August 4, 2015

Giving England's young players a helping hand

The England Development Programme's focus on working closely with counties has helped players make an easier transition to the top level and also helped keep them grounded

The England Development Programme aims to ensure U-19 players have the right attitudes and temperament in county dressing rooms © ICC

During the third and final day of the Edgbaston Ashes Test, Nasser Hussain was sat in Sky Sports' "Third Man" chair. It is often a seat in which the occupant points out differences, but this time Hussain had encountered a constant: Stuart Broad's action. Alongside footage of Broad bowling in the third Test - arm straight, perpendicular to the head, which is off to the left, seemingly unable to watch what might unfold at the other end - was a slighter, less chiselled Broad bowling in the gold-emblem whites of the England Under-19 back in 2005.

Broad is one of nine of the Edgbaston XI to have played U-19 cricket. On Tuesday, the current crop start their own home series against Australia, beginning with a solitary "Test", followed by five one-dayers. It will not win much attention, with the Ashes series heading for a potentially decisive result at Trent Bridge, but the impact of U-19 cricket on the England side looks undeniable.

It should also be a closely fought affair - the corresponding set of fixtures in Australia in April saw a drawn Test and Australia take the one-day series 3-2. Currently only the third one-dayer, on August 17, is scheduled for live TV coverage. In ten years' time, an England player from that game might be given the Broad treatment using footage obtained from this very fixture.

"I wouldn't change that time in my life for the world," says Azeem Rafiq, who spent years as a golden child at England age-group level and at Yorkshire, where he was heralded for his skill and determinedness as a cricketer. "It's a privilege not everyone gets, to play for the U-19s, and it's an opportunity that should be enjoyed, for sure."

At the end of last season, Rafiq was released by Yorkshire and took "the tough decision" to step away from first-class cricket. Now playing for his home-town club Barnsley, he believes that it won't be long before he is back to where he wants to be. It is his enjoyment of U-19 cricket that he is keen to rediscover going forward in his career.

"You get to go abroad and play in different conditions, against your peers who are also trying to get to the top of the game. And to be captain, too. I absolutely loved it."

Last season, after one U-19 did not heed the warning of his team-mates, he returned to the dressing room to find the three-lions badge had been cut out of his bag and replaced with a picture of Mickey Mouse

The chance to travel the world is a perk, whether on a tour full of fixtures or winter away full of drills: to Australia, India, Sri Lanka or the UAE. But the shrewdest players recognise it is about more than that.

"Sometimes it's more professional than at your actual county," says Essex's Tom Westley, who represented the U-19 team between 2007 and 2008.

"With us, the ECB did their best to shadow the behaviour and structure of the full England team. There are a lot of backroom staff, not to mention the facilities you have access to at Loughborough. And the standard of cricket was another level: I played in a World Cup against Junaid Khan, Mohammad Amir, Virat Kohli and Tim Southee. That can only be a good thing."

But for all the glowing references from those who have come through the system, there is an air of resentment from those who developed in the harsher climes, outside the national pathways. Mainly it seems to be at what they perceive as an arrogance from certain individuals who come fresh from the U-19 bubble.

Craig Overton's England selection, seemingly based more on potential than merit, raised a few eyebrows among his peers © Getty Images

To many, the programme breeds bad attitudes in youngsters who have achieved very little in the game. Naturally county cricket - the entity and its incumbents - bite back at those thus identified to succeed. A player's first travails on the domestic treadmill can be humbling enough, without others willfully adding to the discomfort.

When you next find yourself at a county match, prick up your ears when a highly rated youngster comes to the crease. At a Division One Championship fixture at Old Trafford last year, one group of players got under the skin of a high-profile, recently graduated U-19 batsman to such an extent that not only did they talk him out of his wicket, he had to be restrained from entering the opposition dressing room at the end of the day as he went in search of some form of retribution.

