Scratch beneath the surface of the first-class structure and one reaches the Second XI tier, a virtual mirror image of the first team equivalent in that there is a multi-day championship, a fifty over competition and a twenty over equivalent. The Second XI level offers some subtle differences though as three non-county teams have, in recent seasons, been included in the mix. First are the Unicorns, a sort of de facto Minor Counties combined XI which plays in the two limited overs competitions whilst a combined XI from the MCC Universities, until the current season, played solely in the Second XI Championship.
The only non-county team to compete in all three competitions is the MCC Young Cricketers, a team comprised of young players formed from the famed Lord’s based club. In essence, the team is another avenue for young cricketers to progress toward professionalism outside of the half a dozen designated MCC Universities. Previous alumni to have progressed into the professional game with distinction from the Young Cricketers program include Ian Botham, Phil Tufnell and Mark Waugh whilst, in recent times, Ross Taylor, Darren Sammy, William Porterfield and Dawid Malan have all been part of the program. The current squad includes Ben Curran, brother of Surrey’s Tom and Sam, along with Sussex seamer Fynn Hudson-Prentice and fellow Martlet, and Jersey representative, Jonty Jenner. It is estimated that one in three Young Cricketers go on to play for a county.
The Young Cricketers may be an adjunct of the Marylebone Cricket Club at large but their itinerant existence is more London hinterland than St John’s Wood. Thus, the beautifully peaceful Dennis Compton Oval at Shenley and the Middlesex outpost at Radlett have served as homes to the Young Cricketers in recent summers but the chosen destinations for most of the current season are Merchant Taylors’ School in Moor Park and High Wycombe Cricket Club in the eponymous Buckinghamshire town. The former is the host for the team’s latest contest, against Derbyshire, in the Second XI T20 Cup.
Such an inclusion for the Young Cricketers is perhaps a curious one. Non franchise domestic competitions in other countries tend to be organised on a geographic and / or demographic basis, providing something akin to a sense of order but English domestic cricket throws in a couple of jokers to keep things interesting. Much likely has to do with the imprint of the MCC itself on the sport in this country, an appendage to the English domestic system which would probably not be given house room if the sport were formed in the 21st century but remains part of the tapestry of English cricket courtesy of its heritage and historical import. Hence, the Second XI competitions could potentially witness the bizarre notion of a tournament being won by a team not representing a county. Indeed, whilst the Unicorns and the MCC Young Cricketers are yet to achieve such a victory the England Under 19 squad captured the Second XI T20 title during the 2012 summer.
Hot, sunny conditions greet the players as they emerge from the single story pavilion that serves the Old Merchant Taylors’ Cricket Club as Britain’s heatwave extends into another week but a warm breeze blows across the exposed ground to take the edge off of the balmy ether. The Young Cricketers bowl first on a pitch tinged with green and utilise the conditions well during the opening overs; Kiwi Ben Sears proving particularly difficult for the Derbyshire openers with his pace and bounce. Messrs Slater and Critchley soon begin to increase the scoring rate though, the former bludgeoning four consecutive boundaries off of the unfortunate Finn Hudson-Prentice as those patrolling the outfield are forced to scamper toward neighbouring pitches as the ball skips across the straw coloured sward without any interruptions or obstructions to block its path. Slater plays one attacking shot too many and is castled by Berkshire slow left arm bowler Olli Birts for an enterprising innings of 31 from 19 deliveries but Derbyshire continue to tick along, reaching 69-1 at the midpoint of their allocation.
The introduction of diminutive leg spinner Kiel van Vollenhoven checks the scoring and induces the dismissal of Calum MacLeod as the South African tempts the visiting batsmen into a false shot or three. Wickets remain elusive though and the Midlands county reaches three figures in the 15th over, an onslaught expected during the final thirty deliveries. The hosts’ skipper Joe Barrett persists with Birts and van Vollenhoven and is rewarded with two quick wickets as the spinners finish eight overs with collective figures of 4/51. Scoring proves a little easier against the quicker bowlers but Hudson-Prentice and Sears bowl well in restricting the visitors to 157-4 from their allocation, Matt Critchley finishing unbeaten on 71.
Unlike matches involving Middlesex, today’s contest takes place on the Old Merchant Taylors Cricket Club ground rather than the neighbouring school ground. Both playing areas are part of a vast complex of cricket pitches and other sporting arenas that yawn into the distance toward the school itself. Trees divide the two aforementioned grounds but there is a sense of the play being a little lost amongst the various boundary flags, squares and outfields. Gaze at google maps and ten squares adorn the complex with a further couple across the macadam of the Long Drive that ventures through the school premises. Despite such ambient surrounds one cannot help but be bowled over by the gorgeous bijoux pavilion that hunkers amid the surrounding foliage adjacent to the main school ground. Bright white with a high roof and a sheltered opening for the scorers, the structure features a picket white fence and pleasant benches. One could imagine such a structure in any chocolate box village across the country, such is its beauty. The past neatly dovetails with the present courtesy of the digital scoreboard above the main entrance but the overall ambience still remains wonderfully bucolic.
In response to the total set by their Midland opponents the Young Cricketers enjoy a rapid start to their innings, reaching 59 without loss at the end of the powerplay. The left-handed Ben Curran strikes seven boundaries and reaches his half-century in the ninth over as the visitors toil under the early afternoon sun, the hosts recording exactly half of their target after half their overs. Curran and fellow opener Marc Lezar are soon dismissed though, the former to one attempted reverse sweep too many, and Derbyshire begin to drag themselves back into the contest; two further quick wickets taken by leg spinner Matthew McKiernan leaving the Young Cricketers requiring fifty runs from the final five overs. The visiting bowlers continue to turn the screw, conceding just 21 runs from the next three overs, Matt Critchley returning to claim his third wicket. Middle order batsman Kashif Ali strikes a four and a six in the penultimate over but he perishes attempting a ramp shot and the visitors adeptly close out the contest, winning by four runs.
From a position of strength the Young Cricketers had managed to fritter away the chance of a crucial victory. Such is the fickle nature of T20 cricket. For the Young Cricketers their transient existence in the Second XI competitions presents its own challenges. Achieving a consistent team and resultant momentum is likely difficult. Prior to their visit to the Moor Park estate the Young Cricketers had won just one contest out of four in the T20 competition and languished in seventh position in the Northern division. The Second XI Championship has offered riper pickings but the fifty over equivalent proved just as mediocre with an overall sixth placed finish in the aforementioned division. In an era when results are the be all and end all one ponders whether the inclusion of teams such as the Unicorns and the Young Cricketers in the Second XI schedules could be under threat, particularly if neither challenge for overall honours in any of the three competitions. The progression of a third of Young Cricketer alumni onto a first class county highlights the success of the scheme though, another path for those that may have slipped through the cracks first time around. In essence, the existence of the scheme and its relative success from a personnel point of view highlights how the MCC Young Cricketers are one of those glorious anomalies that provide English cricket with a semi-anachronistic ambience. One hopes that such anomalies remain part of the summer’s fabric and that the curious amalgam of players are allowed to participate in the county structure long into the future.