A degree in life, not just cricket
If the last few days have taught us anything, it is that there is far more to life than cricket. So while the outcome of the final of the British Universities and Colleges Cricket (BUCS) competition might not, in itself, seem particularly important in the grand scheme of things, such encounters actually carry much deeper significance. Indeed, you could make a strong case to suggest that the introduction of MCC University cricket (MCCU) is, alongside Chance to Shine, central contracts, four-day cricket and the adoption of promotion and relegation, one of the most positive developments in domestic cricket in the last 20 years.
Professional sport is a seductive beast. It sucks you in with whispered promises of glory and glamour and spits you out with broken dreams and an aching body. For every cricketing career that ends in a raised bat and warm ovation, there are a thousand that end on a physio's treatment table or in an uncomfortable meeting in a director of cricket's office. Many, many more stall well before that level.
And that's where the trouble starts. Young men trained for little other than sport can suddenly find themselves in a world for which they have little training and little preparation. Without status, salary or support, the world can seem an inhospitable place. It is relevant, surely, that the suicide rate of former cricketers is three times the national average.
The Professional Cricketers' Association does sterling work trying to help former players who have fallen on hard times, but prevention must be better than the cure, and a huge step on the road of progress has been taken in the form of the MCCU.
It has had different names along the way but the MCCU scheme was set up in the mid-1990s by former England opening batsman Graeme Fowler. Confronted with a choice between university and full-time cricket when he was 18, Fowler opted for university. It was a decision that provided the foundations for financial stability that extended far beyond his playing days. As Fowler puts it while watching the Durham MCCU team he coaches play Cambridge MCCU in the BUCS final: "Even a cricketer as successful as Alec Stewart had more of his working life to come after he finished playing. And not everyone can be a coach or a commentator."
The fundamental aim of the MCCUs is to allow talented young cricketers to continue their education while also pursuing their dream of playing professional cricket. It is to prevent a situation where they have to choose between the two. It should mean that young players gain the qualifications and skills for a life beyond cricket while still giving themselves every opportunity to progress in the game. Graduates will have enjoyed good-quality facilities and coaching while also maturing as people. It should be no surprise that several counties actively encourage their young players into the scheme as they know they will return, three years later and still in their early 20s, far better prepared for the rigours of professional sport and life beyond it.
It works, too. Just under 25% of England-qualified cricketers currently playing in the county game graduated through the system. Durham MCCU alone has helped develop more than 50 county players, six county captains, three England players and, most obviously, England's Test captain, Andrew Strauss, who credits the initiative as vital to his success. "It was at Durham University that I went through the transition of being a recreational cricketer to one who had the ambition to play the game for a living," he has said. The MCCUs have a mightily impressive record.
And, these days, it costs the ECB nothing. Not a penny. Instead the six MCCUs (Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Cardiff, Leeds/Bradford and Loughborough) have, since 2005, been funded by the MCC. Each institution receives £80,000 a year and hopes to cobble together enough extra funding from sponsorship and other smaller grants to meet their annual running costs of around £130,000. You might well ask why the ECB - despite its annual income of around £110 million and rising - cannot find some more money for such an admirable scheme.
Indeed, it is interesting to reflect on the roots of the MCCUs. In the mid-1990s, the ECB (or the TCCB as it was known at the time) lost its Lottery funding as the Lottery Commission was concerned that the sport did not possess a complete development programme that incorporated higher education. The board, in panic, embraced Fowler's plans and appointed a couple of dozen regional development officers. Had the Lottery Commission not intervened, it is debatable whether the ECB would have had the foresight to act at all.
There are detractors. When, in April, Durham MCCU were bowled out for 18 by a Durham attack that contained Graham Onions, among others, it provided fresh ammunition for those who say that such games should not hold first-class status.
It is a fair point. Fowler never actually wanted the games to carry first-class status but worries that if such status is stripped, the funding may disappear too. He also worries that the matches against the counties - key factors in the development of his young players - might go. Without those two facets, the system loses its attraction and the safety net disappears. The odd aberration in the first-class record might well prove to be a price worth paying for the benefits of MCCUs.
As it was, Cambridge MCCU, boosted by an innings of 129 by Ben Ackland, defeated Durham MCCU by 24 runs in the BUCS final in the scenic surrounds of Wormsley. Perhaps only four or five of the players on show have realistic hopes of enjoying a career in cricket - Surrey's Zafar Ansari is currently with Cambridge MCCU, though he missed the BUCS game, while Paul Best (Cambridge MCCU and Warwickshire), Chris Jones (Durham MCCU and Somerset) and Freddie van den Bergh (Durham MCCU and Surrey) are among those already affiliated with counties - but it was noticeable that at least one first-class county sent a scout to the match.
"I spent my whole professional playing career on a one- or two-year contract," Chris Scott, the Cambridge MCCU coach, says. "It probably made me a more insecure, selfish cricketer than I should have been. The MCCU scheme provides a safety net for players and helps them grow up and improve as players as people. It helps prepare them for life, whether that is in cricket or not."
"And it's not just about playing," Fowler adds. "Some of our graduates have gone to be coaches or analysts at counties. Some might have become solicitors, but set up junior coaching schemes at their local clubs. There is a cascade effect that people sometimes don't appreciate."
The quality of the head coaches is a vital factor. Scott, for example, is a philosophical fellow well suited to preparing his charges for the inevitable slings and arrows. He has needed to be. As Durham wicketkeeper he was, after all, responsible for the most expensive dropped catch in first-class history. Playing at Edgbaston in 1994, he put down Brian Lara on 18 and moaned to the slip cordon, "I bet he goes on and gets a hundred now." Lara went on to score an unbeaten 501.
Cambridge are the standout side among current MCCUs, and Scott's record in aiding the development of the likes of Chris Wright and Tony Palladino should not be underestimated.
The graduates of Durham MCCU are also lucky to have Fowler. Not just for his playing experience - anyone who scored a Test double-century in India and a Test century against the West Indies of 1984 knows a thing or two about batting - but also his life experience. For his easygoing good humour and mellow wisdom. He enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a player, but the formation of the MCCUs is surely his biggest contribution to the game.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo