On a typically cloudy Mancunian summer's day twelve years ago, Worksop college arrived at Old Hall lane for their customary 1st XI fixture against our school. Now I must point out at this stage that this match was normally considered a bit of a mickey mouse fixture, where we batted first (They'd always put us in, fearing we'd skittle them cheaply) amassed a large score before either bowling them out or playing out a boring draw (with them 9 down).
On this particular occasion however we got hammered. They knocked off our 230 odd runs with overs to spare thanks to a young chap named Samit Patel, who effortlessly creamed ball after ball to the boundary as if he was playing Brian Lara cricket on a Play Station. We never saw him again, he signed professionally with Nottinghamshire shortly afterwards. He was 15.
Understandably neither one of my eyebrows was raised when he scored his maiden century for England yesterday. In fact the only question which hit me was, why on earth has it taken him so long?
There probably are a plethora of reasons, valid ones too, many of which have been well documented. Still, I cannot help but find it inexcusable that a child prodigy who was playing County 2nd XI cricket at 14 took a further 13 years to "realize his potential". It would be obtuse to place the entire blame on the player surely.
Be that as it may, I'm fairly uninterested in that particular blame game. The debate that does get the juices flowing however revolves around how this can be prevented in the future and why. That should be an important topic of discussion, not just for the ECB, but every county, club and school in the country!
The conversion rate of turning child prodigies into world class cricketers, needs to improve! The reasons behind the need to blood talented youngsters earlier and show a lot more faith in them, appears simple enough. Can English cricket fans not dream of producing a cricketer that challenges Tendulkar's runs or Murali's test wickets one day?
Can we not allow that dream to dissolve into the hearts and minds of every young player out there, letting it precipitate into a wonderful mission? The need to produce an icon who can reinvigorate an interest in cricket for youngsters is strong enough an incentive. Whilst England's recent success does lend some credit to the current system, even sustenance warrants proactive change. Alec Stewart is the most capped English player of all time with 133 caps, making his debut at 27. Logic alone suggests we can't leave it too late if we are to give the next diamond in the rough a chance to reach the dizzy heights of 16000+ test runs or 800 test wickets.
So what do we do in order to go further and deeper than the realms of short term success or failure? Since we're talking about producing world class players who through their profoundly great level of skill will inspire new generations in future. Spotting youngsters who dare to dream big is a start.
Whilst not anyone can become a Kallis, a Kallis can come from anywhere. Cricket like tennis is an expensive sport to play, unlike football. I'm not just talking about equipment, even though that is a crucial part of any youngster's armory for cricketing and social status purposes. League club subscriptions these days can exceed £100 a season, add to that match fees in the range of £5-8, in addition to petrol money for numerous away trips, as well as social pressure to spend money on food and beverages in the clubhouse and it all adds up. Must be a lonely place for a financially challenged parent indeed.
A parent that might be reluctant to go on a journey with their son where failure is an inevitable but crucial part of becoming great. For every parent willing to take that risk, how many don't? The whole cricket community thus needs to do more to create a meritocratic system whatever it maybe to eradicate the social and financial barrier to entry and make cricket more accessible for everyone.
Clubs and counties need to look beyond a certain demographic for future superstars. We need to do this not just for English cricket, but for the benefit of the game itself. If we can achieve this mentality then I'm sure there is a Neo out there waiting to be told that he is THE ONE!
Furthermore talking strictly in terms of cricket. Importance of letting talented youngsters just enjoy the game, keeping critique to a low level whilst encouraging them aplenty cannot be underestimated.
Facilitating their development this way allows them to become the ring leaders of their own circle, building their self confidence (which is crucial at an early age). I'm not alone in this thought process, in fact the seed was sewn long ago in an England U15 camp by my very own Morpheus, aka Paul Grayson (Now Head Coach at Essex). John F Kennedy once famously said. "Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth". In his strong Yorkshire accent Grayson continually encouraged me to freely express myself in my own way.
His approach far from being restrictive, was expansive. He didn't criticize a single shot for the two hours or so he bowled his spinners at me, rather suggested small alterations that could improve my ability to time the ball. He did however encourage every good shot with a stare, a cheeky smile and a chirp, as if it was a first class game. Furthermore he stressed the need to move to the next level as soon as you've achieved a certain goal.
Looking back it was arguably the best advice I'd been given as a cricketer and a style of coaching quite frankly I wasn't used to. Since then I've personally come across coaching styles which are almost military, enforcing conformity not too dissimilar to what I briefly experienced whilst working in Banking. Needless to say that place was a production line of drones.
Do we really want to produce cricketers like that? Discipline is fundamental in sport there is no doubt. However disciplined that's enforced has a shorter shelf life than discipline born from a philosophy cradling unconditional love for the sport.
Allowing all young players true freedom of self expression is thus a philosophy that needs to be encouraged. Not every seam bowler needs to have Denis Lillee's "perfect" side on action to be a great bowler. Not every batsman needs to be told to assume a stance like Atherton in order to pile on the runs. Just ask Sohail Tanvir and Shiv Chanderpaul for confirmation.
When innovation is harnessed and robotic conformity shed, only then will we begin producing the Malingas, Muralis and Ajmals of this world. Who wouldn't want that?
image: © britanglishman