London talent search for a new star
How can England find someone who hits the ball like Chris Gayle, spins it like Ajantha Mendis, or bowls like Lasith Malinga? The answer may lie in a new talent search called the Wisden City Cup that has been formed in London to tap into the huge number of people playing cricket, but who find it difficult to integrate into the traditional club set-up.
The idea stems from a chance conversation over dinner in Kandy, during England's 2007 tour of Sri Lanka, between Angus Fraser, at the time the Independent's cricket correspondent and now director of cricket at Middlesex, and the Sunday Telegraph's Scyld Berry, who is also editor of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack.
Owais Shah, the England and Middlesex batsman, joined them and the chat turned to Middlesex's lack of success since the days they dominated county cricket in the 1980s. There was a feeling an opportunity existed to delve into the diverse inner-city population in London in an attempt to allow the cricket talent to flourish.
"There are quite a few English cities which haven't produced an England cricketer for the last 100 years and I think that speaks for itself," Berry said. "We want to get people together to talk cricket, watch cricket and play cricket far more than they do at the moment."
The ultimate aim is to take the search across the country next year and form an inter-city competition and already there is evidence that the scheme can work, with Maaz Haffeji, a fast bowler, having impressed enough during a trial at Victoria Park to be offered an opportunity to play for the Middlesex development side. An XI selected from the best players will take on Middlesex, in a Twenty20 match on September 20, and the ultimate prize on offer for the most successful player discovered is the opportunity to train for a month this winter with the Middlesex squad.
When Fraser joined Middlesex in the mid-1980s he played alongside five cricketers of Afro-Caribbean descent which he said "represented the county", but now there are none, while Shah is the only player of Asian descent in the current team. "Middlesex is a densely populated county and maybe there is some outstanding talent out there that we haven't seen," he said, "and this tournament might help us find someone that we have missed."
Ravi Bopara, a major success story of someone emerging from the inner-city and rising to the top of game, is the honorary president while Fraser, Shah, Mike Gatting and Nasser Hussain will act as patrons of the four teams that take part in the Twenty20 competition following the trials. "The icing on the cake would be to fast-track a second Bopara," Berry said. "He came from East London where there are no cricket grounds with a turf pitch."
Trials are taking place until the end of June and the programme is targeted at those aged between 16 and 25, but there is nothing stopping players over that age taking part. The scheme is supported by the Foundation for Sport and the Arts, along with a number of sponsors and, who knows, the next superstar could be out there and just not know it yet.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo