for them to spend the close-season benefiting from some of the best coaching and facilities in the world. Unfortunately, it looks as if it may not work out like that.

The man behind the scheme is Neil Burns, a former wicketkeeper for Essex and Somerset, who retired in 1994 to concentrate on the sports management business he had set up while he was a player. Burns, who also coaches, has close connections in South Africa, where he had played on and off since the early 1980s, and believed his ability to call on the help of ex-Test players of the calibre of Eddie Barlow, Robin Jackman and Jimmy Cook could form the basis of a plan which would help stop emerging English talent slipping into the black hole that seems to exist between the Under- 19 level and the A and senior squads.

"It's been my vision to develop English cricketers in South Africa," Burns said from Cape Town last week. "It frustrates me to see people with talent struggle to fulfil it. A lot of that is down to a lack of exposure to expertise and facilities. The close-season is the time to hone your skills and think about your game. Players who go abroad to play club cricket might end up somewhere with good facilities or where they can integrate with better players, but they might not. It can be a bit hit-and-miss."

Burns, aged 31, first approached the TCCB two years ago, and discussed his proposal with Micky Stewart, the former England coach, now the director of excellence for the National Cricket Association. "We thought it sounded good," Stewart said last week. "Neil said he was getting financial support and I wrote to the counties explaining what it was about. We were happy to give it our blessing, but it was a purely independent initiative."

The 18 players were chosen by a panel of judges comprising such luminaries as Ian Botham, David Graveney, John Emburey, Clive Radley, Dickie Bird, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Stewart. The selection was made before the announcement of the England parties for this winter's tours, and when the 18 names emerged, three already had prior engagements - Yorkshire's Chris Silverwood, who is on the senior England tour to Zimbabwe and New Zealand, and two players who had been picked for the England A tour of Australia - Ashley Giles of Warwickshire and Andy Harris of Derbyshire.

The remaining 15 players were very much the best of the also-rans, many of them having been touted as possible members of the England A team. They were Jimmy Daley (Durham), Robert Rollins (Essex), Dean Cosker (Glamorgan), Robert Cunliffe (Gloucestershire), Jason Laney (Hampshire), Ben Phillips (Kent), Richard Green (Lancashire), Iain Sutcliffe (Leicestrshire), Richard Johnson (Middlesex), David Sales (Northamptonshire), Usman Afzaal (Nottinghamshire), Marcus Trescothick (Somerset), Ben Hollioake (Surrey), Danny Law (Sussex) and Vikram Solanki (Worcestershire).

But at least one member of the party was surprised to find himself on the list. "The first I knew about it when was I saw it in the papers," Laney said. "And I haven't heard much more since. It's an an honour, of course, but I'd already arranged to go and spend the winter playing in Durban." Others are having to turn down the chance to go on the Burns scheme - for example, Rollins, the Essex wicketkeeper, who the TCCB have asked to be in Australia as back-up for Warren Hegg, the No 1 choice for the A team. Hollioake, younger brother of Adam, Cosker and Sales will not figure either if, as is almost certain, they are named this week in the England Under-19 party to Pakistan.

These withdrawals may just save Burns and to some extent the TCCB from a greater embarrassment. While the general impression was that all these players, if they had been available, would have gone to South Africa, in reality a lack of sponsorship has threatened to leave Burns needing to choose some over others.

"I'm working on the sponsorship and will be making an announcement early next week," Burns said. At pounds 9,000 per man, six months' coaching and accommodation in South Africa is good value but still quite a lot of money, and Burns admitted that the group might have to comprise as few as eight players. So to think of this as a semi-official England B team would be quite wrong. The TCCB, meanwhile, are not planning to help out. "That's really not our responsibility," Stewart said.