The essential Test Kit
Wanting it is one thing, doing it another, assisted by talent, desire and luck. Christopher Lyles explores the different routes to the top
But what else? Talent alone? Character? Luck? And how do you get spotted? Do you have to play at school? How do you get into the `system'? And how important is desire? Can you wish your way to the top or can you want it too much?
TWC tries to answer these questions through the experiences of a number of interested parties including three current England players: Alastair Cook, Monty Panesar and Matthew Hoggard.
Over the past 12 months 19 players have appeared in a Test for England: the Ashes XII and seven more on the winter tours to Pakistan and India. All are products, to a greater or lesser extent, of county cricket. But that is only part of the story. Most have been in the ECB system since their teens. Some, like Cook, have ticked every box along the way and been thrust into the white heat of international cricket at a tender age. Others, like Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick, were bright young things who appeared to have lost their way in the county game before being anointed by Duncan Fletcher. Then there are the wild cards like Paul Collingwood who was never part of the ECB age-group system. And finally you have the Johnny-come-latelys like Geraint Jones and Kevin Pietersen, schooled overseas, who came to the UK to seek fame and fortune - and found it. So is there a magic ingredient?
Minor road, major will
Few of the current England squad played much serious, organised cricket at school, though Panesar is an exception. Their cricket education came at local clubs. Some, like Panesar, played Minor Counties cricket too. Panesar has also represented England Under-19 and been at the Academy, which gives him pretty much a full hand of representative honours on his CV. This is the same Panesar who was treading water at Loughborough University and in Northamptonshire's 2nd XI for the best part of two seasons before emerging last summer to take 46 Championship wickets in eight matches and thrust himself into the selectors' minds.
"I was outside the England age-group system when I was in my mid-teens," says Panesar, who played club cricket for Luton Town & Luton Indians before moving to Dunstable. "I played for Bedfordshire at schoolboy level but I was not involved in the Midlands age-group team and didn't represent England until Under-19 level. But it was an ECB development officer, David Mercer, who pushed me towards Minor Counties cricket, and it was when I was playing for Bedfordshire that Northamptonshire first took an interest in me.
"Playing for England was something I always dreamed of. There were frustrating times - like when I didn't play first-class cricket for two years until last July. I would say to myself: `Persevere with this. Stay strong.' Some people malign 2nd XI cricket all too easily but any cricket should be viewed as a platform and an opportunity. And I tried to maintain my good habits on a daily basis and to continue to do the right things to develop my cricket. It was always at the forefront of my mind that I could get a fi rst-team opportunity at the drop of a hat and so I had to make sure that I was on top of my game all the time."
Panesar's teenage ambition led him to arrange his own entrance to Bedford Modern School because he knew that going to a Luton sixthform college would reduce his cricket opportunities. He knew some of the staff and pupils at Bedford Modern through playing county schools cricket and took it upon himself to approach the private school about the possibility of being awarded a sixth-form scholarship.
"It was entirely of Monty's own volition that he came to Bedford Modern and I still haven't met his parents to this day," says Nigel Chinneck, the master in charge of cricket. "He came for an interview at the school on his own, sorted out his A-level courses and that was that. I had already seen him bowl and, in a lifetime, you don't see many people who can bowl with such control at such a young age.
"He came from quite a cloistered background in Luton and he needed a few years to lose some of his intensity and, perhaps, naivety. But he had an amazing capacity and desire to improve his game - and that has to come from within. He would always be picking other people's brains. I remember we toured the West Indies once and he met Brian Lara, who was chilling out in a club, two nights in a row and Monty just tried to elicit as much help and advice from Lara as he possibly could. He would always watch people and ask them what they were doing. He would practise as much as he could and try to develop anything that might help his game."
Alastair Cook, who made his memorable Test debut in the same match as Panesar at Nagpur in March, also grew up in Bedford where he attended Bedford School, another independent school in the town.
Cook is clearly blessed with a special talent but it seems he understood at an early age that talent alone is not enough. As a 15-year-old at Bedford School he joined the staff swimming club - which meant 7am starts two or three times a week - because he realised he needed to improve his strength and fitness.
Only a fortnight into his first summer term Cook served notice of his insatiable appetite for runs when, as a 13-year-old, he played against his own school 1st XI after MCC had turned up a man short and promptly scored a century. Cook was immediately drafted into the school first team and went on to score 19 more hundreds over the next five years.
"Alastair has always been a level-headed, modest and popular person who simply wanted to be as good as possible," says Jeremy Farrell, the master in charge of cricket at Bedford School and the person responsible for offering Cook's services to MCC in that match. "Even at the age of 15 he knew he wasn't fit enough. So he joined the staff swimming club. Furthermore he was a fantastic listener. He filtered information and advice and used it accordingly.