That some established players find perceived youthful promise so irksome might be down to a cultural shift occurring inside the county dressing room. Those senior players would have come through a hierarchical structure in the dressing room where they would have to earn the respect of their fellow players from a position of weakness. As a youngster you had little credibility until you proved it out in the middle, and then later at the bar.

Now players aged 19 and 20 are brasher, armed with sponsorship deals and agents on hand to help force a move if all is not rosy. "My boy's going to be a star, he doesn't need this shithole," spluttered one agent when he thought his client was being strong-armed into a new deal by his county. The player in question would go on to leave at the end of the season, securing a pay rise in the process.

One group of players got under the skin of a high-profile, recently graduated U-19 batsman to such an extent that not only did they talk him out of his wicket, he had to be restrained from entering the opposition dressing room at the end of the day

There is also the belief among some on the circuit that their peers with previous involvement in England age-group programmes are given special treatment. One example that came up earlier this season was Somerset's Craig Overton, who was drafted into the England squad during the ODI series against New Zealand, along with his twin brother Jamie, despite averaging under 15 with the bat and over 40 with the ball in List A cricket. At a glance, an extreme case of a selection based on potential rather than sustained performance.

"I suppose there are some U-19 cricketers who are earmarked without having done much in county cricket," agrees Westley. And I think that's naturally going to happen every year. I don't think that's a bad thing; if they see someone that has potential and can bypass a bit of the system, then that's at the discretion of the selectors."

Others do not necessarily share that view. "What has Craig Overton done to get a call-up to the ODI squad?" asked a county bowler in possession of better numbers. "That's no slight on him, though - he can't choose whether he's picked or not. It's just ridiculous."

This disconnect between the national system and county cricket is being addressed. In recent years the programme has evolved to ensure the two collaborate rather than exist in conflict.

Now instead of two age groups, the U-17 and U-19, there is one England Development Programme, which competes at U-19 level, while providing opportunities and experiences for players in the full age range from 17 to 19. The process of picking those players is also more rigorous than ever.

With each new crop starting on the programme in the first weekend of October, the work to assemble the best and most suitable youngsters begins at the start of that summer.

A long list of players is drawn up at the beginning of the season through the recommendation of county and academy coaches. Throughout the summer these coaches provide feedback on how their respective players are performing, while a number of scouts (between 15 and 25) ensure that each player is watched at least six times, whether that's in school, age-group, 2nd XI or first-class cricket.

Once that information is collated, the list is shortened before EDP coaches and selectors focus their scouting trips on the selected few - 17, in the case of the current cohort - to ensure the right decisions have been made. It is a system that has been devised through working closely with the Football Association and noting how they operate, select and develop talent at age-group levels.

Left-arm quick Sam Curran, a product of the EDP, took eight wickets on Championship debut © Getty Images

The final stamps on selection are delivered by a committee of four: EDP chairman of selectors David Graveney, who once fulfilled the role for the national side, the head of the EDP, Andy Hurry, and his assistants, Iain Brunnschweiler and Tim Boon. Such a thorough process helps to guard against favouritism.

It is this increased liaising with counties that led the ECB to appoint Hurry last September. He left his job as director of high performance at Somerset. Having been at the county for 13 years, he cultivated an academy at Taunton that has produced Jos Buttler and nine of Somerset's current 1st XI squad. One of those nine, 21-year-old Tom Abell is thought to have the talent and temperament to go all the way. His 571 runs at an average of just over 40 in his debut Championship season support that enthusiasm.

With the number of days players are on the EDP significantly reduced, and more focus placed on working successfully together with first-class counties, having someone with Hurry's experience in position at the National Cricket Performance Centre is vital.

"Coming in from county cricket, I had a relatively experienced background working with developing players," Hurry told ESPNcricinfo. "But I quickly appreciated that the staff working on the programme had a greater knowledge and understanding of working with adolescent players. I was fortunate to walk into a new environment where I could trust the staff to do what they do.

