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Matt Maher: Bears on the front foot in search for fresh talent

After another bruising week for English cricket, a winter’s night in inner city Birmingham restores some optimism.

Fresh talent on trial
Fresh talent on trial

Outside the temperature is close to freezing but inside Edgbaston Cricket Centre is a hive of activity and noise, the continued crack of ball on bat as dozens of players, all with dreams of making it in the professional game, are put through their paces at an open trial session hosted by Warwickshire.

You might reasonably ask what all this has to do with the struggles of the England Test team in Australia? Well, in many respects nothing and yet in others, everything.

Any assessment of England’s latest Ashes embarrassment will immediately focus on mistakes directly contributed to defeats and the increasingly precarious futures of captain Joe Root and head coach Chris Silverwood.

But the decline of English red-ball cricket has not happened overnight. There are undoubtedly other, more deep-seated issues, among them continued the question of whether the domestic game fully maximizes the potential of its talent pool?

That is a problem Warwickshire are aiming to directly address by throwing open the doors and offering a chance to players who, for whatever reason, might have been missed.

Over the course of four hours on Monday night around 80 were assessed by the club’s coaching staff. It was the fourth time in seven years the Bears had hosted such a session but the first since the outbreak of the pandemic. Such opportunities are extremely rare and the demand, as Warwickshire’s high performance manager Paul Greetham explains during a break in fielding drills, close to unprecedented.

“Within three days of opening the registration we had to close it, the numbers just kept going up and up,” he says. “It is not just a local thing. Lads have travelled from all over the UK to be here. I think the furthest journey is from Durham.

“Ideally we would have liked to have had more come in but we are restricted a bit at the moment due to Covid. For those who are here, they will be given a chance to shine.”

The trial was open to players aged between 18 and 25, those missed by one of the more traditional pathways into professional game, the vast majority of which depend on talent being identified during school years.

It is no gimmick. Watching from a platform above the nets is director of cricket, Paul Farbrace, along with representatives from several Birmingham League clubs invited to attend.

“We have very strong leagues on our doorstep so we would open the event to the clubs because it is that time of year when they are looking to recruit,” explains Greetham.

“If we can make the Birmingham League stronger by opening the door to clubs tonight, then great.”

He continues: “When you fling open the doors you are going to get a mixed bunch of players. There are people who, without question, are just good club players.

“But there is definitely some excellence here, people who for whatever reason have been missed along the way. We will definitely see some of them again in 2022, whether it be giving them another trial, bringing them into training or potentially giving them a chance in the second XI.”

Finding talent which might have slipped the net is the primary, but not sole, purpose of the exercise. The first group in Monday’s session consists almost entirely of players from minority backgrounds and after a year when English cricket’s problems have not only been confined to results, that feels particularly significant.

Azeem Rafiq’s shocking revelations about the racism he endured at Yorkshire shone the spotlight on a sport which at times can feel elitist and out-of-touch. A report last year revealed privately educated white British players were 34 times more likely to become professionals than state-educated British South Asians. Warwickshire, a club based in the middle of a hugely diverse, multicultural region, have often been accused of failing to tap into the community right on their doorstep.

But that is changing. It is encouraging to hear, for example, that 60 per cent of the players in the club’s age group teams and academy are now from South Asian backgrounds. In the next few years, that will translate into the starting XI. Manraj Johal, the Oldbury seamer who made an impressive first-class debut for the Bears in last season’s Bob Willis Trophy, is one of the first to make the jump.

“The fact people from all ethnicities, backgrounds and so on can turn up for these trials – and feel like they can and want to – says a lot about what we are trying to achieve,” says Greetham.

“I don’t want to say we are a beacon of excellence because I don’t think any county has, historically, been superb in terms of inclusivity. But I think in the last 10 years we have got it more right than anyone. Our boys and girls sides do reflect the community.”

The change, Greetham explains, has been less down to an initiative or policy than a collective drive to better understand the community.

“What has made more of a difference is having people from those communities on our coaching staff,” he says. “That means they have an immediate role model.

“Those counties which are in densely populated, diverse areas have a duty, through whether it be their outreach programmes, the county boards or us as a club of reaching in and searching for talent.

“The work we have done over the last 10 years – and it does take that long – is now starting to bear fruit.

“If you look at Warwickshire or across the professional game you will see a very low percentage of players from a South Asian background.

“That is ridiculously low. The game has failed those communities but we aren’t going to do that.”

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