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Feature Article by Neil Robinson 15/06/03
A few months ago, when Michael Vaughan was flaying the Aussie bowling to all parts of theground, the Aussie locals were almost uniformly delighted to see an English batsman capable of taking the attack to their all-conquering team. But, they were also moved to incredulity by the new star’s age. “He’s 28!” they spluttered, “where the hell have you been hiding him?” Foreign viewers of England’s recent demolition of Zimbabwe might have expressed similar sentiments about the old country’s latest brace of late developers, Anthony McGrath and Richard Johnson, 27 and 28 years old respectively.
The question of why so many talented English cricketers fail to mature until well into their twenties is not an easy one to answer. In the case of Vaughan and Johnson, injuries have certainly played their part. Johnson was first called into the England squad at the age of 19, but a stress fracture of the back forced his withdrawal and ushered in a period of frequent injury breaks and sporadic playing success that would last for almost a decade. Vaughan’s Test debut actually came at the far from advanced age of 25, but a series of freakish hand and knee problems prevented him from cementing a regular place in the England XI. He should have made his Ashes debut in 2001, he was certainly in fine form, having notched a maiden Test century in the Second Test against Pakistan a few weeks before the series began. But, a further knee problem picked up in that game kept him on the sidelines for the entire series.
It is not entirely accurate to claim English players are generally held back instead of being given their chance in the full bloom of youthful innocence. Mike Atherton made his debut aged 21, as did Nasser Hussain and Mark Ramprakash. Graham Thorpe was in at 23, John Crawley at 22, Andrew Flintoff at 20, the late Ben Hollioake at 19. Some of these advancements were probably premature, Hussain and Flintoff in particular were far better players come their second bite of the cherry, but this is inevitable when dealing with youngsters more notable in promise than in achievement. A similar tale could be told in Australia, where the likes of Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn and even Steve Waugh himself all struggled to convince at the start of their Test careers.
The rapid promotion of youth brings with it all sorts of risks, prominent among which, are those of weakening the team by depriving it of valuable experience and of causing possibly fatal damage to the confidence of the player himself. England’s selectors have been as aware of these risks as anyone in recent years, but that hasn’t always prevented them taking the punt when they felt confident of success. England’s ‘failure’ to promote youth quickly enough is often erroneously compared with the policies of countries such as Pakistan, even though the Pakistanis are more willing than most to take a risk on teenage prodigies of unproven quality. Such brave selection policies must however, be seen against the background of a domestic structure so disorganised and inefficient that few Pakistanis would consider it a genuine breeding ground for international cricketers. Most of Pakistan’s young stars have advanced through the national age group system and are thrown early into the international arena rather than left to go stale in domestic competitions that will add little to their development. Some survive their baptism of fire, many more sink without trace.
If England’s selectors have been at fault over the last decade, it has mostly been through a failure to plan ahead with specific targets in mind. This is still visible today with the continued selection at Test level of the veteran Alec Stewart (still a highly capable performer) as wicket-keeper, with only two years left in which to find the right replacement for him and give the new man enough experience before the next Ashes series in 2005. The persistence with Mike Atherton to the end of 2001 and the curious determination to match him with a left-handed partner, also meant that even when Vaughan was fit enough to play during his first two years as an England player, he was unable to assume his accustomed role as opener. But, these are issues of judgement rather than policy and comparing like with like, England’s selectoral policy has not been too dissimilar from that of Australia, who gave a deserved debut to the 28 year old Martin Love in the last Ashes series.
However, there is another element to the question of England’s late developers, one which has remained a major talking point ever since Marcus Trescothick stepped onto the international stage aged 24 in the summer of 2000. Trescothick, had been something of a prodigy at under-19 level, tipped for greatness and swift promotion to the senior side, but it didn’t happen like that. His eventual selection three years ago was largely the result of a ‘hunch’ on the part of England coach Duncan Fletcher. Fletcher, had seen him score a scintillating hundred for Somerset during his stint as coach at Glamorgan. It had stuck in his mind as evidence of a talent that ought to be employed on a higher stage. If this was lucky for Trescothick, it was luckier still for Fletcher. Trescothick hundreds at the time were rare birds indeed and looked to be heading for dodo status. His career had been treading water ever since he turned 20. A first-class average of under 30, was no sort of justification of his talent and with age rapidly eroding his status as a promising youngster, it looked as if he might sink altogether.
He was not alone. Both Vaughan and McGrath boasted (palpably not the right word) first-class averages in the high 20s when called upon to don the three lions and throughout the last twenty years, there have been countless talented youngsters whose evident ability has not been matched by any sort of on-the-field achievement. It is, unquestionably, one of the most worrying factors about English domestic cricket and one which has led several comentators, not least Michael Atherton, to question the very value of County Cricket itself.