"He just about drove Derek Randall, our cricket professional, into the ground because he wanted to be on the bowling machine whenever he could, whether it was at 9am or 8pm. I remember talking to Neil Foster [the former Essex and England seam bowler] at a Young England game and he asked me who takes the credit in a case such as Alastair's. It was a good question. A player has to possess the talent and we can all be mentors. Ultimately, however, it is up to the individual whether he succeeds or not."
"When I first coached Alastair as a 15-year-old, I knew immediately that he had the talent to play for England," says Keith Fletcher, the former Essex and England captain and coach. "But just as importantly, he possessed the attitude and the determination to play for England. He was always prepared to look and listen. You would impart information and he'd take it on board straightaway."
Like Panesar and many others, Cook has had his share of second-team cricket. And like Panesar he supports it. "Normally the players are young people with a point to prove and they are learning to play men's cricket against professionals," he says. "I hardly scored a run when I played in Essex's second team at the age of 16 and 17. I still backed my own belief, however. But, if you have a bad run with the bat, you don't suddenly change everything to do with your game. I am always looking to improve my game but I have scored my runs in quite similar fashion whenever I have played cricket.
Owais Shah also made his Test debut in India (as a last-minute replacement for the indisposed Cook in the third Test). Like Cook, he has always been one of the special ones but, unlike Cook, it took him 10 years from his first A tour aged 16 to reach the senior side. He feared that his chance had gone.
"The ability has always been there," says John Emburey, Shah's director of cricket at Middlesex. "Owais possessed all the shots that were required; he just had to learn when to use them. It is all very well having 20 shots in your repertoire but, on some pitches, you have to put 15 of them in the locker. He is now a much more mature player who finally understands his game. And he has done that by improving his attitude and temperament and by possessing the will to go out and do it."
Right place, right time
While Cook and Shah looked destined to play for England from a young age, the same cannot be said of Matthew Hoggard, who was still playing third-team cricket for his beloved Pudsey Congs at the age of 16. It was then that the late Phil Carrick, the club captain, fasttracked Hoggard to the first team and recommended him to Steve Oldham, Yorkshire's director of cricket.
"If it wasn't for Phil Carrick, I would not have achieved what I have," says Hoggard. "I was very much outside the system and it was a case of `who you know, not what you know'. Would I have played for England if it hadn't been for Phil? Probably not. I wasn't massively into cricket at the time. But he sat me down, asked me what I wanted to do with my life and gave me a push in the right direction. Grass-roots cricket is a lot better now, in so far as much more time and money is being spent on it. Thankfully it is a lot harder to slip through the net."
Hoggard's point is an interesting one. Would Michael Vaughan, for instance, have evaded the net if Doug Padgett, who was Yorkshire's head coach at the time, not spotted the 13-year-old playing on the outfield at Abbeydale Park, Sheffield during the tea interval of a county match? Padgett put on his detective hat, discovered that the Manchester-born Vaughan played club cricket for Sheffield Collegiate and thrust him into Yorkshire's second team at the age of 16 after the county had relaxed their rules on employing players born outside the county.
"Whether Michael's career would have followed the same path is difficult to say," says Padgett. "But I can say without doubt that he had ambition as a lad. He had an authority and a discipline that marked him out from the others. He listened, practised hard and looked after himself. You didn't have to worry what he was up to at night. He wanted to be a good cricketer and that was his No. 1 ambition."
Vaughan has clearly achieved his No.1 ambition but is it still possible for potential England cricketers to slip through the net? "I can't say that we will spot every bit of talent that this country is ever going to produce," says Peter Ackerley, the ECB's director of development. "But because of the player development pathway - or the 'system' - that now exists, there is much less chance of someone like Vaughan or Hoggard not being picked up.
"The links between schools and their local clubs is fundamental. If you look back and find out where the success of players such as Vaughan, Andrew Flintoff, Trescothick, Paul Collingwood and Steve Harmison originated from, you would point to them being involved in well-organised club cricket at an early age - structured cricket with good coaches, organised practice and match-play available to them. They were exposed to playing the right level of competitive cricket, whether it was pairs' cricket at under-11 level or 20 overs a side at under-13 level, at a suitable age.
"Schools cricket is important to engender enthusiasm among young people but club cricket is where we want to get them to. And then they are on the pathway that will lead the best of them to district cricket and beyond. We are trying to make sure that we give every child an opportunity to reach the highest level of their ability and we will maximise that opportunity. It is not necessarily a question of putting excellence into every player. It is more a matter of finding the excellence in a player and optimising it."
And ultimately the only person who can optimise that excellence is the player himself.
Christopher Lyles writes on cricket for the Daily Telegraph
This article was first published in the June issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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