I’m not sure if the 2011 domestic season will go down in the annals as one of the really vintage years, but it was certainly a fascinating summer and in one significant way I think it provided real evidence that an important watershed has been reached in English professional cricket.
The fear factor has gone now from county game, and there are two main reasons for that in my view: the first Twenty 20, and the second the massive influx of younger players into domestic cricket during the last few years.
In the past, it was relatively unusual to see players of 20 and under playing regularly in County Championship cricket, but now there are dozens and dozens of them. Yes, the counties have a financial incentive to play younger cricketers, but also the recession has meant that more and more counties are turning to their younger homegrown players – mainly graduates of their academies – rather than paying for Kolpak signings or other more mature cricketers.
Virtually every county now has a group of under 21s as part of their first team squads, and I don’t think English cricket has ever had such a large number of younger players making big contributions and, often, being match winners.
The Clydesdale Bank 40 final between Surrey and Somerset featured major performances from a number of younger players: Rory Hamilton-Brown and Jade Dernbach for Surrey and the highly-talented 20 year-old Jos Buttler for Somerset.
England’s final one-day international win against India saw Jonny Bairstow, who is 21, play a brilliant and nerveless unbeaten innings on his debut to clinch the game and other Under 21s who have caught both my eye this season, and that of the England and England Lions selectors are Ben Stokes, James Taylor, Danny Briggs and Scott Borthwick.
And, if you are looking for an even longer list of cricketers aged 21 or under who have already made their mark on county cricket, at both Championship and one-day level, how about the following: James Harris, Jason Roy, Chesney Hughes, Jaik Mickleburgh, Adam Wheater, David Payne, Liam Dawson, James Vince, Adam Ball, Matt Coles, Nathan Buck, Josh Cobb, David Willey.
It is an impressive list and it is particularly interesting to me that the three counties who won silverware this season – Lancashire, Surrey and Leicestershire – are all full of good young players who have been given their opportunity early at senior level. Middlesex, who won Division Two of the Championship, also have a lot of excellent younger players such as Steve Finn, Toby Roland-Jones, John Simpson, Dawid Malan and Sam Robson. They let Owais Shah go to Essex last winter, too… I wonder what Owais thinks of that now?
What all these younger players have is that they don’t fear failure. Look at Surrey’s approach under Hamilton-Brown and with 22-year-old like Stuart Meaker and Tom Maynard also making big impressions this summer, and Roy playing some of the most exhilarating innings of the season in both the one-day and four-day game.
My feeling, too, is that the professionalism of these young players, in lifestyle terms, is much stronger than it was in previous generations. They work harder at their games as well as their overall fitness. Some of them are terrific athletes, and all of them have a positive approach that I think is very much that of the Twenty20 generation. The influence of the IPL, too, cannot be discounted.
One final, and more personal, observation: I hope the ECB looks at the sudden emergence of fine young spinners – Briggs, Borthwick, Simon Kerrigan, Stephen Parry, plus the likes of Adil Rashid who is still very young in spinning terms – and realises that it needs to provide an even more structured mentoring system aimed at nurturing these young talents.
Myself, Eddie Hemmings and Jack Birkenshaw currently travel around the county circuit monitoring younger spinners and we often do chat to them and their coaches to provide feedback and information to Peter Such, the ECB lead spin coach, David Parsons at the National Cricket Performance Centre, and with regards to development squads and the like.
But I think we could go further than that. The county academies are bringing through yet more excellent youngsters and, in terms of spinners, there should be a twelve months of the year programme of coaching and mentoring support from the likes of Birkenshaw, Hemmings and myself for all the counties to tap into. All it would take is for the ECB to hold back even just a few thousand pounds a year from the £1.7 million or so they distribute from the centre to each of the eighteen first-class counties.
That would fund such a programme, and it would help English cricket to improve itself yet still further. I hope it can happen.