The Yorkshire Academy: elitism that dares speak its name

In front of a raucous crowd at Headingley last Friday evening, Matthew Fisher bowled the penultimate over of Yorkshire's NatWest T20 Blast match against Lancashire. He was hit for two sixes, took two wickets and sent down two wides. He was watched by 16,199 spectators.

On Saturday morning, Fisher was at Shaw Lane Sports Centre, the home of Barnsley Cricket Club, where he was due to captain Yorkshire's Academy against the team just above them in the ECB Yorkshire Premier League.

Matthew Fisher is a professional cricketer. He is 17 years old.

Certainly since Andrew Gale's team won the County Championship last September and probably since England's Under-19 team included five Yorkshire cricketers a year or so back, people have wondered what makes the county's Academy special.

That question became even more insistent on Tuesday night when Joe Root's century and Adil Rashid's all-round excellence helped England to overwhelm New Zealand at Edgbaston. Both Root and Rashid are Academy graduates.

A couple of months previously, while some at Headingley were doubting the merit of England taking six Yorkshiremen on the recent West Indies tour but playing only two, others were predicting that before long Alex Lees, Jack Leaning et al would also be gaining representative honours. Lees and Leaning are also products of the Academy and there are plenty more where they came from.

Yorkshire's Academy is the elitism that dares to speak its name. Nobody complains about the cultivation of an elite in Yorkshire cricket. On the contrary, they demand it.

Shaw Lane is perched on one of a succession of plateaux on the outskirts of Barnsley. While it may be the windiest non-coastal ground in England, it is also a classy venue and it hosts county second-team games. Outsiders make the connection with Geoffrey Boycott, Dickie Bird and Michael Parkinson but the Barnsley club also produced England internationals in Darren Gough, the former fast bowler turned sports broadcaster, and Martyn Moxon, Yorkshire's director of cricket, among many others.

On Saturday Fisher and his colleagues were returning to one of the heartlands of Yorkshire cricket to test themselves against a fine side. If they required a reminder of the standards required to remain on Yorkshire's staff, they needed only to look at Barnsley's team-sheet. It contained the name of Azeem Rafiq, once England Under-19 captain, once Yorkshire's T20 skipper, once the next big thing. Rafiq was released last season, one of many who never quite made it. Fisher won the toss and decided to bat.

"Our job is to get rid of these lads as fast as we can. We want to get them either upwards, on to the professional staff, or outwards, because we feel that they are not going to be the right players for Yorkshire County Cricket Club" Richard Damms, head coach

It is after tea before Richard Damms, the head coach at the Academy, comes over to speak to me. He has just finished chatting on the phone with Moxon, Yorkshire's director of cricket. These chats are frequent because Moxon keeps the closest of eyes on the Academy while still letting Damms, who is also a Barnsley lad, get on with his job.

The game is not going well for Fisher's team. They mustered only 199 for 9 in their 55 overs and Barnsley's former first-team skipper and current groundsman, Gary Nuttall, reckons this will take a lot of defending, even on a rather tired pitch. Barnsley's openers, Jonathon Trower and James Brown - the latter is also on Yorkshire's books - have begun well.

Damms talks about a structure that might be recognisable to other county coaches. He describes three tiers from the Emerging Players' Programme up to Scholarship level and, finally, the Academy. "Our job is to get rid of these lads as fast as we can," says Damms, who has been in the post since last winter's coaching reorganisation, following Richard Dawson's move to Gloucestershire. "We want to get them either upwards, on to the professional staff, or outwards, because we feel that they are not going to be the right players for Yorkshire County Cricket Club, although I hasten to add that a lot of them have successful careers at other counties."

We are sitting in one of the few sheltered spots at Shaw Lane. Around us are spectators who will have watched Moxon and Gough make their way in the game. In the middle, though, neither Fisher, who made his first-class debut at Worcester in April, nor Karl Carver, a slow left-armer who took his maiden Championship wickets against Warwickshire last season, have made a breakthrough.

"This year we have Academy players in the Under-19 age-group down to Under-16 but we have signed players at Under-14," said Damms. "I think we signed Joe Root at 13 or 14 because he'd just got something. Matthew Fisher signed Academy contract forms at 14 and now he's a full professional at 17. I've never seen that in all my time in cricket.

"The biggest advantage is the number of young lads playing cricket in Yorkshire," he says, when pressed as to what makes the Academy special. "There are that many lads fighting for the same spots. Inevitably it raises standards and the Yorkshire members demand that we are producing us own. One of our mission statements as a club is ideally to win the Championship with eleven of us own."

That latter aim is one which Yorkshire has yet to achieve in modern times but it is interesting to hear Damms voice a goal which some might interpret as belonging to the era when you had to be born in Yorkshire to play for the county, a stipulation that would now disqualify both Leaning and Will Rhodes from wearing the White Rose. These days, though, it is upbringing that matters to many: there is no longer a need to make sure you give birth the right side of the border.

"Our job is to facilitate opportunities and see who stands up and takes those opportunities and who, unfortunately, falls by the wayside," Damms says. "Everything we do is competitive because we know how tough it is.

"It's also important to see that we are one club. Our Academy lads will be on first-name terms with our international players because they will spend time with them."

This ease with senior cricketers is important at Yorkshire although it is not so very long ago that county cricket was steeped in obsequiousness and deference. This is no longer the case. Not at Yorkshire anyway.

Paul Farbrace, England's assistant coach, spent a productive period at Headingley, arriving via Kent and Sri Lanka before quickly departing to general regret.

"I once asked Paul Farbrace, when he was coaching at Yorkshire, what he looked for in a young player coming into a first-team environment," Damms says. "He said that he wanted him to look and act as if he belonged. Because if he didn't, you'd only get a shadow of the cricket he is capable of producing.

"If you can get one or two pushing for a professional contract out of every year's intake, that's fantastic. Last year we had five Academy lads playing for England Under-19s. This year we have two and next year we might have only one.

"But the great thing is that these lads know that if they are good enough, they will get a chance. Matthew bowled that penultimate over against Lancashire last night and he said to us today that he'd learned more in one over than in the previous 12 months. If Galey picks them, he plays them. There's no pecking order. We are one Yorkshire."

"My taxi driver knows I've been watching cricket. "Tell me this," he says, "why couldn't Bresnan nail his yorkers?"

But it is not a good day. Yorkshire's Academy lose to Barnsley by eight wickets. The players shake hands. As my taxi draws up to take me back to the train station, Fisher and his players are going through their warm-downs. They seem to be applying themselves to the exercises just as assiduously as if they were preparing to play. Theirs is a professionalism which has nothing to do with money.

Moxon and Damms have perhaps the deepest pool of players in the country. They are determined to make the most of it. It has always seemed that cricket is a part of Yorkshire life unequalled in any other county.

During the New Zealand Test at Headingley, each journalist was given a tea mug. On one side was a village cricket scene. Pastoral kitsch? All Cricketers Great and Small? Maybe. Yet in the county's very many strong cricket clubs, boys like Joe Root who have "got something" want to wear the White Rose almost as passionately as young New Zealanders want to be an All Black. And if they are good enough, they get the chance. Damms, Moxon and Gale see to it.

We are driving back to the station. My taxi driver knows I've been watching cricket but not what I do for a living. "Tell me this," he says, "why couldn't Bresnan nail his yorkers last night?" I murmur something sympathetic. "Anyway," he continues, "at least the weather forecast is good for the Middlesex match."