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‘‘IF I had to choose one quality, it would be character.’’ These are the words of Lancashire’s Academy Director John Stanworth, the man who has been there from the very beginning.
It is a quality outlined by Lancashire’s rising star Luis Reece, an Academy graduate who has been with the club since 2008.
The opening batsman enjoyed a stunning debut season in 2013 after breaking through from the second team, scoring eight fifties in 16 innings with a staggering average of 55.53. But the left-hander has not always had things his own way.
‘‘With Luis, he has had some serious wake-up moments,’’ Stanworth explains.
‘‘We signed a left-arm seamer in his final year as an academy player that stopped him getting him games, which was a slap in the face for him.’’
Reece’s cricket coach in the Leeds-Bradford University team reinforced the message that his bowling may not take him to the standards that county cricket demands.
However, these successive blows did not deter Reece, serving instead as an incentive to make the most of his abilities and work hard on his batting.
The fruits of his labour came to the fore in the 2013 season; his total of 722 championship runs was bettered only by overseas veterans Simon Katich and Ashwell Prince at Lancashire. The 23-year-old’s success is just the tip of the iceberg for a club who promote from within like no other.
The academy opened in the winter of 2002, with great success. Out of the first 15 players, 12 made it professional, with players like Kyle Hogg, Tom Smith, Simon Kerrigan and Karl Brown all emerging.
‘‘It wasn’t so much that they were technically better, it was the content of their character, their desire to improve their game’’, Stanworth claims of these players, who have each made their mark on the club.
A close relationship with head coach Peter Moores remains a vital part of the process.
‘‘The work I have got with Peter Moores is a really strong one,’’ Stanworth says.
‘‘He gives a top to bottom approach. He knows what he wants, he communicates that to the players and to the coaches that work alongside him, so I’m able to drip-feed that down to academy players.
Academy players will see that the vast majority of our first team are filled with people who not too long ago were in academy shoes’’.
With a new deal that keeps Moores at the club till 2015, Lancashire fans can expect plenty more young stars to rise from the club’s well-oiled youth system.
One of the most difficult things in sport is bridging the gap from academy level to the first team. It is Stanworth’s job to manage this jump: ‘‘As you step up things happen much quicker, so it’s not the fact that you can’t adapt it’s just the suddenness of that need to adapt, so although we can present artificial challenges where you are preparing them for that level, the actual reality of it is quite a thing’’, says the former wicket-keeper.
It is therefore up to Stanworth to work on the mental aspect of a young player’s game: ‘‘Mentally you do make a shift. If I do my job properly, it’s not a big step to move from those various levels you have described, from academy to second team, from second team to first team.
The system we have seems to get over those mental hurdles quite quickly; because we were one of the first counties to do twelve-month contracts we involved these younger players in a pro-environment early.’’
Despite the constant production of academy players to a successful first team, one that won the Championship on the last day of the 2011 season with graduates Karl Brown and Stephen Croft at the crease, England honours have somewhat eluded this group.
Simon Kerrigan was called up to the fifth test against Australia this summer, but with figures of eight overs 0-53, it is a debut he would rather forget.
Brown, capable of producing some delicious shots, was one of a few Lancashire academy players to represent England under 19’s, but has found consistency harder to come by at professional level. It is something that may change in the years ahead, with Lancashire’s vibrant second XI winning two competitions in 2013.
Hasseeb Hameed, recently called up to the England Under 19 squad, is highly regarded, ‘‘Hammeed excites me in the same way that I was excited when I worked with a John Crawley as a coach and saw Mike Atherton,’’ proclaims Stanworth.
It is a bold statement, but one that portrays the Lancastrian’s genuine belief in his new batch of talent.
Hammeed isn’t the only exciting prospect, big-hitting Liam Livingstone has signed a one-year deal with the club, whilst Rob Jones, Alex Davies, Harry Dearden and Saqib Mahmood have all shown potential in a group that carry ‘high’ expectations and provide each other with excellent competition.
‘‘One of the strengths of our academy is that there is no pecking order, just cause somebody’s in the England set-up doesn’t give them the right to be selected.’’ the 53-year-old says.
The success of the academy is something that ultimately ‘satisfies’ Stanworth, but there is no time to look back, as the next wave begins to build, and the potential for these players to ‘deliver at next level’ is where the excitement comes from for Lancashire’s eternal Academy mastermind.