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Rory Coutts, Middlesex’s Head of Youth Cricket, on a summer in which fans have been introduced to some exciting new names...

It’s been a summer to dig out the positives, even if they haven’t been clearly visible. Sure, the season didn’t start until August, but the action has come thick and fast since. Sure, there remains a hollowness to proceedings with no spectators present, but live streams have offered some comfort. And while many overseas stars have been unable to adorn the county game in 2020, opportunity has knocked on the door of many domestic youngsters.

Across the group stage of the Bob Willis Trophy, 30 county players made their first-class debuts. For Middlesex, that included left-arm spinner Thilan Walallawita, batsman Jack Davies and seamer Blake Cullen, while leg-spinning all-rounder Luke Hollman and the hard-hitting Joe Cracknell have since made their first-team bows in the T20 Blast. All five made their way there via Middlesex’s age-group sides and time with the Second XI.

Watching on attentively has been Rory Coutts, head of youth cricket at Middlesex, who has overseen the development of the latest crop of youngsters and many before, having previously been assistant to Alan Coleman before his promotion to the head position in 2018. “It’s obviously brilliant for them,” says Coutts. “We’ve obviously had a very tough year as a country with the pandemic. What has happened on a plus side, in cricket, is that you see across the country a lot of younger lads making their debuts and getting opportunities that maybe overseas players or senior players would have had in the past.

“It’s opened the door with no promotion and relegation to give youngsters a bit of an opportunity. Even some of the older players like Max Holden, Robbie White, Martin Andersson – they have had a good run in the competitions as well. It’s been brilliant to see Middlesex putting out sides with probably more than 50 per cent of boys that have come out of the academy. It’s rewarding but brilliant for them to have a window to show what they can do.”

And so how have the newbies done? “They’ve all impressed in their own way,” says Coutts. “With young players they’re all aspiring to be more consistent – with where they land the ball, with the number of scores they get. They’ve all shown glimpses of what they’re capable of.”

Here are those glimpses: Coutts points to Cullen’s performance on debut, in which he took 2-51 in a win over Sussex; Walallawita, who returned six wickets at 41 as an everpresent in the Bob Willis Trophy campaign, “has been very good with the ball”; Hollman’s leg-spin and lower-order batting has been impressive in the Blast, and there is praise for Davies’ 64-ball 13 in a 40-run stand with White against Kent – “that partnership and the halting of momentum at that point was so key in turning that game around”. Just hours after this interview, Cracknell makes his Blast debut and hits a 21-ball 28 in a loss against Surrey; a couple of days later he smashes a 22-ball 50 against Kent. “Over the next 12 months you’d hope that they start to become more consistent”, is Coutts’ key point.

Of course, while these youngsters are making their introductions, Coutts has known them for years, and admits it’s rewarding to see their development from boys to men, each player’s story and challenges different to the others.

“Blake’s a tall young quick bowler and you’ve got to be aware of his growth and that side of it, while Thils is a young spinner, he’s going to bowl a lot more. Blake made his debut in the second team at 15, so for a long time he’s had a lot of experience in the lead up to making his first-team debut.

“The biggest challenge that Blake’s always had is he’s grown and he’s kept growing. He’s obviously a tall young man and he’s had periods where he’s grown quickly and we’ve always had to work with him and the physical guys to assess his body and see where he’s at. He’s had some periods of not bowling, but it’s also meant that during those periods he’s focused on his batting. I think when you’re dealing with younger lads it’s not always prescriptive of how it’s going to go and you’ve got to just roll with what’s in front of you.”

And while turning out for the first team may be the dream, it’s interesting to hear Coutts discuss the value of making the step up to second-team cricket.

“I spend quite a bit of time around the second team during the summer,” says Coutts. “I think it’s important for their [academy players] development because that’s when they’ll be under the most pressure. Because standout young players should perform pretty well in county age-group cricket, when they make that step up to second-team cricket you probably learn the most about them because they’re playing against older cricketers, with a good portion of professional cricketers in those games. Me being able to be there and support them in that is an important part of their development.”

Coutts adds that head coach Stuart Law is keen to see more talent emerge in the first-team through the pathway, which leads to the question: who’s the next one to watch out for? A top-order batsman immediately comes to mind. Josh de Caires has just signed a three-year rookie contract. Hopefully over the next few years he’ll start to push his way in the game.” As the current make-up of the Middlesex side shows, the opportunities will certainly be there.

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