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over 4 years ago | Interviews


As Ben Stokes was carving himself a place in cricket immortality at Headingley, the ripples across the nation’s wider consciousness started to spread. His feats featured on the front and back page of every national newspaper the day after, and as the footage of some of the stunning strokes spread far and wide, it felt like a generation was being inspired.

Of course, lovers of the game recognised that as important as the sixes Stokes smashed on Sunday were the balls he blocked on Saturday; the two runs he scored from 42 balls at the start of his innings were just as vital as the 74 he scored from his final 42. And instilling this lesson – the importance of marrying true grit as well as brute flair – into his young charges is one of the challenges faced by Rory Coutts, Head of Youth Cricket at the Middlesex Academy.

“I think they actually understand the white-ball game more than they understand the red-ball game,” he says. “So our biggest challenge is to get them to bat for long periods of time. Because very few kids now watch a day of Test cricket or watch a day of first-class cricket, but they will watch a highlights package on YouTube.”

Watching just the boundaries, wickets and dropped catches gives the aspiring pro a warped view of how to thrive in the longer form. A different approach is required to get them to understand all the intricacies inbuilt in first-class cricket.

“We’ve got our analyst to clip the whole innings when one of the first-team players has scored a hundred in a four-day game,” says Coutts. “And the thing that always comes back when you watch it through with the boys is: Wow – he defends and leaves a lot of balls!”

Ammunition there for those worried about England’s collapse in the first innings at Headingley, who blame the indiscipline of the new generation, but then English supporters have long worried about the impact of one-day cricket on the first-class game. Coutts however feels there’s a false dichotomy at play.

“You’re still looking for players in a good position when the ball’s let go, so they still have to be balanced whether they’re playing red-ball or white-ball cricket,” he said. “They still have to have the ability with their setup to score around the ground.

“You’re trying to look for bowlers who can bowl the ball quickly, you’re trying to look for spinners who can get the ball up and down and spin it at a decent pace. You’re trying to get batters who can play off the front and back foot.”

Of course, from a pool of 90-odd junior clubs in North London and its environs, not everybody is going to make the grade, and Coutts praised the restructured county system for helping players of all abilities to find a standard of cricket they can enjoy. “It used to be very much club cricket and county cricket, with no tiers in between,” he says. “But now there’s borough and regional cricket so the kids are getting more appropriate cricket for where they are at the moment.”

The set-up makes sense but sounds – perhaps necessarily – complicated, but Coutts’ lengthy experience working in the system allows him to navigate it well.

“It’s actually my 12th or 13th year working for Middlesex,” he says. “I started as a community coach, going into state schools and working in the area and district program. From there it evolved and evolved, and the last eight years I’ve worked in the academy. The value is in understanding the area, the county, the people, the club network.”

A year and a half ago Coutts took over as head of the academy, and though much of his role has been continuing what was already taking place when he was the assistant head, he has made a conscious effort to give the younger players more time playing cricket. This has included a maiden overseas tour, to La Manga, where the youngsters could learn from and train alongside Steven Finn, Toby Roland-Jones, and Tom Helm, as the trio returned from injury.

As well as honing the players’ techniques, taking them out of their comfort zones helps prepare them for life as a county pro, something which every academy player should be aspiring to be.

The 19 players selected to form the Elite Player Group at the Academy are selected on five criteria: their potential; their athleticism; their decision-making; their performance; and the long-term needs of Middlesex.

It’s not just technique that gets taught at the Academy either. For the boys between 14 and 18 who make up the group, a more holistic approach is taken. The Professional Cricketers’ Association get involved, and workshops are run on time management and social media.

As part of that effort to get his budding young cricketers playing more cricket, Coutts has helped nurture a relationship with Berkshire, where some of the Academy team play if there isn’t space in the second team. The arrangement seems to be mutually beneficial; Berkshire have won the Minor Counties Championship three years on the trot, and currently top its Western Division.

It’s via that route that 17-year-old right-armer Toby Greatwood found his way to the club. “He’s had a really good summer with the ball, but also he’s got a couple of good scores in the lower order,” says Coutts.

His efforts were rewarded when he was chosen to represent the London and East team in the ECB’s U17 Super Fours regional competition, along with three other Middlesex players, Josh de Caires, Atharva Prasad, and Blake Cullen. No other county had as many players picked in the squad.

“Josh has impressed this year in second-team cricket where he’s got two hundreds, which for a boy who’s under 17 is a serious achievement,” says Coutts. “Blake was selected into the England Young Lions squad last year as one of the younger players. He did well in the summer series against India and Bangladesh and he learnt a huge amount.

“Atharva Prasad is the youngest of the four players, he’s only sixteen, a batter who scored a lot of runs at the Bunbury Festival last year, which is the under-15s regional competition, and he got a couple of nice scores during the Super Fours week.”

“I think all the boys got a good taste of a little bit of success, but also having played at that level, they’ll be well placed now to see how their game needs to improve and develop as well.”

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