The focus throughout both facets of the Academy is to hone skills that will remain even as a player makes her international debut. © Getty Images

The focus throughout both facets of the Academy is to hone skills that will remain even as a player makes her international debut. © Getty Images

Every sports team/individual wants to create a legacy. Two such legacies come to mind, both of whose foundations lie in academy learning – Manchester United’s Class of ’92 and Lionel Messi of Barcelona. Granted, the latter was born with immense talent and vision, but it was the La Masia Academy that helped him along. Similarly, with the Class of ’92, talented footballers were born not just because of a Alex Ferguson’s faith in youth (You’ll never win with kids) but because of the impressive training they received. If all goes well, England Women could well be looking at setting up a similar cricketing legacy in the years to come.

In November 2016, the England and Wales Cricket Board restructured their Women’s Academy programmes to take more than 120 players under their wing. The programmes were renamed, new coaches assigned and a general energy infused into the setup with this statement from Clare Connor, Director of England Women’s Cricket – “The pinnacle for any talented, aspiring young cricketer is to play and win matches for England, and through the England Women’s Pathway we believe that we are developing a structure to support their journey.”

The first step was revamping the academy setup, split into England Senior Women’s Academy and England Women’s Academy. John Stanworth, a former Lancashire player, academy director and first-team coach, joined the system in November 2016 that had a clear goal in mind – training players to be prepared to represent England. Working alongside Mark Robinson, the head coach of the England Women’s team, and Alastair Maiden, his assistant coach, Stanworth constantly communicates the development of players under his charge, and those that have moved on from the Academy to the international stage.

“We will work with the junior Academy players, the senior Academy players and then the players in the England Women’s national squad and we’ve got distinct roles and distinct accountability for what we do,” Stanworth tells Wisden India. “I think it’s a healthy situation for coaches to work with, on the pathway so that you see future international players but are able to work with current international players and you’re learning by watching them train, develop, and then are able to use that experience working for the senior level to help the next generation.”

Stanworth may not be directly involved in the talent identification process, but when the players are adopted into the programme, he ensures he doesn’t lose touch with them as they progress to the next stage, a throwback to his Lancashire Academy days.

“I spent 14 years working as an Academy director (for Lancashire) in the men’s game, it would involve talent identification of players from the ages of 15-16. Once selected, the county academies develop them into potential professional cricketers. But the role I had previously involved me not just working at an Academy level but working with players that had gone on to play professional cricket and to maintain a coaching contact. And that’s one of the benefits of this role — that I’m involved in talent identification to a degree but I’m working with developing players not just for the next level but when they get to the next level, continuing with that work with them.

Apart from domestic fixtures and any other matches the Academy might organise, some Academy players are also part of training tours, like the most recent UAE training camp a couple of months ago, where players from both the first team squad and the Senior Academy trained together for two weeks. For Adams, it was an extremely valuable experience in many ways.

“The challenge that I’ve experienced is, I can see differences between my experiences in the men’s game and the women’s game. In the men’s game, I found it easier because there were many opportunities to see young boys and men play in competitive fixtures where you can make proper assessments about their ability to perform. That contrasts markedly with the girls, who don’t have the same volume of high competition. It is getting better – the introduction of the Kia Super League has been a real advantage in that but that’s still in its early stages, so we need to get better and more skilled and provide fresh chances for cricketers.”

Lack of opportunities for girls to play also translated into lesser games for the Academy girls. But the Academy has made contingency plans. During the lull in the county season, the players are enrolled in an Under-15 boys’ league, the Midlands Boys Royal London Cup. “Just to give us some extra cricket,” as Georgia Adams, one of the England Senior Women’s Academy players, put it.

“Purely, it is for us to challenge us a bit more, but it provides us with regular cricket. So we are playing whenever we don’t have our girls’ county fixtures. It’s an opportunity for us as a kind of Academy squad to get games together as a team because you train all winter and then it comes to the summer and we don’t actually get much time together to train. It’s nice to have the opportunity to get out onto the pitch against a challenging opposition.”

Apart from domestic fixtures and any other matches the Academy might organise, some Academy players are also part of training tours, like the most recent UAE training camp a couple of months ago, where players from both the first team squad and the Senior Academy trained together for two weeks. For Adams, it was an extremely valuable experience in many ways.

“We basically split into two teams and then that meant that we trained together for the whole tour. We trained separately and then we played games against one another,” she reveals. “They split the teams carefully based on what people do and their disciplines so everyone got a little bit of exposure to facing high-quality bowling, getting good time in the middle. I think it was a brilliant way of doing it (because) it was controlled and we took so much learning out of the experience. It was still a training camp, so we had the confidence to put things into play that we had been working on over the winter, but do it in a competitive environment, in a match situation and scenario.”

The UAE training camp was an example of how the focus for the coaches isn’t just on the charges immediately under their training, as Adams elaborates.

“It was a huge learning curve, getting to working on sort of different plans and getting to face sort of different bowling like left-arm spin or where you’re gonna stand at the end of the innings, deep in the crease, out of the crease early doors or things like that. But it also meant that it was an environment where we were given the confidence from the coaching staff to give things a go. That was the highlight for me. Mark Robinson and John Stanworth were really positive and really encouraging us to try the things we’d been developing and not holding us back or not putting too much pressure on us players.”

Stanworth wants all the players who could be on such tours in the future to absorb everything they can from these opportunities.

