• Ollie Godden

FEATURE | Sun sets early on MCC Universities' last dance



With a modest average of 35 across 21 Tests, Graeme Fowler’s playing days as a swashbuckling left hander left something to be desired statistically. His fledgling three year stint in the England side was brought about through the fortune of being a relatively successful county cricketer when the 1982 rebel tour of South Africa led to three year suspensions for England batsmen Graham Gooch and Geoffrey Boycott, but it was his contribution to his sport after the conclusion of his playing days which proved to be his greatest feat.


Fowler founded the Durham University Centre of Excellence in 1996. Such was its success, five others around the country were established by the England and Wales Cricket Board and the administrative reins duly passed to the Marylebone Cricket Club in 2004. The MCC Universities (MCCU) scheme had been launched, and was set for an almighty ride.


The premise was a simple one. Players of promise could be shipped off to a reputable university aged 18, and earn a degree whilst training as much as their studies allowed. Early morning fitness sessions gave a flavour of the dedication needed to crack it at the top end of the game, while three years of maturing gave time for players to hone and improve technical aspects of their game, and acquire valuable life experience at the same time. Crucially, should they fail to make a living in the sport, they would have their degree to fall back on.


Countless first class players have since passed through the system - Sir Andrew Strauss, Jack Leach, Rory Burns, Nat Sciver, Sam Billings, Heather Knight, Zafar Ansari and Tom Westley have all graduated from the academic rigour of university life to represent their country in their sport. The scheme’s handprint on the look of first class cricket is undeniable.


15 years on, the ECB has once again assumed responsibility for the scheme which is set to be restructured. The investment in each centre will be stripped back, and the first class status of pre-season games against County Championship sides withdrawn. The summer of 2020 was supposed to be the last hurrah for the programme in its current form, and a final chance for players to showcase themselves, but the coronavirus pandemic prevented one last dance.


While counties have regularly used the early-season fixtures against universities to blood young players, they have remained a useful shop window for the university players. None more so than former Durham University student Will Fraine. In 2018, Fraine went from completing his dissertation on the prevalence of mental health in cricket, to signing and playing for Nottinghamshire against Lancashire on Sky Sports within the space of 48 hours.


A few weeks earlier, he hit a blistering 112 of 99 balls against a Sussex attack which included Jofra Archer and Ollie Robinson, and then scored 65* against Durham in the University’s first class game. These two innings helped him realise his dream of playing professional cricket sooner than expected. Before he knew it, Peter Moores was on the phone inviting him to train at Trent Bridge with the first team.


Now plying his trade for his home county of Yorkshire, Fraine, who was raised in Huddersfield and was released from the White Rose academy as a teenager, is acutely aware of the opportunity that playing for a MCCU side, with its elite environment, provided.


“At university we trained as much, if not more, than I have as a professional cricketer because, if you weren’t at lectures, that's what you were doing”, the 24-year-old said.


“There was a good group of players who wanted to become professional and we pushed each other”.


Ultimately, though, Fraine had the fortune of finding some form at an important time against testing opposition. Had it not been for the exposure provided by the MCCU set up, he admits he might not be in the position he is in now, and sympathises with those players who have missed their own opportunity this year.


“If I wasn't playing for the scheme, and I didn't score the runs that I did in my final year at university, then I wouldn’t have got noticed. I may have played for Nottinghamshire trialling a bit, but who knows if they would have picked me. If they hadn't seen that I had scored runs against Sussex and Durham then they might not have taken the punt because I didn’t have a proven track record. It’s so unfortunate for students in that situation now that they are not getting that opportunity, and especially hard for those who are finishing now.”


It is understood that the funding provided to each centre by the ECB will fall to somewhere around £50,000 a year, not far short of half the previous cash injection by the MCC. To put that into context, Loughborough University was advertising its MCCU Assistant Coach job for just under £30,000 per year. The fall in funding could cost centres their elite status, and, as Fraine notes, jeopardize the pathway for bright young players.


“While playing for Durham I was at slip watching Ian Bell and Jonathon Trott bat at Warwickshire thinking ‘I have watched Ian Bell’s cover drive for years...now I’m seeing it from first slip!’ It’s a real education.”


“The fact it’s being discontinued in its current form is a shame, a real shame. The scheme is invaluable for students who are aspiring to be professional players. People need opportunities, and for those who slip through the cracks or who mature later, it’s their chance.


Little has been said about how the new scheme under the ECB’s tutelage will look. Yet, the fall in funding and banishing of first-class opportunities will do little to help students looking to break into the game. Students who have completed their studies this year have been robbed of their time in the spotlight and will have to find other ways into the professional game.



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