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This article is an extended version of an article I wrote for All Out Cricket. Although AOC were very generous with the space they allowed the article in the magazine, there was so much to say, I wrote this version too.

WARNING: This is a long read. Anyone who doesn’t love cricket and who has less than 15 mins spare ought to think twice before having a crack at it. For those that do go ahead and read this, thanks for taking the time; I hope you’ll enjoy it and find food for thought.

“It’s a bit like Daoism,” are the words I wasn’t expecting to hear.

“They have to find their way. If you’re looking at profound learning, they must find their way themselves,” adds Chris Tolley, Academy Director at Nottinghamshire CCC.

As the father of Daoism, Lao Tzu, says, ‘He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.”

As it turns out, the semi-joking reference to the ancient Chinese philosophy is surprisingly apposite. County cricket Academy Directors are thoughtful individuals, focused on developing the person as well as the player.

Although many counties had strong youth player development systems in place beforehand, it was the ECB’s creation of the 18 county academies that really galvanised the counties’ approach. With each academy granted £100,000 a year by the ECB (a sum which can be – and sometimes is – supplemented by the county), the governing body stipulates that academy players do at least 20 hours per week and that their involvement is far broader than coaching alone, really aiming to narrow the gap to the professional game. One step below the academy, each of the 39 county boards (first-class and minor counties) runs age-group squads, usually leading into an Emerging Players Programme (EPP), a stepping stone to the academy.

While county academies do seem to take a broadly holistic approach, the whole process remains necessarily uncompromising. A place on the academy is far from a guarantee of a career in the game, or even the chance to have one. The number of academy players making it on to the staff varies from county to county, ranging from around 1 in 12 to 1 in 4. So 25% at best – that’s still the vast majority of young players not living their dream.

It’s interesting to ask, therefore, what are academies for? Bear in mind that each year, £100,000 or more is spent on these young players and tens of thousands will have been spent on putting players through the county’s age-group cricket. The number of players diminishes as the process reaches academy level until perhaps ten are recruited. Of those, maybe one or two make it on to the staff and perhaps one of those has a long career in county cricket. So, in purely reductionist terms, that’s well over £100,000 to potentially produce one county cricketer. Perhaps one in ten of these cricketers plays for England (an optimistic figure for most counties). One of ECB’s stated aims for academies at the very outset was to produce England players, so on these admittedly back-of-a-fag-packet figures, an England player might be a £1 million in the making. In terms of return on investment, this seems staggeringly high.

The only conclusion, then, must be that finding England players, and even county players, cannot possibly be an academy’s sole purpose. In fact, it is the individuals and the broader game that also stand to gain much from the work academies do. These young players learn valuable lessons for life: self-sufficiency, the rewards of hard work, critical thinking, personal development and, for the vast majority, first-hand experience of dealing with life’s crushing disappointments. Nott’s Chris Tolley speaks of ‘academy graduates’ and there is very much an element of cricket university in the way academies work with young people.

For some counties, their Academies and youth systems are not just for finding the next generation of players. Durham has a unique outlook on what success looks like. John Windows explains:

“The Academy is very much part of the raison d’être of the whole club. Our geographical location means local cricketers used to have to travel a long way to play country cricket, including past Yorkshire of course. So while our Academy has produced about 80 players in the last 12 years and six England players, we also want to ensure those who don’t make it to professional cricket do still stay in the game, supporting local club cricket. This is very important to us and the area as a whole.”

So what are counties looking for in their chosen few? Chris Tolley again:

“Of course they must have the skills but attitude is key. They must be willing to come into an elite environment and become an elite performer. It doesn’t sit well with everyone – some will come through it, some won’t.”

One county to have had some success with home-grown talent in recent years is Northants. Phil Rowe, Academy Director, says they have some characteristics they’re looking for when choosing players for the Academy:

“We look for these characteristics: character, ability (both proven and potential, with the focus on the latter), desire, the ability to learn, a range of skills, physicality and a genuine potential to play first-class cricket in all formats. This final point is very much a function of our being a small county – we have to make the very most of our resources.

“In terms of players, look no further than David Willey. He had been through all our age groups, the Emerging Players Programme and the Academy. In terms of skills and technical ability, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying he was average; but what we knew about him was that there was more to come and we knew he would really stretch himself and get the best out of himself. He really ticked the boxes for character and desire, and forced his way on to the Academy through sheer strength of will.”

Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.

