The launch of 'cricket colleges' might revive England's international fortunes, but it could also weaken Oxbridge's grip on the game. Huw Richards reports
England's new cricket captain Nasser Hussain is a trailblazer. Most commentators have noted that he is the first England captain from Britain's Asian community. It was less remarked that he is the first captain to graduate from a university other than Oxford or Cambridge.
English cricket has been in the doldrums for a while. Now a new scheme, trawling university talent, holds out a glimmer of hope for a truly world-class team.
The Oxbridge link with cricket is almost as old as the game. Oxford and Cambridge universities have enjoyed "first-class status" since the early 19th century: although neither university cricket team plays in a professional league, their games are automatically against first-class clubs.
But since academic performance became the dominant criterion for admitting students to Oxford and Cambridge, their hold on the game has declined. There have been polymaths, who excel at cricket and academic work - such as Edward Craig, first slip in the Cambridge team of the early 1960s and now a professor of philosophy.
But under the old regime, Oxbridge sportsmen also included England leg-spinner Ian Peebles, whose studies were terminated when he "obtained 1 per cent in one paper, and was not quite so successful in the other".
Other universities now take the lead in cricket. Durham graduates far outnumber those of Oxford and Cambridge in the 1999 Cricketers' Who's Who.
Durham trailblazed further three years ago when it launched its Cricketing Centre of Excellence, run by former England batsman Graeme Fowler, offering high-class coaching.
Now the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has taken up the idea, creating half a dozen university centres of excellence intended to offer "an established cricket pedigree with high-quality facilities, a full range of academic courses and admissions opportunities and the provision of excellent sports science and medicine input".
There were 18 applications, some from a consortium of universities and colleges. The Pounds 50,000 annual awards went to: Durham; Loughborough; Cambridge/Anglia Polytechnic; Oxford/Oxford Brookes; Bradford/Bradford College/Leeds/ Leeds Metropolitan; and Cardiff/University of Wales Institute/Glamorgan University.
The centres will open in autumn 2000. Each will employ a top-quality coach, a university employee who will report to ECB technical director Hugh Morris. The ECB will also be represented on appointments panels.
Each centre will run a squad of about 25 players, with regular fixtures against three first-class county teams and a competition against the other centres. It is as yet uncertain whether these games will have first-class status, or what will happen to the standing of Oxford and Cambridge universities' existing first-class fixture list. But it raises the serious possibility of universities outside Oxbridge receiving first-class status for the first time since the brief spell in the 1920s when Dublin University's matches against counties were recognised, making playwright Samuel Beckett the only Nobel prize-winner to have played first-class cricket.
John Carr, the ECB's director of cricket, says: "Increasing numbers of people are going into higher education and we have to find ways of making that benefit cricket and cricketers. We think this scheme will provide a larger pool of well-qualified, confident and thoughtful cricketers. It will offer them the best of both worlds, an excellent cricketing education plus greater security through improved post-cricket career opportunities."
The prospectus is being drawn up, and the ECB expects to print about 30,000. "Copies will go to every secondary school, to all 38 county cricket boards and to members of county teams' under-17 and under-19 squads," Carr says. Admissions will stay in the hands of universities. "We would not think of asking universities to compromise their academic standards," he adds. "I know perfectly well what the answer would be."
Women will also be admitted, and Carr foresees particular benefits for elite players: "At the moment the best women players are often isolated, having to do everything to keep cricket going at the universities they attend. This will ensure that they get much better support."
Supporters of the scheme hope it will prevent talented cricketers having to make a choice between a professional career and their studies. The University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, reached all four British Universities Sports Association cricket finals last year and has produced three test players, Hugh Morris, Steve Watkin and Greg Thomas, in the past 15 years. But Dave Cobner, head of sport at UWIC, still believes much more can be done for student cricketers: "This will provide students with year-round facilities, plus top-class coaching and the chance to build their academic commitments around their cricket rather than vice versa." The Cardiff-area consortium can, Cobner points out, "offer everything from HNDs to law" in its three institutions.
At Loughborough, director of cricket Guy Jackson echoes Carr and Cobner in pointing to the importance of not having to choose between cricket and studies: "I think good players are being lost that way."
Change is sharpest at Oxbridge, where university entrance requirements for students are likely to mean that the bulk of the Centre of Excellence teams playing for Fenner's, Cambridge and the Oxford Parks will be drawn from Anglia Polytechnic University and Oxford Brookes, respectively. Some in both Oxford and Cambridge view this as a threat.
The main doubts, ironically, are heard from Durham, where Granville Holland, president of Durham University CC since 1971, welcomes the scheme with substantial caveats: "Before centres are put in place it is important that they are correctly established within the context of a university setting and not merely added on in the hope that somehow they will work."
For Holland, the devil is in the detail, specifically in the balance between academic and cricket work and the relationship between the centres and universities as a whole - not just with the university sports administrators to whom the ECB has talked.
He warns: "Until those detailed protocols are in place there can be no assurance that the centres will work satisfactorily, or lead to the long-term benefit of cricket in this country."
Meanwhile, the question most British cricket followers will want to ask is whether the scheme will lead to a better England team. Carr is cautiously confident: "We cannot put all of our eggs in one basket. Universities are just one, very important, aspect of the game. But the scheme should certainly give us a better chance."