London club bridges gap for young hopefuls
The London County Cricket Club has embarked on its third year of looking for the next generation of England bowlers, with the aim of giving disadvantaged youngsters the opportunity to realise their potential as cricketers. For a small entry fee of £10, the contenders have just twelve balls to prove to a panel of first-class coaches that they have what it takes.
So far, so Pop Idol, but the project has far greater historical depth than a vacuous venture fronted by Simon Cowell. The club was launched in 1899 by WG Grace to give "invaluable first-class match experience to many cricketers who could not otherwise get it". The club lay dormant for a century before Neil Burns, the former Leicestershire wicketkeeper, forged its renaissance in 2004 to launch Search 4 A Star.
"I believe that there are many young cricketers aged between 16 and 24 who have the ability and the desire to be nurtured as cricketers who can succeed at the highest level," Burns said. "If for any reason they feel overlooked, rejected or unaware of the ECB county system, we at London County Cricket Club want to play our part in identifying, developing and bridging them into the system where they can ultimately become successful cricketers."
And that is Burns' chief concern, that too many talented teenagers fall through the ECB's net - or worse, aren't aware the net exists in the first place. The club provides a vital bridge from obscurity (and often hopelessness) to possible recognition and success. And all for a tenner.
The inaugural winner was Tim Linley, a fast-medium bowler from a large Leeds family who had had little opportunity in cricket. He was subsequently offered a contract with Sussex, but found it difficult to break into the first team and was released in 2006. It was as disappointing for the club as it was for Linley.
But then there was Sachin Vaja. "His is an exceptional story," Paul Carter, LCCC's spokesman told Cricinfo. "We discovered him in our trials in Ilford in 2005. He had played very little structured cricket before [apart from] a lot of tape-ball cricket. A friend of his had read in the local newspaper that we were holding these trials and phoned him to say he should go.
"He was in the car running an errand for his father and at a junction it was essentially turn left for the cricket club or right to run the errand. At the last minute he decided to turn left and attend, in the clothes he was wearing. He turned the ball with his off-breaks unbelievably."
So impressed were the coaches - especially Jack Birkenshaw - that he was invited into the finals and joined the ECB's spin academy last September. Vaja was awarded the inaugural Jim Laker Scholarship last September before Essex swooped to offer him a Development Contract. His story encompasses LCCC's primary aims: spotting talent; nurturing potential.
This year there is an added twist, or incentive, to the event: six youngsters will join LCCC, alongside first-class and former international players, to tour West Indies in September and October, at the invitation of Sir Viv Richards, the club's honorary captain. From there, Burns will pick two of the six to join him at his academy in Cape Town this winter, and one of those will receive a full county contract for 2008.
The chances might be slim but the rewards are plentiful. As Vaja has demonstrated, talent can take people a long way - but not without a catalyst such as Burns and Grace.
To register, visit www.londoncountycricketclub.com
Will Luke is a staff writer on Cricinfo