Lao Tzu

Speaking to the Academy Directors reveals that academies are far from the sausage factories they may at first appear from the outside, with all the ingredients being thrown in and a bland, homogenised product churned out at the end. In fact, academy heads deliberately leave space for character and individuality to develop and actively encourage a player to find their own path to success. John Stanworth, who has been Academy Director at Lancashire since the Academy’s inception in 2002, and the Club’s Player Development Manager for almost a decade before that, comments:

“The challenge of any academy is to allow the players to develop naturally and to allow a natural expression of how they play and how they compete. The whole process has to recognise that it’s all about having a method of performing that is understood by the player. The challenge is to design training sessions that challenge people and their psychological traits, to put them under pressure as they would be on the field of play.

“However, it is a gradual process, with a series of incremental challenges along the way. Our young cricketers gradually understand what they have to do at each level to meet the standard. What I do tell the players is that a place on the Academy is not ‘making it’, it’s simply an opportunity. They still have to earn the right to be recognised. No-one has a God-given right to be there and there’s no room for complacency.”

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

Lao Tzu

We are treated to some astonishing cricket these days, with skills and fitness levels beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. The flipside of this, though, is that you can’t just parachute into the pinnacle of the game – you have to climb up, becoming acclimatised along the way. You simply have to be part the system to succeed. Like the bird released from a cage into an aviary, there is freedom to spread its wings but the limits remain. And so it is that young players are encouraged to spread their wings, and are boundaried only by the demands of the system that feeds, develops and rewards them.

So what is it like being on a county Academy? Simon Webster is on the Notts Academy and has been on the England Development Programme too, before a frustratingly long period of injury set him back. Now, aged 20 and expecting to be fully fit for the coming pre-season, he will spend his fourth year on the Academy. He reflects:

“Being on the Academy is like a lifestyle. It’s very professional and it’s a time when you start training around the first-team for the first time and really start to learn what it’s like to be a professional player. I remember having a period where I was finding it hard and I was just training for the sake of it, going through the motions. But when I started to see more of the first team, I realised why we had to train so hard and the sessions, for me, became much more focused because I could see exactly why we were doing them.

“We train five days a week, not only cricket but also player development welfare sessions such as nutrition, money management and anti-corruption sessions that deal with betting rules and how to deal with being approached. We have sessions with our psych on dealing with mental stresses and techniques, and there are sessions on media skills and how to run your social media accounts.

“We do have to keep up with our school or college work too, and the county works hard on its relationship with the schools. They stress the importance of academic success and the fact that it’s our responsibility  to make the situation work.

“We are not spoon-fed in any way, and in fact the coaches will let us fail so we can work out what went wrong and deal with it. When we do need help, though, there’s always someone there for us. Who succeeds is down to who’s got the bottle, who’s willing to get to work when things get tough, who can handle the stresses of first-class cricket. It’s really up to us if we want to succeed.”

Stephen Parry made his England debut in March 2014, playing a handful of ODIs and T20s. It could all have been very different. John Stanworth, Lancashire’s Academy Director, says Parry ‘didn’t quite get it as a younger player’ – a charge Parry readily admits:

“I was in and out of the age group sides until I made a breakthrough in the under 16s. I had a decent year and then at under 17s, I had a really good year. I bowled well and I batted at four. I was the leading wicket-taker by far. I got picked for the Academy and then I think I kind of believed it was just going to happen. Well, it didn’t and Stanny [John Stanworth] kicked me off.

“It was a bit of a wake-up call. I’d been on top of the world the year before and now I was off the Academy. I hadn’t pushed on enough. No-one wanted it more for me than Stanny and he was probably disappointed. I was upset and disappointed too at the time but now I know it was for my own good.

People in their handlings of affairs often fail when they are about to succeed. If one remains as careful at the end as he was at the beginning, there will be no failure.

Lao Tzu

“I could’ve gone either way then. I decided to postpone university and I went to Australia to play cricket – and I think I probably grew up a bit. When I came back, I went trialling all over the place off my own bat and then eventually I got a chance of a game for the Academy after another player got injured. I got 96 not out. This was half way through the season and I then had a run in the side and got a contract at the end of that year, when I was 20.

“You could argue that 20 is quite late but I think sometimes it’s important to go through the experiences. Having been dropped, it was all about how I reacted. I could’ve walked away but, as my Dad says, I was like a bad smell – always hanging around! It helped that I’ve always really enjoyed my cricket and whether I’m playing for my country or my league club, I just try and bowl my best ball each time.”

John Windows, Academy Director at Durham, agrees that players’ development has to be organic:

“As coaches we have to see what we can add – a bit of fitness, a bit of fielding and so on – but it’s decision-making that’s more relevant and that comes from players having confidence in themselves. The players do work hard but they also play a lot and most of their learning comes from playing matches, it gives the players chance to come up against different scenarios and see how they tackle them.