"The brief was very clear - to collaborate that working relationship with counties. We recognise the development opportunity players have at their first-class counties. Our major role needs to be providing significant opportunities and learning experiences that the first-class counties cannot offer them."

It's a point reinforced by Brunnschweiler, who was briefly employed as a professional and later assistant coach by Hampshire, and who has been with the EDP for four years.

For those about to come to the end of the EDP cycle, Brunnschweiler has been an ever-present. As well as the county contribution for his young players, he respects the role of parents and schools. "It's something we have worked really hard on over the last few years," he says. "We have to make sure we are all aligned - whether that's a club or even a school coach. Essentially, together we're a whole system around the player. They need to be the focus for us."

The core group of players set to take on Australia U-19 over the next month have had up to three years in the central programme, meaning the depth of understanding that Brunnschweiler and his fellow coaches have about them is extensive.

Of the 16 players selected in the Test squad, nine have already played competitive 1st XI cricket for their counties. Rightly, it's a big tick for the EDP and those supporting the development of each individual.

Brunnschweiller is quick to share the praise. For the development of Hampshire legspinner Mason Crane, credit is given to former Hants spinner Rajesh Maru, who has been working with Crane at Lancing College. Likewise for Surrey's Sam Curran, who took match figures of 8 for 120 (including a five-wicket haul in the first innings) on Championship debut against Kent.

"With Sam, the bulk of the work has been done by Surrey and Wellington College, but we hope the experience he had with the EDP out against Pakistan last winter helped. That's what we need to do - provide excellent experiences for these guys to learn from and in an environment where the boundaries are very clear."

For Alex Wakely, England's captain at the 2008 U-19 World Cup, his experiences as a highly rated youngster who has since had to work out his game in domestic cricket are more common than those of the select few who make unhindered progress to the top of the tree.

As it happens, Wakely's crop saw a big conversion of U-19s to full-time professional cricketers, with 12 of that squad of 15 currently active in the first-class circuit. Four of those 12 - Steven Finn, James Taylor, Chris Woakes and Stuart Meaker - have played international cricket, while others such as Westley, Sam Northeast and James Harris have been pushing their credentials for higher honours this season.

Now, as captain at Northamptonshire, Wakely is keen do what senior players at the club did for him when he was an U-19.

"I was lucky," he remembers. "They took me to one side and said: 'Look, don't come here swanning around with your England kit. That means nothing in the big world'.

"I try and instil that in our dressing room. But we've had a few lads in the past who have come back with their England bags to first-class games. It's fine if you've played for the full side. But U-19s?"

The bag is an interesting point of contention across the country. As a general rule of thumb, full international bags seem to be allowed, but stash obtained on Performance Programmes or U-19 duty is generally a no-no. Last season, after one U-19 did not heed the warning of his team-mates, he returned to the dressing room to find the three-lions badge had been cut out of his bag and replaced with a picture of Mickey Mouse.

One player under Wakely's stewardship whom he is focused on seeing succeed is Ben Duckett. An exceptional talent who thrilled at the U-19 level and is starting to replicate those performances on the domestic scene, Duckett is prone to moments of recklessness. Last month he was banned from driving for a year after he crashed his car into a ditch while over the alcohol limit.

"Seriously, I love this bloke," says Wakely. "He's an absolute diamond with all the potential to go right to the top, but he needs more time in a professional environment. He knows he's messed up. This has been a massive wake-up call for him."

It is perhaps here that the ECB and the EDP are making major strides.

"The programme's biggest change in the last few years, and some of the lessons we have taken, is that it's about developing the person, not just the player," says Hurry.

It's a point Brunnschweiler takes further. "We need to have a holistic approach about what we do. If there are players that are really talented but a bit challenging, it's up to us as a system to work out how we are going to help them become the best and most effective player they can be. We should embrace individuality, while understanding why a player might be doing something slightly different to their peers.

"All this," says Brunnschweiler, "while getting them to learn how to win."

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