English cricket’s golden boys

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the memories of it are still strong. The Whelan family, with whom two of us were billeted in Renmark, South Australia; the Murray River, long and slow and flat; the heat so fierce that even Sri Lanka’s young cricketers wilted, and defeat in the semi-final at the Adelaide Oval to, inevitably, Australia.

I’ve been thinking a little this week about the inaugural Youth World Cup in 1988. There were a lot of good players who featured: Nasser Hussain, Mark Ramprakash, Chris Cairns, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mushtaq Ahmed, Jimmy Adams and Sanath Jaysuriya, to name but a few, as well as the one who became the daddy of all my schoolboy contemporaries, Brian Lara. How good was he then? Well, without a half-century in seven innings it is fair to say that he did not set the tournament alight.

Interestingly, Australia, the eventual winners, produced fewer full internationals from that tournament than any other team. Only Stuart Law, as far as I can make out, went on to play Test cricket for Australia (although, in the way of these things, Alan Mullally went to play for England as well) and even then his contribution was limited to a handful of games, such was the difficulty of getting into Australia’s senior team.

What happened to those Youth World Cup winners of Australia twenty-two years ago? To Geoff Parker, my opposite number as captain, who seemed even then to my untrained eye, light-years ahead of me both physically and technically? To Wayne Holdsworth, the tournament’s leading wicket-taker? To Brett Williams, the tournament’s leading run-scorer? Where did they go these potential giants of the game?

It was Azeem Rafiq who set me off down memory lane. Until a bout of tourettes on Twitter recently, Rafiq was England’s under-19 captain. That he is no longer is thanks to a number of indiscretions, culminating in an outburst that included calling the coach, John Abrahams, a ‘c***’, later toned down, after due consideration, to a ‘w*****’. He has now been suspended on full pay by Yorkshire.

His rant on Twitter was fascinating in many respects: the way that social media has blurred the boundaries between what is private and public; the way that the Facebook generation interact or, more relevantly, fail to interact, since Rafiq probably didn’t think to talk to Abrahams face to face. Most of all, it was fascinating because as his Twitter followers doubled and trebled in the days afterwards, it was sad to realise that, statistically, it could be the last time he would be of interest to anyone.

Being an England under-19 international (we were called Young England in my day) is a curious place to be. You have achieved everything and nothing. Amongst contemporaries there is already jealousy- none more so, I imagine, than amongst my University friends who were freezing their undergraduate rocks off whilst I was in Australia- of a certain status attained. With that status comes a degree of expectation, internal and external, followed more often than not by acute disappointment.

For whilst England’s class of 1988 were either staggeringly good or just plain lucky- seven of the XI who were defeated by Australia in the semi-final went on to play Test cricket- that is the exception rather than the rule. Since 1999 only three England under-19 batsmen- Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Ravi Bopara- have gone on to full international honours. In eleven years that is a terribly poor return given the resources now showered on the best of that age-group.

There were ten years between the inaugural Youth World Cup and the next. The 1998 version in South Africa was won by England and until the senior team won the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean this year, it was still the only global one-day tournament won by an England team. What happened to them in the decade since is the subject of a gem of a book called Following On, written by the journalist David Tossell, and it confirms the difficulties often faced by those anointed as The Next Big Thing at such a tender age.

You will have heard of some of the class of ’98: Owais Shah, Rob Key and Graeme Swann are the three that have gone on to play for England, whilst Paul Franks, of Nottinghamshire, Stephen Peters, now Northamptonshire, Graham Napier, Essex, and Chris Schofield, now Surrey, are still playing first-class cricket. The rest of that squad of fourteen- exactly half- are out of the game, doing other things.

Tossel tracks them all down and they recount their journeys from schoolboy heroes to- in cricketing terms- nobodies. There is Nick Wilton, now making bats for the type of player he one day dreamed of becoming; Ian Flanagan, gone to sunnier climes; Giles Haywood, budding property magnate; Michael Gough, first-class umpire; Richard Logan, minor counties cricketer-cum-internet hopeful; Jamie Grove, the engineering salesman, and Jonathan Powell, carpenter.

Their tales vary in tone: some bitter, some sad, some thankful for the opportunities, some regretful that the fragility of their young bodies never really allowed them a proper crack. If there is a common thread to their post under-19 international days, as they become lost in the bowels of second eleven cricket, it is of awful, overly-interventionist coaching.

Here’s Grove: ‘I used to have a perfect sideways action and was able to swing it a lot. On my first day of pre-season they changed my action completely and they made me bowl front-on. They said that at some point in my career I might get back problems.’ After the change of action, he didn’t have a career at all, becoming a victim of what was then little more than a fad amongst bowling coaches. Nothing I read in the book diverted me from a long held view that it is easier for a coach to ruin a good young player than improve him.

As these young English players fell by the wayside, so other players from abroad have taken their places. Whilst some of the class of ’88 filled England’s batting line-up for the next decade, so the class of ’99 have been supplanted by young players from abroad: Craig Kieswetter, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan all produced elsewhere, filling a vacuum that young English-produced batsmen were deemed incapable of filling

What has changed? Possibly the late 1980s were a better time to be a young player because the absence of two divisions meant that counties were more willing to give young players a run in the side. Now the pressure to stay OR GET INTO the first division encourages more short-term decision-making, AS WINTNESSED BY HAMPSHIRE’S  TWO-MONTH SIGNING OF PHILLIP HUGHES YESTERDAY

But it is also clear that the ECB’s reaction to the failure in the last decade of England under-19 players making the grade has been to try and catch them even younger, train them even more intensely as they try to mould them into elite performers. Talent testing is now routine from ages 13 and upwards. ‘If you identify the right players you minimise the potential for what I call talent attrition,’ says the ECB’s Head of Science and Medicine, Simon Timson. ‘We know that the best players reach the top ten in the word by the age of 27, having made their international debuts at 23 and their first-class debuts by 19, so we are trying to drive a pathway that might help people hit those milestones.’

The result is a narrowing of focus at a ridiculously early age, when growing up should be the challenge as much as hitting bat on ball. The danger is also that you create unrealistic expectations, making gods of young men who are, statistically, likely to end up on the cricketing scrapheap. England’s top six this week, with the exception of Alastair Cook, are either late developers or have benefited from being forced to relocate from home and find their own way. None have been spoon fed.

So what will become of Azeem Rafiq now that he has put the shotgun to his foot and pulled the trigger? Obviously, we wish him well. Certainly, he has more followers on Twitter than before, his numbers up from 25 at the time of his outburst to 190 now. But all the damaging tweets- including the one about Derby being a ‘shit***’- have been removed. Emanating from his site these last few days has been only the deafening sound of silence. Ends.

Following on, A Year With English Cricket’s Golden Boys by David Tossell, Pitch Publishing £14.99