“Any technical improvement is usually as a result of playing matches. For example, someone might get sick of being bowled out over and over again by a left-arm spinner, so they address the problem. This is far better than doing endless pre-emptive net sessions against left-arm spin. In the tough, competitive matches they play, any frailties are quickly exposed.”

Trying to understand is like straining through muddy water. Have the patience to wait! Be still and allow the mud to settle.

Lao Tzu

It’s hard to argue with John’s logic and he’s not alone in his outlook. Northants’ Phil Rowe says he is ‘on the lower intervention end of things’ when it comes to coaching. ‘The thing to get right,’ he says, ‘is the environment, this gives players the best chance to shine.’ He continues:

“The game has changed and these days there a lot of ways to make runs and take wickets. There’s just no point in any young player trying to play like someone else. They have to learn for themselves how they can become the best they can be by doing it their own way. What we do is stress-test the basics. So we take what they can do and see how they cope under different stresses and in different conditions.

“At the same time, we have a ‘safe to fail’ environment. I don’t want any player to be afraid to try something. The other day, I sent down about 50 balls to a guy who was reluctant to pull. He hit 10 and timed two. I talked to him about the two he timed. He trusts that I’m not going to bollock him if he gets it wrong.”

Phil is a big fan of Professor of Sports Science, Damian Farrow. He has published several books and papers on how sportsmen acquire their skills and is an advocate of what he calls ‘implicit learning’, whereby players learn better by doing something themselves rather than being given step-by-step instructions.

Writing for the Australian Sports Commission, Damien Farrow says:

“A major conundrum faced by coaches is the most effective method of conveying information to learners…A growing amount of experimental evidence suggests that the use of instructions may be unnecessary, and in some instances, leads to performance degradation rather than enhancement. Explicit learning…is used to coach a learner about how to perform a skill. This process typically results in the learner being able to verbalise how to perform the skill, although it does not guarantee the learner can physically execute the skill. In contrast, implicit learning methods typically contain no formal instruction about how to perform the skill yet result in a learner being able to perform the skill despite being unable to verbally describe how they do it…Interestingly, this is a characteristic possessed by many elite performers.

“Players given instructions were found to more likely preoccupy themselves with thoughts about how they were executing the skill, which in most sports is detrimental to performance. Under pressure, the players were found trying to consciously control normally automatic, implicit or subconscious processes, commonly termed ‘paralysis by analysis’. Alternatively, players who did not have any instructions to refer to were less likely to think about how to execute the skill because they did not consciously know what they actually did.

“Remember, sometimes the best instruction a learner can receive is, ‘Just do it’!”

Phil adds, ‘The person who has learned implicitly is much more adaptable than the drilled player. He is more resilient and responsive.’

This may go some way to explaining why the Durham approach pays off – and given their record of success with local players recently, who could argue that it doesn’t? There’s also no need to rush, says John Windows:

“I don’t think the drive to catch them young and do everything as quickly as possible really works. It’s a late-developing sport. We try and leave the academy process until a bit later, let the lads play and mature. In the meantime the lads are training regularly with the first team and getting to know them, so when they do make their debut they’re confident and feel very welcomed into the side.”

An ant on the move does more than a dozing ox.

Lao Tzu

There is arguably something of a dissonance between this view and the fact that all counties start their young cricketers off very young. Age group squads tend to be formed by under-11s at the latest, and from then they’re in the system. If they end up playing or practising cricket nearly all year round, does it become more of a burden than a pleasure? Can these youngsters forget to enjoy it?

‘Great question,’ says Lancashire’s John Stanworth. He adds:

“I have researched this and the research says that between the ages of 13 and 15, kids’ desire to participate in an activity is dictated almost exclusively by the enjoyment they get from it. It is crucial that people involved in talent progression understand this. It takes a real skill to manage the young person at this stage. What you want to happen is for a player to enjoy improving, and for that desire to improve to become their motivator to practise their skills. It must come from them. Above 15 years old, you move into more ‘purposeful practice’, without which players simply won’t achieve what they could.”

Retaining the players’ individualism while still giving them the tools to succeed is the ongoing challenge for coaches. John continues:

“There must be room for a player to develop in his or her unique way. This country’s system for coaching coaches is quite rigid and as a coach you are at best shaped by that system, and at worst indoctrinated by it. Where would Malinga have been in our system? Chanderpaul?

“I used to think that if you were technically proficient, you would achieve. I soon learned it’s not about that. When Jimmy Anderson came to us, I knew little about coaching fast bowling. But what I did know was that for a 16 year old, he bowled fast. I didn’t really concern myself about his action. I didn’t do any technical coaching with Jimmy, we just thought about tactics and situations. He just bowled. Other coaches told me I’d have to sort his action out but I left him alone, and that, in retrospect, was good coaching and a valuable lesson.”

