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Steven Lynch, additional reporting by Ralph Dellor, David Hallett and Grenville Holland
The 2006 university season was another encouraging one. Although none of the teams beat a first-class county, several of the matches were more competitive than in the recent past, with the counties - in the early stages of the season, at least - fielding stronger sides than has often been the case. Seven students managed centuries in the three-day games against the counties, with Cambridge's Zoheb Sharif making two.
Oxford were the year's outstanding side: the UCCE team lifted the MCC Championship and the university side won the Varsity Match, with Mike Munday, the leg-spinner taking 11 wickets. But there was a surprise ending to the BUSA (British Universities' Sports Association) Championship, which culminated in a shoot-out between Loughborough UCCE and the Loughborough University First Eleven - a derby match played, appropriately enough, at Derby. The University side (effectively the UCCE Second Eleven) had great delight in tweaking the noses of their more senior colleagues.
The second year of MCC's support of the University Centres of Cricketing Excellence programme was again generally considered a success. In addition to the £65,000 grant to each centre, the club has established an emergency fund of around £100,000, to which the UCCEs can apply for help with sizeable investments such as video equipment. MCC has also launched a new scheme to stop talented players drifting away from the game after termtime. An MCC Universities side played five matches in 2006, and the scheme is being expanded for 2007, with seven three-day matches planned against county Second Elevens. "If a player isn't attached to a county, it's been hard for him to get a decent standard of cricket after the end of June," explained John Stephenson, MCC's head of cricket. "We have tried to address that by setting up this side - the 'best of the rest' if you like - which will offer a match more or less each week."
It was quite like old times at Oxford, with a fourth successive victory in the Varsity Match, and a win in the one-day game against Cambridge at Lord's too: the UCCE side finished top of the MCC table, then beat Cambridge in the challenge match at Lord's to lift that title as well. The one big prize that escaped them was the BUSA championship, where they failed even to reach the semi-finals.
Oxford UCCE were also competitive in their county matches, an important yardstick when the perennial debate about first-class status rolls around. Oxford made a spirited attempt to reach Derbyshire's target, then set Durham 328 to win, which they just managed. There were some excellent performances from Oxford's captain Josh Knappett, Luke Parker and the freshman Peter Wilshaw, while Munday came into his own during the Varsity Match. However, the first-class status of that game again came under scrutiny: eight of this year's Blues were making their first-class debuts, and five more had played only once before. The Oxbridge UCCEs are now heavily dependent on the new universities in each city, Oxford Brookes and Anglia Ruskin (formerly Anglia Polytechnic University). These have less stringent entrance requirements than the ancient institutions and their players are ineligible for the traditional showpiece.
Cambridge enjoyed a satisfying season at least until the final week of term, when they suffered three successive defeats against Oxford. Injuries and exams were a partial reason for the late disappointments, especially the long-term back injury that afflicted Richard Timms, the Blue who had been chosen as the UCCE captain.
Cambridge UCCE overachieved in the early part of the season. As the bulk of their recent players had graduated, it had been expected to be a difficult transitional year - but they proved competitive in two of their three county matches, with the stand-in captain Sharif scoring hundreds against Northamptonshire and Kent. The same was true in the MCC Universities Championship, where rare successes against Durham and Loughborough propelled Cambridge into the final for the first time, while regular champions Loughborough missed out. Anglia's Nick Lee made a century in the final, but it was not enough to lower Oxford's colours.
Grant Celliers, a South African, made a double-century against London County in the build-up to the Varsity Match, and left-arm spinner Vikram Banerjee made enough progress to play for Gloucestershire later. As it turned out, Cambridge bowled well in the one-day match against Oxford - but then batted badly, missing several opportunities to take charge of the game. In the Varsity Match proper, they paid the penalty for the attack's lack of penetration. There was a deeper problem, though. The success of the UCCE system meant the university structure was left to rot, with financial difficulties and little interest from the Cambridge hierarchy; Oxford seemed to have more enthusiasm.
Loughborough UCCE's first-class matches were all affected by the weather, and Cambridge beat them by a point to reach the final of the MCC Universities Championship, though the BUSA Championship was a different story, and the all-Loughborough final hinted at the remarkable strength in depth that has been built up. In the final the UCCE made 201 for 9 in their 50 overs, which looked a match-winning total on a difficult pitch. The University side made reasonable progress - Johnny Hughes, the captain, made 55 - but they lost wickets regularly, setting up the close finish. It was left to Babar Kahn, later named Man of the Match, to nudge them over the line with an unbeaten 41.
In Loughborough UCCE's first-class matches, Edward Foster and the experienced Richard Clinton both scored centuries against Essex, but the captain Will Gifford struggled with the bat, bagging a pair in that Essex match. Ruel Brathwaite, a fast bowler from Barbados, took three wickets before the one-day game against Ireland was washed out. Guy Jackson, the Loughborough director of cricket, has now moved - though not far - to become manager of the Loughborough-based ECB National Academy.
Durham were forced to field an inexperienced side after many of 2005's senior players had graduated, while head coach Graeme Fowler was restricted in the amount of coaching he could do by illness. The bowling was particularly thin: 11 bowlers were tried in the county games, but none of them managed more than five wickets. "We only had one third-year player," said Fowler, "but we have some bright young talent, so in a couple of years it should be a good side." Durham ended up fifth in the MCC Universities Championship, equaling their worst finish, only elbowing their way past perennial strugglers Cardiff thanks to victory on first innings in their last match, against Bradford/Leeds at Weetwood, where the pitch suited the leg-spin of Durham's captain James Morris, who finished with the impressive figures of 21.2-11-28-5.
Of the two UCCEs without first-class status, Bradford/Leeds struggled against the counties, losing one match by 250 runs and another by an innings, while their match against Yorkshire was embarrassingly one-sided before rain stopped the slaughter. But they finished above Durham in the MCC Universities table, and the new pitch at Weetwood, in Leeds, bedded in well, although the match against Worcestershire was played at Harrogate. That match provided another bright spot, when Sam Reddish, 18, defied a strong Worcestershire attack for 219 minutes, scoring a resolute 148.
Cardiff's county games all ended in draws, helped by sizeable interruptions from the weather in all three cases, although the evocatively named Carwyn James made 101 in a strong display against Somerset. An outright defeat by Loughborough - the only two-innings result of the whole tournament, which consists of two-day games - condemned Cardiff to bottom place in the MCC Universities table. But there was better news in the BUSA Championship, where they finished top of the qualifying table only to lose to the eventual winners, Loughborough University.