The nursery on the Nursery
Academies are all the rage in cricket at the moment. When the Australian one started churning out readymade Test players, England eventually decided to follow suit - but actually there had been an English cricket academy for ages, lurking at the Nursery End at Lord's. The MCC's very own Young Cricketers staff has been going strong for years: "Since the Year Dot," according to Clive Radley, the former Middlesex and England batsman who is now MCC's head coach.
"When the ECB decided to start up their academy, we made a case for it to be here, and made an official submission," said Radley, sitting in his office in the indoor school, overlooking the Nursery ground. "The infrastructure was already here, but obviously we were going to struggle with things like accommodation, and eventually it went to Loughborough."
Back in the Year Dot, when the likes of Denis Compton were on the staff, the young cricketers' duties might include sweeping out the stands, or selling scorecards, or cleaning the windows in the pavilion. Sweeping (off the field, anyway) was stopped some time ago, and more recently scorecard-selling (the commission from which went towards the staff's end-of-season party) was knocked on the head too. But Radley, a bit of a disciplinarian at heart, rather regrets that: "It was quite handy if someone was playing up to be able to say `Right, you'll be selling scorecards for a week'."
There have been more changes in recent years. Nowadays the youngsters undertake vocational courses in collaboration with Westminster College, and they also do courses in umpiring, scoring and groundsmanship, plus some extras such as media training. "Gus Fraser came and gave them a talk a couple of weeks ago," said Radley. "He was excellent, and it's obviously helpful that the lads can identify with someone like him."
Famous graduates from the scheme, since Compton, have included Ian Botham, Phil DeFreitas and Phil Tufnell. There are also occasional scholarship winners from other lands: Martin Crowe was arguably the best of them (in 1981, less than a year before making his Test debut against Lillee and Thomson), and now there are a handful from Europe too. The overseas contingent added interest to the recent NatWest Series, as far as the non-pavilion end was concerned: all three teams had a recent Lord's graduate in their squad - Rikki Clarke for England, Hamish Marshall from New Zealand, and Darren Sammy, who became the first St Lucian to play for West Indies.
Sammy, indeed, is back at Lord's after his stint with the Windies one-day squad. "Yes, that's a good story," said Radley. "A couple of weeks ago he was out there with these blokes, and now he's back here on the covers for this match." Just then the TV obligingly zoomed in on the West Indies dressing-room. "Hang on," said Radley, "he's up there on the balcony sitting next to Lara!" You half-expected the disciplinarian to kick in again, but after a wistful glance at his mobile phone he agreed that there wasn't a cloud in the sky and it wasn't very likely that the covers would have to be mobilised in a hurry.
Of Sammy's colleagues on this year's staff Stephen Snell, a wicketkeeper-batsman, has just joined Gloucestershire, who were short of keeping cover after Jack Russell's retirement. Earlier in the summer Chris Peploe followed in Tufnell's hop-skip-and-jump-steps at Middlesex, while Radley also has high hopes for William Gidman, the younger brother of the England A captain Alex, who was on the staff himself a few years ago. Then there's Billy Hooper, a quick bowler from Surrey, and Daan van Bunge, the young Dutchman who played in the 2003 World Cup and this year made Teletext headlines by blitzing a 38-ball hundred against Surrey Young Cricketers.
Radley also had hopes for a young bowler called Andy Colquhoun, "a bit of a Fraser lookalike, big and tall ... but unfortunately he's just gone down with a stress fracture." Overall, the team has had a decent season, though. "We're in a strong group in the ECB's 2nd XI Trophy competition, with Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Essex, and it looks as if we'll come third, which is pretty good." Then a bit of old Middlesex bubbled proudly to the surface: "And we beat Surrey. That means the season will be a success whatever else happens ..."
Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden Cricinfo.