Wisden review of the 2008 season

SCHOOLS CRICKET 2008

REVIEW BY DOUGLAS HENDERSON

(Note: this is DCH’s original version, not the edited printed one)

A very striking feature of the statistics is the number of boys who feature highly in the bowling averages table but who bowled very few overs in the season. In many cases, this was because younger players (14-year-old leg-spinners particularly) were brought in during the wretchedly long exam season, often playing against similarly weakened opposition. However, not always. Poor Joe Whitehead, fourth in the table, started very well but got the yips and didn?t bowl afterwards. It is strange how often this happens. A well-known ex-County player I know came up to bowl his lively medium-pace and hit the square-leg umpire; he never bowled medium-pace again. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable achievement to have a bowling average of under 10, in any circumstances, and no fewer than 22 bowlers managed that.

In other cases it was because outstanding players were playinhg for County Academies or even 2nd XIs, and this applied also to batsmen. There is a wide descrepancy? in different counties, some schools feeling aggrieved that their best players are being demanded by academies during term-time and others having a very amicable relationship. There is no doubt that playing at a higher level develops individuals as cricketers, but it is rather hard on schools who have done so much to nurture young talent. It is an area which David Graveney (with overall charge of Academies etc) is now looking at.

Another remarkable feature is the discrepancy in the number of fixtures played. The figures do not include knockout competitions or tours; simply routine term-time fixtures. Yet Bancroft?s managed an astonishing 29 fixtures (winning 23 of them), Stowe 28 and ten others 20 or more. At the other end, 15 schools played fewer than ten fixtures. In the Seventies and Eighties, virtually every cricketing school was part of an after-term festival, introduced to combat the change to earlier exam dates. Some survive, and a new one was introduced this year involving Brighton, Oakham Wellington and Sedbergh, but many have folded. This was usually because term dates were different, and many schools began to find it hard to retain their best players after the end of term.

A relatively fresh development has been the introduction of cricket weeks, in the quiet days of the post-exam period but before the end of term. This may be the way forward for schools with a limited fixture list.

No review would be complete without a meteorological summary. Unlike 2007 with its glorious April and May and horrendous June and early July (that is, the school cricket season), 2008 was neither good nor bad in most parts. Some schools abandoned up to seven matches because of rain, but the vast majority played most of their arranged fixtures.

The table of outstanding seasons has changed in the last five years. Something like 80% of all school matches now follow a limited-overs format (usually 50). In my view, a serious error. You can?t claim to be teaching boys (and girls) how to play the game unless they learn how to play every form of the game, but most especially ?proper? cricket. With the unstoppable movement towards Twenty/20 games in the professional sphere, which is good for the cash but bad for the development of players, it is tempting to some to think that this is the way forward for schools. It would gladden the heart of many a Head and Director of Studies if school cricket matches lasted only three hours rather than all day. Indeed there was a proposal from HMC Heads in the 1970s that all school matches should be 28 overs, and this daft idea was only narrowly defeated.

There is a serious flaw in the logic. You can?t be a good player of 20-over slog matches unless you first learn how to play properly, and that means learning to bat for several hours if necessary. It also means learning how to bowl people out. The best way to stop good players from scoring runs is to get them out before they do so, not just bowl boringly and negatively with fieldsmen scattered round the boundary. This latter fear was articulated as long ago as 1943 by a committee looking into the revival of cricket once the war ended. There is now a feeling in professional circles ? articulated by Kevin Pietersen – that the 50-over match has had its day, just when it has recently been adopted by most schools.

In the absence of draws, strong schools who play largely limited-overs cricket have an advantage in the ?Outstanding seasons? list, Harrow, who have lost very few matches in recent years, came out top, losing only to Bedford (where there was much rejoicing). Birkenhead, second in the table, went on to reach the semi-finals of the Sir Garfield International Schools trophy in Barbados (though those matches were not actually played), and Worksop?s formidable all-round side (three of the bowlers ? Karanjit Bansal, Brett Hutton and Adam Dobb – averaged under ten, which is quite remarkable) won 12 of their 13 matches, the other being drawn. The only other unbeaten side was Merchant Taylors?, Northwood, who won eight games but also drew six, thus not featuring in the ?Outstanding Seasons? list. Taunton, Cheadle Hulme and Portsmouth Grammar School all achieved a success rate of more than 80%.

Harrow sported two players (Sam Northeast and Gary Ballance) with County 1st XI experience and two (Rob Taylor and Iwan Jenkins) who played County 2nd XI cricket. It was no wonder they were a formidable all-round force. Birkenhead?s success was due to all-round strength too, but led with notable success by captain David Hurst with three centuries (two of them 150+), and all-rounder Andrew Clarke who, in one match, scored 136 and then took six for 14 including a hat-trick. Woodhouse Grove was the third school to top the 90% mark: they do play mostly declaration games but adopted the strategy of inserting the opposition and then chasing whatever was set them. A pre-season tour to Sri Lanka helped consolidate an already settled side but their batting strength in depth made them formidable chasers.

Several outstanding batsmen who have served several years for their schools have now moved on to higher things. In addition to those named before, James Taylor of Shrewsbury, who heads the batting averages list with 179.60, just defeating last year?s Young Wisden Schools Cricketer of the Year, Jonathan Bairstow with 174.66 for St Peter?s, York, scored 3164 runs over five seasons (exluding tours and knockout competitions); Luc Durandt made Wellington (Berks) a formidable force for four years with 3122.runs in his career. Robert Newton from Framlingham, who was making headlines as a 15-year-old also reached a tally of

Luc Durandt shared the top spot of runs scored (1072) with two others on exactly the same number: Archie Gravell of Ipswich scored four centuries and averages 119.11, while Jordan Clark of Sedbergh caused something of a sensation at the new BOWS festival (Brighton, Oakham, Wellington, Sedbergh). Scored 340 against?.and the next day 390.

There were two double centurions (there have been more in recent years): Jos Butler of King?s Taunton with 227 not out and Hamza Siddique of Repton. Such scores were extremely rare in the days before overs-matches because a team would have had to declare before killing the game.

More striking were some of the bowling figures: James Chandler of Charterhouse had the best return: eight for 54 against a strong Free Foresters side (whose captain had never before lost a match which he managed), followed closely by K??Bansal of Worksop with eight for 58. Such figures are usually only possible in these days of tight limitations on the number of overs bowled by medium-pacers, even in declaration games, either by spinners (who have no such limits) or a medium-pacer who has a wicket-keeper good enough to stand up to the stumps. The latter is how medium-pace is defined under ECB regulations.

One such wicket-keeper was Gus Kennedy of Magdalen College School who managed the extraordinary feat of having eight dismissals in an innings. After his side totalled only 129, they faced defeat by King Edward VI School, Southampton, who were coasting on 81 for two. But Kennedy made three stumpings off the spinners, two catches standing back for the seamers and three standing up, as Magdalen won by five runs.? He was clearly Man of the Match. When was the last time in a professional game that the wicket-keeper was awarded such an honour?