One of the arguments often employed by Atherton and the many who agree with him is this; too many Counties, too many teams, too many players and a consequent dilution of standards. It is an attractive theory. But, how do we square it with the fact players of such evident talent as Vaughan, Trescothick and McGrath, struggled so badly in this supposedly low-standard environment? Surely, if standards are so low they should have been scoring runs like it was going out of business. Why is it Australian stars such as the Waugh twins or Andy Bichel have given so much credit to their spells in County Cricket for helping them to advance their careers? Why is it no less a judge than Imran Khan believes Pakistan is struggling to produce finished, accomplished cricketers because too few of their players get to hone their skills on the County scene? Why do so many in the Caribbean hold similar views about their current dearth of fast bowling talent? Why do youngsters reared in Southern Africa, such as Nottinghamshire’s Kevin Pietersen, come into County Cricket and succeed at once, when so many of their English contemporaries spend years stuck in second gear?
Graham Gooch is one of a growing band of people who feel young English cricketers are given too many comforts and too much security at such a young age. My own conversion to this opinion came five years ago at an under-19 Test Match at Taunton. Walking in through the car park, I noticed virtually all of the England players, many of whom had yet to play a game for their Counties, were in possession of sponsored cars. A couple of years ago, when the under-19 World Cup was held in New Zealand, England’s youngsters were the only team to receive professional fees for their performance, instead of just expenses. They were by far the least motivated and least hungry group in the tournament and found themselves on the receiving end of a good deal of scorn from less cosseted rivals from Australia and South Africa. The most promising English youngsters, go on from under-19 level to receive a full County contract, at which point they will take their place on bloated County staffs, pocketing their monthly salary irrespective of whether they actually perform or even play at all. For a few years then they may continue to bask in the comfort zone of being a ‘promising youngster’ before the unwelcome axe of unfulfilled expectation begins to hover above their heads. At this point they either wake up and make the grade, or find some other way of making a living.
Looking back at the careers of Vaughan, McGrath and Trescothick, it is difficult not to feel that it was too easy for them to engage the cruise control and just drift, that neither they nor those around them were setting high enough standards and that it was only when they entered the dog-eat-dog world of Test Cricket they found themselves truly challenged. Another case in point would be Kent captain David Fulton. Despite a level of natural talent at least as great as those named above, in his first nine seasons from 1991-2000, Fulton only hit seven first-class centuries and never once averaged more than 36 during a season. Surrounded by senior players like Carl Hooper and Mark Benson, he felt little pressure to match the stars, “If I got 20 or 30 I felt I’d done quite well,” he now says. It wasn’t until 2001, at the age of 29, that he came to terms with what he needed to do to fulfil his talent. The result was 1,892 first-class runs at 75.68 with nine centuries.
Had Fulton been a batsman for an Australian State side, it is surely impossible he would have been allowed to get away with so many years of modest performance. Either the runs would have come or some other, hungrier colt would have come along to take his place. On an English County staff however, there is room for all the colts, hungry or otherwise and given the clear security of tenure offered to a young player of any apparent talent, there is little incentive for genuine hunger. Here’s where at least one point of agreement with the Atherton theory comes in. Not too many teams, but certainly too many players. The size of the population and the clear levels of talent available are sufficient to provide 18 quality teams, but slimmed down County staffs would provide fewer places for the complacent to hide and help concentrate a few minds.
But, it still doensn’t explain why young foreign-bred players like Pietersen, with equal access to the easy life of a County contract, seem less willing to drift than their native contemporaries. Perhaps the answer is character. When Steve Waugh said at the end of last winter’s Ashes series, “there’s nothing wrong with County Cricket and anyone who says there is is just looking for excuses,” few in Britain believed him. There had to be a technical reason why players such as Stewart and Atherton had gone through their entire careers without once winning a series against the old enemy. County Cricket, as usual, received most of the blame. When Australian cricket went through its own sticky patch back in the 1980s, there were few calls to overhaul the structure of the Sheffield Shield. More astutely, an invidious attitude of softness and lassitude was identified as having crept into players and coaches within the system. It did not take long for things to be turned around . Such faults as there were, were rare in the Australian character and easily excised.
Faced with a similar problem, the English attitude has been to look for excuses, to blame the system, the toss, the weather, a dodgy prawn curry the night before the match, anything to avoid the unpleasant fact the fault lay primarily in human frailty. A generation of English cricketers has gone into the Test arena ready-armed with the excuse that they were under-prepared for the standards and pressures due to the weaknesses of County cCicket. And it never really mattered whether it was true or not; if they thought they were unprepared then the mental battle was lost already and thus unprepared they were. That old chestnut, the Whingeing Pom, was finally become a dreadful reality and he was damned if he was going to take the blame himself for his inability to cope at the highest level or make the most of his talent.
But, what can cricket do when it comes to defects in the national character? Oddly enough the answer may lie in the work of two foreigners. Through Duncan Fletcher, who has a seemingly instinctive ability to spot a potential Test player where others see only a flattering mirage and through Rod Marsh, the no-nonsense former Aussie wicket-keeper, who is busy instilling a bit of old-fashioned steel into the young Englishmen at the National Academy. So far, the portents are good. Fletcher’s instincts seem to pick out the genuine article more often than not, Marsh’s young charges, lads such as James Anderson, Steve Harmison, Rob Key and Jim Troughton, seem a more dedicated bunch than their predecessors. Whether they will develop quickly enough to threaten a dominant Australian side in two years time we shall have to wait and see, but for the first time in a generation, the real problems facing English cricket are beginning, just beginning, to be addressed.