January 9, 2016

The toughest finishing school in cricket

Many young England cricketers have honed their skills in the unforgiving world of Australian grade cricket. The latest generation is no exception

Essex's Jaik Mickleburgh has spent the winter as captain of North Sydney © Getty Images

The North Sydney Cricket Club is your archetypal Australian grade club. Founded in 1858, their home ground is the North Sydney Oval, surrounded by old stands which were acquired from the SCG, and a venue used regularly by New South Wales for one-day games. Sir Donald Bradman and Keith Miller, two of the finest players to ever wear the Australian Baggy Green, played for them. This year, this very Australian club is being captained by an Englishman.

Essex's young batsman Jaik Mickleburgh has returned to North Sydney after a successful stint last season and has been made captain and assistant coach. For an Englishman to impress in such a way is a big deal in the notoriously tough environment of Australian grade cricket. It is generally regarded as the toughest club cricket in the world, valued for its intensity and high standard, with most sides filled with State and international players. Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Joe Root are three England Test players who spent formative seasons playing in Australian club cricket.

Each year, dozens of young English cricketers, some experienced county professionals like Mickleburgh and others just out of school, head down under on a quest to improve their games. Most want to improve technically, but overcoming the off-field challenges of being away from home, working to make ends meet and living up to tough and uncompromising expectations can be just as beneficial to a young player's career as anything they may work on in the nets. It takes courage to make the decision to go in the first place. Now 25, Mickleburgh's first season in Australia was a trip in to the unknown.

"My first trip away was as a 17-year-old," he says. "I was very excited about the opportunity but also apprehensive. It being the first time I had spent any period of time away from home. There was an element of the unknown being picked up in Melbourne by someone who I had never met in person."

Homesickness is inevitable, especially over the Christmas period, but combatting that is an important part of the growing-up process and shows a toughness that can come in handy on the pitch.

"After a while of being homesick, I realised that it was the best decision I had ever made to go away and play cricket," says Mickleburgh. "The experience definitely toughened me up and has made me a stronger person and player."

Warwickshire's young legspinner Josh Poysden is currently playing for Northern Districts in Sydney, his fourth winter down under. He admits that being away from home on Christmas Day on his first trip was hard.

"Obviously you miss your friends and family. However the families from the club took me in. I reckon I had invites to about five different lunches so that was really nice," says Poysden. "It was a surreal thing going to the beach for a swim on Christmas Day rather than being in the freezing cold. I did miss my Mum's roast turkey though!"

England wicketkeeper Sarah Taylor played for Northern Districts in men's grade cricket in Adelaide last year © Getty Images

Some young English players who are not established county players when they arrive in Australia have to arrange their own trips. Without the security of a county contract, it can be a risk financially, but combining work and cricket shows a determination and a will to succeed that all the best players need. Because it is a risk, they have to make it work if they are to get a county contract.

That is something that Poysden had to do on his early trips. "On my previous three trips, I played for Gordon DCC, and this was all sorted out myself," he says. "I didn't have a contract with Warwickshire on any of these trips and so had to support and pay my own way. This meant fitting training around working to support myself, so there were some very long days. However, I saw coming out here as something that needed to be done if I was to further my career. It's a no-brainer as a young legspinner to get loads of overs under your belt rather than training in an indoor school."

Poysden's point about wanting to get more match play overs is a topical one. Debate is raging about the state of English spin and the stark fact is that the county system is not helping young spinners develop because there are simply not enough opportunities to bowl overs in match situations. Taking the initiative, as Poysden has done, to get more experience and bowl more overs is all the more important as a result and likely to stand a young spinner in better stead in the long term than a winter at home.

Alongside the full-time work and the homesickness, players are expected to perform on the pitch against high-class opposition. Grade cricket's standard is often compared to that of county second XI cricket, so it is no easy thing for a young English player to do. Poysden says: "There are three or four other pros in our first grade side and Brad Haddin is playing this weekend, so it's a great but tough environment to be in. I've been lucky to play against Ed Cowan and Michael Clarke over the last few years."

Plenty of seasoned professionals can make it an uncompromising place for a young player where nobody takes a backward step or is short of a word. It doesn't matter how old you are either; if you're old enough to play, you're old enough to cop it. "You hear about Australian sledging and the first trip was a bit of an eye-opener," says Mickleburgh. "There was never anything too bad but it was something I hadn't experienced much before as a 17-year-old. You just get used to it and it helps toughen you up. You have to focus on the ball and ignore all the other stuff."

Warwickshire's Josh Poysden has honed his skills at Northern Districts © Getty Images

Pressure to perform is a common bedfellow for the professional cricketer but young players in Australia have the added pressure of repaying people who have given them an opportunity, something that can become a burden. "Everyone at Northern Districts has been so supportive, so it's important to me that I contribute to some wins for the club," says Poysden. He made a good start, taking 7 for 87 in his first game and helped his side reach the finals day of the grade T20 competition at the SCG.

Such a strong club system means competition for places is intense. Some players who may be regulars for their counties can find themselves out of the first-grade side. Root, who headed to South Australia when he was 19, finished the season in the second team despite being a regular for Yorkshire the previous year. For some it can be the first taste of rejection they have encountered, but is unlikely to be the last.

Australians are traditionally a tough, no-nonsense people, and young players, whether shipped over from England or not, are expected to get on with whatever comes their way. "Playing in another country poses many challenges, but I think the most important is being accepted by new team-mates as a good bloke by getting your head down and working hard through it all, even when you're not in the first grade," says Mickleburgh. Proving you're not a soft Pom, in other words.

Proving you're prepared to work hard is one thing, but integrating in to a new social circle, especially at the beginning of a trip where a player will know so few people can be a challenge. Young players often live with the families of club members and this support network is vital.

"The family I lived with were such kind people, welcoming me into their home and it made everything much easier," says Poysden. "The son of the family is a similar age to me and played for the same club, so it was like having a brother out here. Some of the friends I've made here are some of my closest in the world."

Such is the value of the experience on and off the field that many players head back year after year in their early 20s. Both Mickleburgh and Poysden have spent four seasons in Australia, experiencing different conditions and different environments. Essex have set up a link with Newton and Chilwell CC, Mickleburgh's first club in Australia, to host young cricketers, an arrangement that has been in place since 2007. The opportunities are there for players who wish to take them.

A season in Australian grade cricket is a rite of passage for young English players, providing them with challenges on and off the field. While the cricket is intense, the lifestyle challenges of a winter down under can help young English players grow and toughen up, which can then benefit their on-field performances. Future England Test players are being groomed by Australian grade cricket. Maybe Australians do like doing the Poms a favour after all.