When Anderson went to England, of course, they did try to make changes and they learned for themselves what John had already worked out.

Notts’ Chris Tolley backs up John’s approach. He says:

“Knowing when to intervene is the art of a good coach. At an elite level it becomes much more of a mentoring role. By the time players join the staff, they should be self-sufficient. Professional cricketers are left to their own devices a lot. When you walk over that white line, there’s only you. It does take a while to understand your own game, though. Speak to most pros and they’d say they’re probably 24, 25 before they know their own game really well. Instant success is the exception rather than the rule.

“This is why there is still room in the game for late developers. It’s happening less and less but it’s still possible. I got a call from Cornwall saying I must see this lad – 26 years old and playing in the leagues and minor counties. I saw him, we played him in a few second team games, and then the Director of Cricket shoved him in the first team, he took a five-for and never looked back. That was Charlie Shreck.”

John Stanworth also likes to see late developers getting their chance:

“Tom Bailey played in our first team at the end of last season but he didn’t play any representative cricket until he was 19. And going back a few years, I had a call from a mother whose sons played cricket and she said that her lads keep coming back from nets at Burnley Cricket Club talking about this lad, Jimmy Anderson. So I went to see him at 16 and he was playing for England three years later.”

Soon, however, it may well be that this kind of story is one found only in the history books. You only have to look at the truly extraordinary shots some modern players can play in T20s today to realise that the game is moving on fast, and the gap between professional and good recreational cricket is widening at an ever-increasing rate. As Northants’ Phil Rowe says:

“The skills levels these days are so high that you simply won’t make it if you don’t put the effort in. There’s no room for talented players who take it all too easy. It’s no coincidence that the best players tend to be the best trainers. I’m a champion of late developers but the problem is that in English cricket, the jump from club cricket to county cricket is too big. I do think we need to look harder at club cricket, university cricket and minor counties cricket and see if we can get some of these players into second team games.”

And this is perhaps the crux of it. As spectators we crave originality, difference, uniqueness. But with skills levels so very high these days, natural talent alone will no longer cut it. In the end, everyone has to get their head down and work damn hard. Everyone has to buy into the same culture. Most players have been in ‘the system’ since 11 or 12, have made those incremental improvements needed to progress to the next level, and bit by bit they become highly skilled, incredibly fit, mentally resilient cricketers.

When Durham beat Warwickshire at Lords in the Royal London One-Day Cup final last year, there were nine players born within 15 miles of the ground. That’s a pretty resounding pat on the back for the Academy. ‘It’s great but there’s pressure to keep things going,’ says John Windows, encapsulating of one of the central challenges for Academies and the counties’ broader youth programmes.

On the one hand, the Academy Directors speak of allowing players the time to find their own path at their own pace, to develop the individual style through a learning process that involves trial and error as well as committed practice. On the other hand, the counties themselves need the academies to turn out successful players at a reasonable rate in order to push for success.

But when dealing with people, there are no guarantees. Who is to say an Academy’s processes are wrong if the county has an unsuccessful run? There are so many variables that go into a county’s success or failure that making an objective judgement becomes almost impossible. A county academy’s reputation tends to become part of a narrative applied retrospectively when a county does well. But really, the situation is in constant flux and depends as much on individuals, parents, relationships, injuries, call-ups, weather, school and so on as it does on systems, processes and coaches. In 2011, Lancashire’s Academy was being lauded for the part it played in the county’s Championship triumph and again when they won the second division on 2013. Both successes were followed by relegation. John Stanworth comments:

“At the moment, I’m under pressure because of relegation but if you’re clear on what you’re trying to produce, it will be cyclical. You have to be patient with the players. You can’t hurry talent progression. Our skill is to know when the players are ready to step up.”

It’s striking just how long youth and academy coaches stay in their jobs. They are away from the immediate glare of publicity, of course, so are less likely to lose those jobs to political expediency but they also make a choice to stay – often for decades. But having spoken to a number of Academy Directors, it is easy to see how intoxicating their work must be. Not only is every intake of players a fresh set of challenges, but so is every individual in that intake. And each of those players is changing all the time, and presenting new challenges and requiring constant reassessment of the best way to help them develop. Like surrogate parents, these coaches simply want their charges to be the very best they can be, and take enormous pride in playing their part in that journey. When asked about their role in a player’s success, of course, they downplay it, saying it was all down to the player.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

Lao Tzu

But what they have done is to give that young person, within the constraints of the system, the very best chance of success and of bringing their unique talent to the game we love. They have done all they can. They have let the caged bird sing.