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August 9, 2012
At the Under-19 World Cup in Malaysia, James Taylor was like every other kid. He'd be seen around the Sunway Hotel, watching the ice-skaters on the rink and spending time on his iTouch at Starbucks in his free time. Last week, Taylor was seen making his Test debut against South Africa at Headingley, and he held his own against the world's fastest bowlers. He is the second from the England Under-19 batch of 2008, after Steven Finn, to make it to Test cricket, a timely reminder for his juniors of the possibilities ahead as they prepare to open the 2012 World Cup in Townsville.
England's first opponents are the hosts, Australia, who have blooded more young cricketers at international level in recent years than they did in the past. From the squad that went to the 2010 Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Marsh have had a morsel of senior limited-overs cricket.
In both these teams, however, you'd have to be prodigiously gifted like Ricky Ponting, or have the tenacity to perform when talent meets opportunity like Alastair Cook did, to convert a young debut into a lasting career. Taylor and Finn got where they are now through the grind.
"Our aspirations for our players are that they go into first-class cricket, quite a few of the boys have played first-class cricket, then to supply the Emerging Player Programme," Tim Boon, the England coach, said. "They then go on to the Lions … so by the time they're 24-25 they're knocking on the England door. There's no direct pathway through. All these players have got to go and earn their stripes. They've got to go and perform in county cricket. The great thing is there's a big queue developing."
Stuart Law, who played the first youth World Cup in 1988 and would have had many more than the one Test cap had he been in most other Australian eras, is the coach of their Under-19 side. He too said his players would have to go through the club and state route, but also that there were more opportunities for bolters at this time in Australian cricket.
"When the likes of Darren Lehmann and myself were playing, there were about 15 guys who could have played Test cricket who weren't even in the Australian team," Law said. "[Australia] haven't quite got that now. It has changed. Young kids are getting an opportunity earlier, which may not be the greatest thing for Australian cricket, but some kids, you throw them in the deep end and if they start swimming, you've found a couple of winners.
"If any of these guys have a real good tournament, obviously their home states will sit up and take notice and they'll start being let through. But it's not just about performing well here, they've got to go back to their club sides and start the season well."
The Under-19 World Cup is an opportunity for a head start. Performance here could catch the eye of Australia's National Talent Manager, Greg Chappell, who's travelling with the team, and that could mean quicker access to an elite training environment, which in turn could widen the gap between the selected player and those he's outrun.
While several countries want for adequate youth programmes, England's Under-19 cricketers, Boon said, were fortunate to be part of a fully integrated body, with players at higher levels keen to help those below them. "In December last year we went to South Africa. We had six international England bowlers - [James] Anderson, [Stuart] Broad, [Chris] Tremlett etc - and six Lions bowlers wanting to bowl at our Under-19s. They were there on a training camp," he said. "That stood the lads in good stead. Our bowlers partnered with Broad and those guys, and the batters were able to face high-class internationals and tap into their experience. It was daunting and very rewarding."
A common yet significant problem several teams face at the World Cup is adjusting quickly to the unknown: strange conditions and unfamiliar playing styles. To aid their development in this regard, England toured Bangladesh and also visited Townsville for a quadrangular series in April 2012. Their results weren't too hot: losing 5-2 in Bangladesh, and losing the semi-final of the quadrangular after winning all three league matches. They had also lost a home series to South Africa (2-4) and an away series to Sri Lanka (1-3) in 2011.
"Our aims are to challenge the players under pressure, to give them really intense periods of cricket. We look at skill learning and then and testing those skills. In doing that we go to places like Bangladesh. It was very tough, very different," Boon says of the experience. "The lads played against spinners they've never seen before. [They were exposed to a] different lifestyle and culture, that was also really important. It's about grooming their skills so that they can stand independently, without a coach overlooking them."
|At this age, you need to play, the more you play the better it is. They've got to live the game to understand what they can do and can't do in games of cricket. Stuart Law, Australia Under-19 coach|
If World Cup warm-up results are any indication, England have adjusted quickly after arriving in Australia a week ago. They beat Pakistan, a perennially strong Under-19 side, before brushing aside Zimbabwe.
Australia, on the other hand, had mixed results in the warm-ups, losing to West Indies and then thumping Scotland. They had a tough workout in the weeks leading up to those matches, losing a series to Pakistan 2-1 in Gold Coast. And in the quadrangular in India in September 2011, they had won two out of seven matches, while in the quadrangular at home in April 2012, they won three out of five games.
Law, who's been with the team for only five weeks, said that all match practice at this level was immensely beneficial. "We haven't played together a hell of a lot. We played Pakistan in a three-match series down the coast, and you can see they have been playing together for quite a while," he said. "At this age, you need to play, the more you play the better it is. They've got to live the game to understand what they can do and can't do in games of cricket."
On Saturday, both these teams will be living and learning in the most momentous match of their lives. Win, and the chances of topping a group that includes Ireland and Nepal are significantly higher.
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