July 31, 2012

Schools give South Africa the edge

Will Hawkes
Higher standards in grassroots cricket, and warmer weather, are two vital advantages South Africa has over England

Not all South Africans resent every run Kevin Pietersen scores against their side. "I'm very proud [of him] - every time he hits 100 I feel bloody happy for the bloke," says Mike Bechet, who taught Pietersen cricket at school. "He's gone beyond the idea of being a traitor. I just see him as a professional, the same as an accountant going to work in London. I've got no hang-ups about anyone playing for England. We'd rather they played for South Africa, but there you go."

Bechet and his fellow South Africans can afford to be magnanimous. It is no exaggeration to say that over the past half-dozen or so years, South Africans - or, to be more exact, Southern Africans - have done much to reshape and improve the English game.

That's most obvious in the role that Pietersen (for all his risible uncertainty about whether he wants to play one-day internationals) and Jonathan Trott have played in establishing England as the world's foremost Test side. And then there's Andy Flower; Bechet is probably not alone in his country in regarding England's tough-nut coach as a South African, philosophically at least. "For Andy Flower, read Southern African," he says.

This advance in Test cricket has been matched by a similar revolution in county cricket, where an influx of tough, hard-working South Africans, be they Kolpak, overseas or English-qualified, has undoubtedly raised standards. "English cricket has come a long way in the last ten or 15 years," says Surrey allrounder Zander de Bruyn, who has played extensively in both countries. "The cricket here is just as hard now as it is back home."

Among those who have done particularly well are Martin van Jaarsveld (who played for Kent under Graham Ford, when the club was jokingly referred to as Kent Free State) and Jacques Rudolph (once of Yorkshire, most recently of Surrey), both of whom were among the heaviest run scorers in the first decade of this century.

Until the Kolpak regulations were tightened, it was not unusual to find five or six South Africans in a single county team: when Leicestershire faced Northamptonshire in a 50-over game in May 2008, there were 11 South Africans on the field.

Few counties have felt short-changed. "I would think the majority of South Africans that have come to this country have given great service to county cricket," says Brian Rose, director of cricket at Somerset. "There aren't many examples of people that have gone home early, for example, or done badly. I can't think of very many at all."

A look at the England top order demonstrates how crucial schooling is, particularly for batsmen: those who didn't grow up in South Africa (Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Ian Bell) went to private school. They benefited from the sort of facilities that most cricket-loving youngsters can only dream of

Even now, in the post-Kolpak era, the three highest run scorers in the County Championship First Division (at the time of writing) were born in South Africa: Nick Compton, Ashwell Prince and Michael Lumb. And be in no doubt that there are still plenty of South Africans about. When Compton's club Somerset hosted Middlesex in a Championship match in April this year, seven of the 22 players had been born in South Africa. Among them was Craig Kieswetter, the South Africa Under-19-turned-England one-day-international wicketkeeper. He is the brightest star in a gaggle of young England hopefuls with links to the land of Nelson Mandela.

Anyone expecting the South African influx to end any time soon is likely to be disappointed. This also means that there have been fewer opportunities for cricketers raised in the UK. Some would say they have been hard done by, others that the standard of young cricketers in the UK is still not as high as it is in South Africa.

That's certainly the view of Rose. "Young South African cricketers seem to be two or three years advanced in both maturity and physical strength compared to people in the UK," he says. It's clear that while England has taken plenty from the Rainbow Nation, there are still lessons to be learnt about player development.

Few people have a better insight into why this might be than Bechet, the first XI coach at Maritzburg College in KwaZulu-Natal since 1993. Bechet is also a selector for the South African Schools and Under-19 sides. He knows South African youth cricket inside out - and having presided over six schools tours of England since 1993, he understands the English game pretty well too.

It is his view that England's school cricketers still aren't as tough as their South African counterparts, for all the apparent advances made in the professional game. For him, South African schools cricket is more competitive, more disciplined and - perhaps most controversially - more democratic than England's system.

"We've got a hell of a competitive school set-up here and guys go hard at each other," he says. "We've got regular inter-school competition - there's a lot at stake, there's history behind it and people keep a close eye on who's beating who. With no disrespect, because I think English cricket is in a great situation at the moment, the schools there don't seem to be as competitive."

Some might question the significance of schools cricket. Does it matter that so many English schools appear to have forgotten cricket exists, for all the good work done by Chance to Shine? Don't the clubs pick up the slack?

A look at the English top order demonstrates how crucial schooling is, particularly for batsmen: those who didn't grow up in South Africa (Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Ian Bell) went to private school. They benefited from the sort of facilities that most cricket-loving youngsters can only dream of.

To describe South African school cricket as democratic would be a stretch, perhaps, but it might be in a better state than England's private-school dominated scene. In South Africa, a number of state schools (Maritzburg is somewhere in between: it is part of the government system but charges some fees) can compete on a level playing field with the private schools, even given the dismal legacy of apartheid.

The English school that Bechet describes as "the yardstick of English school cricket" is, inevitably, a private one - Millfield in Somerset, where Kieswetter completed his education after he moved to England at the age of 17. Here, as in the professional game, a South African approach has reaped rewards, says Bechet.

"They're tough," says Bechet. "I think [Millfield cricket coach and former England seamer] Richard Ellison has brought a toughness to that school because he's worked in South Africa. He came out and played here a bit. I remember the first time we played them, he said, 'My boys can learn a lot from you guys. Little things, like discipline, how we all dress the same on the field.'"

Some may dismiss Bechet's words as those of a proud South African, but the results of his school's last tour to England, in 2010, bear him out: played 15, won 15. Eton were beaten by 102 runs, Wellington College by eight wickets, Millfield by 72 runs. These are scorelines that suggest Martizburg, at least, are significantly tougher than their English counterparts.

Not everyone believes the superiority of South African youngsters is all down to a culture of high-intensity competition, though. The weather plays a key role too. South Africa's warmer weather makes for better, more reliable wickets - crucial in a batsman's development. "You get a sharp eye at an early age," says Rose. "If you compare that to playing on some low wet wickets, dull wickets in England - it takes longer to develop. People are leaving school at the age of 18 in England who are still very young in nature."

Seen in this light - or lack of it, in England's case - it might be that South African-raised youngsters will always be a step ahead of their England counterparts because they've played more cricket, thanks to the weather. It's a factor that de Bruyn noticed when his son was over last summer. "He always wants to be outside and playing, but when it's raining you can't really go outside," he says. "They play more in South Africa because of the weather. People get outside more."

For all that English cricket is engaged in a constant losing battle with the weather, though, it's undoubtedly true that the game at the top level has toughened up of late. Few can have failed to notice that the England players are fitter than ever and that they seem more focused than ever. The fact that it has become worthy of comment now when England field badly demonstrates the advances in professionalism that have been made.

Bechet is not alone in thinking that this toughness has come from South Africa. One player, for him, demonstrates how England has cleaned up its act. Trott has drawn frequent criticism from English observers for his ponderous, sometimes ugly approach, but even his biggest critic must admit he has an enviable desire to win.

It's a desire to win that was honed on the fields of South Africa, Bechet says. "He is a bit of a nutter. When he was at school here at Rondebosch [a boys' school in Cape Town], he was an aggressive bugger. I know that, I saw him. My teams have competed with him. He is tough, tough. I don't want to say horrible little bastard, but you know what I'm saying? He fights you to the death."

The current series will undoubtedly be defined by a similar intensity, not least because both teams are cut from the same cloth. The English, though, face another battle away from the Test arena if they are ever to be able to thrive without a helping hand from the South African school system.

Will Hawkes is a freelance journalist in England