“When you’re on tour with a group of players, you do find out about each other and particularly for the players who are part of the Senior Academy to be involved in two tours (UAE and India), which has been the case for a number of the girls. It’s a very sharp learning experience and it’s one that I can’t see how it can’t improve from being around the better players on a regular basis. Provided the Senior Academy girls’ attitude is right, their fitness levels are at the appropriate level, they’re going to benefit from the experience and that’s been the case in my experience too.”

Laura Marsh, part of the England Women's World Cup squad, feels Academy players are now better prepared to play on the international stage. © Getty Images

Laura Marsh, part of the England Women’s World Cup squad, feels Academy players are now better prepared to play on the international stage. © Getty Images

But while the progress seems to be in leaps and bounds for the current Academy players, how was it for Laura Marsh, now a mainstay of the first team, previously with the England Women’s Academy (now renamed the England Senior Women’s Academy)?

“I think the major difference is that the girls in the Senior Academy now, there’s a less of a gap in the skill level between them and the England Women’s team. There’s more stress and depth now than there used to be, a greater pool of players with a higher skill level which is fantastic for the England team, moving forward. It should allow for us to be able to play 11 fantastic players and for the selectors to be able to choose from a greater number of players as well.”

Stanworth prefers to look at the difference from yet another positive angle, stating that the exchange of information is more thorough nowadays.

“I think there has been a gap but I honestly believe that that gap is narrowing but that’s part of my job. For me to start to get Senior Academy England girls ready for the next level is my reason for doing the job. I’m not saying that the setup didn’t do a good job, I genuinely do believe that they are capable of performing at the higher level than they have been. But what helps now is that you get the opportunities which have been provided by Mark Robinson, which has made it possible for the girls to step up into that level and practise and be around those players. Because of that, their learning and their development is helped along as well.”

Overseas cricketers being allowed to participate in the women’s county game has encouraged a rise in the level of competition, according to Adams, who features for Sussex like her father Chris did. But one recent development that has changed the face of the women’s game in England is the emergence of the Kia Super League. A tournament that finishes before it starts, it was two weeks of utter T20 madness beamed on television. For Adams, who opened for Southern Vipers in the tournament, it was one of the best experiences in her cricketing career so far.

“You’re in and around champions of the game so for me, it was one of the best cricketing moments and experiences. You can learn so much and regardless of performances, taking away from their experience and their learning of the game and all that they can offer. One of my highlights was in the first game of the KSL, I’d put on a big partnership with Suzie Bates. She actually kind of guided me through the innings, the whole time she was talking to me and saying ‘This is what I’m going to do to this bowler, give it a try or if it’s not your strength, then don’t do it. I’ve noticed that she’s bowling to this field so have you tried working the ball over there’.

“It just goes to show that you can take so much from them and learn so much from them. Having the opportunity to play with such brilliant players, you can’t knock it really, but by far the best experience of my cricketing career so far. I think that and playing on better pitches — we were lucky to be hosted by the Ageas Bowl at Hampshire — it’s just all those things we’ve never had any exposure to unless you’ve played at the top.”

Georgia Adams, part of England Senior Women's Academy, felt her best cricketing experience so far was playing for the Vipers in the Kia Super League. © Getty Images

Georgia Adams, part of England Senior Women’s Academy, felt her best cricketing experience so far was playing for the Vipers in the Kia Super League. © Getty Images

Stanworth also echoes Adams’ thoughts about the importance of learning from such experiences, and laments how there seem to be few opportunities for such learning to take place.

“A Senior Academy player who gets an opportunity to bat in the top 3 or 4 (in the Kia Super League), that’s the exception, not the rule. They will benefit from being around better players, seeing how better players prepare and play and go about their business. But it’s just not enough, there needs to be more opportunities. Like going to Abu Dhabi, also going to India, being around and working with the senior players on a long-term basis, that’s where the real genuine learning takes place. But that’s reinforced when you have the chance to play competitive fixtures with them. It’s still valuable, we just need to have more regular opportunities for that learning to take place.”

Marsh also believes that the Kia Super League will prepare domestic cricketers for what they could face on the international stage.

“Obviously it allows some of our younger domestic cricketers to get the opportunity to play with more international players from around the world which is, I guess, going to open their eyes to the skill levels required to make it at the highest level.”

Adams wants to grab every opportunity by the collar and states that with the Women’s Big Bash and the Kia Super League, T20 cricket is now throwing up more opportunities for players which is helping the game move forward as well.

“I’ve found myself committing a lot more to my cricket, working harder to develop my game so I can keep up to those standards. But also, it gives you that extra bit of motivation, that bit of kick. I remember when I was walking out to bat like in the first game of the KSL, I was like ‘You know what, I’m going to show these people what I can do. I’m going to show these people you know that I can score runs and it’s not just about the world-class players like Suzie Bates, Charlotte Edwards’.”

But while the players themselves might only be looking for more opportunities and exposure, Stanworth looks ahead to the future with specific focus on their mental state.

“I want to start players to get into the mindset that when they move to the next level, they’re able to compete from ball one. They’re able to compete not just with the bat and ball but to be able to complete as athletes, as people, to be able to front up and deal with competition immediately. That’s just starting. I don’t know whether that will take 5 years, I hope it will take considerably less. But until I’m fairly confident that players who are involved in the Senior Academy have then got the capability to step up and play in the KSL or in international games for the England first team and to be able to do that right as soon as they get into the environment, then I’ll know that the system’s starting to work. That’s my priority and that’s my mission for the girls.”