As Joe Root deftly stroked his way to a majestic century at Pallekele, mastering the spinning ball as well as any English player probably ever has, Ian Bell was at the National Cricket Performance Centre in Loughborough, helping equip the next generation with the tools to follow in the England captain’s footsteps.
The former England batsman is there to lead a spin camp, sharing his experience gained over 287 international appearances, and in particular his numerous visits to the subcontinent, on the England under 19 squad ahead of their forthcoming tours of India and Bangladesh.
Bell says the player pathway from age-group cricket through to the Lions and ultimately the senior squad is more distinct now than when he came through almost 20 years ago, and that attention to detail has improved dramatically, but he recalls a similar training camp having an impact on him as a youngster.
“I remember Jimmy Adams, the former West Indian captain, coming in and speaking to us before we went to the 2000 Under 19 World Cup in Sri Lanka, talking to us about conditions and what to expect. It’s hugely important to be able to hear from players who’ve been there and done it. Hopefully I’ve been able to pass on a bit of experience from my career that will help them in theirs.”
With three Test hundreds in Asia, Bell has plenty of wisdom to pass on. But he tells the England under 19 squad that when it comes to understanding how to play spin, there is no better place to start than the player pathway’s most celebrated graduate.
“When Rooty plays spin he’s not going to hit a million boundaries but what he will do is rotate the strike, be solid in defence, go forward and back, and manipulate the ball into gaps. With real calmness and good footwork, you can create those gaps. He and Virat Kohli are probably the masters at it at the moment.”
Bell also highlights Ben Foakes, who previously toured Sri Lanka with the under 19s and Lions before impressing in England’s Test series victory this winter, as another who has benefitted from the player pathway experience.
“Heading into his first Test match, Ben Foakes had the experience of playing for the under 19s and Lions in the subcontinent. Going out there is not as alien as it used to be. He’d seen those conditions before, he looked very good in defence and also knew how to go through the gears. That was a great message for these young guys, watching him score a hundred on debut in the subcontinent. If they do the hard work now, maybe one day they can go and do the same.”
Min Patel, the former Kent and England spinner now working as the Young Lions spin bowling coach, says tours of the subcontinent can also be career-shaping experiences for young twirlers who struggle to get overs under their belts in seam-friendly English conditions.
“I’ve potentially got five spinners who will go away this winter – a month in India, a month in Bangladesh – and possibly bowl more this winter than they did for their counties over the course of last summer,” says Patel. “If they’re bowling 30 or 40 [overs] per day, it’s quite telling. Most of these guys wouldn’t know those kinds of workloads, that kind of heat, the physical and mental fatigue. If they do end up going up the levels, they will have had a grounding in those kinds of conditions.”
The player pathway can sometimes be a source of frustration to the counties and their supporters, particularly when key players are plucked from already thin squads when there is silverware to play for or relegation to avoid. But Jon Lewis, the former Sussex assistant coach who is now in charge of England under 19s, says the experience gained is unique.
“I see it as an ‘add-value programme’,” says Lewis. “We try to offer experiences that they might not get at their county, to get them ready to cope with the pressures of international cricket. We take them on tour, we play as a group, put the badge on and try to take the cap forward. I’m passionate about it.”
Lewis admits that professional cricket is a “pretty brutal world”, pointing out that, based on Under 19 World Cup squads over the last 20 years, on average only four of every 15 players will go on to play for England, and several will leave the game entirely. However, with the help of respected former internationals such as Ian Bell, he believes the pathway programme gives players the best possible chance of navigating their route to the top, and flourishing if they reach the summit.
He adds: “All the little experiences they will get on an international pathway programme all add up so that when they finally go and play for England they feel a lot more comfortable, around people they know, putting a shirt on they know. The value in that is huge.”