Oxford doors open to twice as many talented cricketers (22 January 1999)

22 January 1999

Oxford doors open to twice as many talented cricketers

By E W Swanton

OXFORD University Cricket Club are the first to bring about a positive response to the English Cricket Board's plan to institute so-called Centres of Excellence, where young cricketers of promise can combine academic courses with the best facilities for improving their game and playing as a unit.

The OUCC have done so in a radical way by opening their doors to the former polytechnic which has become Oxford Brookes University.

The Brookes' standard of entry is more flexible than that of the Oxford Colleges, and thus can more easily accommodate the scholar-sportsman.

In size, the ancient university and Oxford Brookes are almost identical at 15,000 students each, the latter being situated on Headington Hill, the territory of the late Robert Maxwell. The combined XI will therefore draw from double the number of undergraduates, half of them from, shall we say, a friendlier climate.

Oxford Brookes will, of course, have all the facilities of The Parks, and for first-class fixtures the combined team will be known in the plural as Oxford Universities.

While an old Blue whom I told about the new arrangement had recovered from the shock, he said disapprovingly that this would take the pressure off the colleges to relax their entry system.

The response of Dr Simon Porter, the senior treasurer and permanent officer of the OUCC, to this natural reaction was to say that the colleges are unanimous in resisting all mens sana appeals. The traditional ideal of the gifted all-rounder, as exemplified by C B Fry, H G Owen-Smith, J G W Davies, Hubert Doggart, Michael Brearley and many more is apparently "old hat". The other day Cambridge turned down an outstanding schoolboy cricketer with four A-levels.

Long gone, of course, are the days when Dr W T S Stallibrass of Brasenose and Philip Landon, of Trinity, vied with one another to secure the best of the public school cricketers. Until recently, however, at least a few colleges found room for the all-rounder: according to Dr Porter no more. With the backing of such recent presidents as Lord Cowdrey, C A Fry, A C and M J K Smith, the OUCC were motivated by the urgent desire to preserve first-class cricket in its historic and most beautiful setting.

Over the full spread of years no nurseries of talent can compare with The Parks and Fenner's. It must matter to some even in this egalitarian age that there have been 120-odd Test cricketer Blues, of whom 30 have been captains of England, 12 of other Test countries.

What then of the Cambridge response to the ECB initiative? They have not been idle but, as there is no Cambridge near-counterpart to Brookes, Professor Kenneth Siddle, Cambridge's senior treasurer, tells me they are aiming at a broader field, offering the facilities of Fenner's including the coaching to the several East Anglian establishments which now have the status of universities.

What is to happen about Blues? Here at any rate the older generation can be assured that they will be awarded only to members of Oxford and Cambridge, and only they will contest the 155th University Match beginning on June 25. It is, by a long way, the oldest first-class fixture in the Lord's calendar. The ECB's director of operations, John Carr, an Oxford Blue by the way and son of Donald, a former captain, confirms the board's thinking as regards Centres of Excellence. "We want these centres to attract men who will emerge as accomplished cricketers with university degrees," he says. "After all, there's life after cricket."

The six centres will compete with one another, and, in due course, individuals will rejuvenate the counties. There will still be limited opportunities early in the season for some of the centres to play against the counties. I imagine that the concept will be welcomed by the Professional Cricketers' Association.

John Carr finally sprang a considerable surprise. He tells me that no fewer than 21 British universities have applied to become Centres of Excellence. Most can have only outside chances of being named, for such as Durham and Loughborough have well-established clubs to line up with Oxford and with Cambridge.

However, the field is open and the number is encouraging evidence that, despite rival attractions, cricket still has a place in the hearts and minds of the young.

Many of riper years will regret the decline of Oxford and Cambridge cricket which has brought this state of affairs about, and will fall back on their memories.

I recall on a fresh spring day at Fenner's a peerless piece of batting by Ted Dexter against Lancashire, 185 in all, 105 of them before lunch. Cambridge were generally in the ascendant in the Fifties, fielding sides with four or five - and, one time, six - members of which went on to play Test cricket.

There was a famous day in The Parks when, on an admittedly awkward pitch, Oxford's George Chesterton and Michael Wrigley bowled New Zealand out twice to their only defeat of the tour.

For sheer artistry nothing rivalled the 142 made for Oxford in the post-war euphoria by Martin Donnelly before crowds at Lord's which on the first two days totalled 23,000.

Source :: Electronic Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk)