Tuesday June 3rd 2014

Naturally, hardly any results during half-term.

This gives me the opportunity to respond to Michael Atherton?s article in The Times last week about schools cricket and sports scholarships. In brief, he said that though Joe Root went to Worksop, he wasn?t really a ?product? of that very good cricketing school and he himself wasn?t really a ?product? of The Manchester Grammar School (while giving fulsome credit to the school and its cricket).

His main point rightly concerned sports scholarships, about which I wrote in Wisden this year. There is a problem. When school A offers a potential pupil a better financial deal than school B, it isn?t just that school A improves its sporting intake; it worsens school B?s. This is different from academic, music and arts scholarships, because all schools offer those and there is no sense of parents hawking their children round different schools looking for the best deal. No blame to them, fees being so expensive. The problem is that relatively few schools can afford to offer sports scholarships or are prepared to do so. Thus there is beginning to be a super-league of cricketing schools who effectively buy in their talent and deprive other schools as a result. As I wrote in Wisden, sports scholarships were sort of banned by HMC, in a very C-of-E type woolly ban which was cheerfully ignored in places, until 1990 when the ban was lifted. The results have not always been edifying.

In a fairly extreme case (though involving rugby rather than cricket), a small school had on its front cover for the autumn calendar a picture of the rugby captain for the term, only to discover when term started that he had been poached (by the enticement of a sports scholarship) by a rather larger school not far away. At two days? notice.

I also agree with Atherton?s friend who said that in coaching at a school his principal aim was to nurture a love of the game in as many boys and girls as possible so that they would want to play the game after they leave and also, of course, form a knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience for the professional game. This is one reason why I do not like the movement in the last ten years towards purely overs cricket in inter-school matches. The audience for Test matches must surely decline, as elsewhere in the world, if young people literally do not understand what is going on. I recently watched a school involved in a rare declaration game against MCC and clearly had no idea about playing for a draw (for about five overs) when any chance of winning was long gone.

I part company when Atherton by implication but probably unintentionally suggests that schools have less impact on young players than clubs or leagues. The vast majority of cricketing schools have a huge impact on their charges, bringing them from knowing nothing of the game and having no skills at all to anything up to England Under-19 standard. It is not just having the facilities. It is the dedication of a huge number of really good coaches, the vast majority of whom are ordinary members of the teaching staff and who are not paid extra for their time, that produces these results, mostly in the independent sector. It used to be so in the state sector until the 1976 Houghton report (on teaching) which was a spectacular example of the law of unintended consequences. By prescribing what teachers should and should not do, this vast army of willing volunteers, which still exists in independent schools, evaporated almost overnight so that cricket is now largely left to the PE department which may or may not be staffed by keen cricketers.

To Lord?s on Saturday. Devotees of this column will be aware that I am no huge fan of overs cricket so it was not with a keen sense of anticipation that I went to the home of the game. Happily, most members of MCC share this disdain and so I found a seat for much of the day.

And what a wonderful day it turned out to be. First we had the sublime batting of Sangakarra and Dilshan. The beauty of Sri Lankan cricket is that they worship the coaching manual (and cricket in their schools is at a level of almost religious fervour that we can only dream of). This was followed by turgid and pusillanimous English batting of the kind we are so familiar with from times past, though Joe Root and Gary Ballance did their best to resurrect an apparently dying corpse.

At 111 for five after 28.2 overs (chasing exactly 300), when many members around me packed their bags and set off home in quiet exasperation, the crowd (who had paid and therefore stayed) cheered ironically when Jos Buttler ? formerly of King?s Taunton and the Wisden Schools Cricketer of the Year 2009 – hit a daring reverse-sweep for four after a couple of balls at the crease. The Sunday Times reported the extraordinary figure that the entire England team (apart from Buttler) scored only five fours in a total of 293 for eight.

When he hit two successive sixes at the start of one over, the crowd sensed that something spectacular was on the cards. The funny thing was that he did not seem to launch himself for two great heaves. He seemed to play a very pleasant and classical drive and then the umpire?s hands were in the air. The rest could well be history because this is a player who I think will be the next big thing in English cricket. He will certainly empty the bars when he goes to the crease.


*Stewart’s Melville 128-8 (23 overs), High School of Glasgow 89-5
Hutcheson’s GS 118, *Glasgow Academy 119-4

National Twenty20 competition

Eastern section A play-offs
Bedford 182-6, *Oakham 123-9
Bedford win Eastern section A and now play Stamford in the regional semi-final

Schools Cricket Online