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Bowled over by the men from Del Monte

Diane Spencer went in search of Australian cricketing success and found action all the way down to the grassroots. The hapless English cricket team's recent dismal performance in Australia has given rise, once again, to the usual debate about the demise of team sports in schools.

Iain Sproat, the Sports Minister, even went to Australia in January to unlock the secrets of the fabled cricket academy in Adelaide, whose team also gave our lads a humiliating drubbing.

According to Brendan Flynn, manager of what is now called the Commonwealth Bank Cricket Academy, Mr Sproat was expecting to see an impressive array of nets and pitches. Instead he saw Del Monte, an elegant, 100-year-old Spanish-style hotel on the esplanade of Henley Beach a few miles from the Adelaide Oval, scene of England's one test triumph. Apart from photographs of alumni, including famous old boy, spin bowler Shane Warne, there is little sign of cricket.

But there is a notice pinned to the manager's wall from the Australian Institute of Sport which gives a clue to the ethos of the place. It reads: "Anything short of a maximum commitment increases the potential for failure. I'm not in this for failure - are you?" Fourteen young men, aged 18 to 22, spend eight months, beginning in April in comfortable, if not luxurious, accommodation, training hard, improving their techniques using the Oval and local athletic tracks. The academy has a gym for early morning work-outs, shared by 20 cyclists on a 12-month intensive training programme to gear them up for the next Olympics.

Rod Marsh, chief coach and Australia's most famous ex-wicket-keeper, has described the academy as a finishing school. He and his assistant, Richard Done, the former New South Wales cricketer, select 12 to 15 of the most talented youngsters, usually recommended by their states. They come through the strong "grade" - local league - cricket structure whereby every club in each state runs five adult grade teams and at least another five for 10 to 17-year-olds. The academy aims to get as many of the young men it has chosen through to the Sheffield Shield - the states' tournament - as possible, and to play for the national team.

For the past five years Mr Marsh has built on the work of his predecessor, Jack Potter, a former captain of Victoria, with an academic background in physical education. He got the job as coach when the academy was set up in 1987 by the Australian Institute of Sport when the national game was in the doldrums. (It is said that an emotional premier, Bob Hawke, wanted the West Indian captain Clive Lloyd to come and coach the team.) The national institute, for its part, was established in 1981 following Australia's disastrous performance in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The government decided to spend some money setting up institutes in each state, with some specialising in 15 sports, others in more than two dozen.

Mr Potter flew to Adelaide from Victoria in December 1987 thinking there was a building to work from. Instead he was met by Mr Flynn who told him that they had to arrange accommodation as well as an education and training programme. "We worked our butts off - the boys were due in April - with nowhere to live." He found them rooms at a university college eventually. Del Monte is a recent acquisition.

The new coach devised a programme based on the premise that "if the Russians or East Germans took on cricket, they'd always beat Australia. So we trained people in the same way as Olympic athletes prepare for their sport - something that cricket has never had. We applied science to cricket."

Mr Potter employed doctors and physiotherapists to prevent injuries, sports psychologists to show the young men how to cope with the pressures, and specialist coaches for various aspects of the game. A baseball expert, for example, improves their skills in catching and throwing, while cricket stars such as Dennis Lillee and Ian and Greg Chappell each spend a week there, demonstrating techniques and regaling them in the pub with cricketing tales. "We develop athletes who can play cricket," said Mr Flynn.

This stress on fitness has led critics, including some of the self-styled Barmy Army, fanatical followers of the game, to accuse the Australians of producing a "chicken factory". "They don't let their personalities develop. They teach them to run between the wickets and the right techniques, but they only enjoy the game when they're winning. They're mass produced. Perm any 11 and you'd get the same team, with the possible exception of Shane Warne, " said a founder member of the Barmy Army who had watched every Test.

Apart from their physical training, the academy cricketers spend time gaining coaching or umpiring certificates, are lectured on dealing with the media, and learn how to use a computer and run small businesses. The cyclists also take German and Italian. So they end up with some qualifications or knowledge which should help them when their sporting careers have finished, or if they don't make it to the top.

"Six years ago we had to go overseas to learn, now other countries want to come here," Brendan Flynn said.

The academy also runs short-term "camps" for those who didn't make the full course and for "graduates" such as Shane Warne "who comes here from time to time to hone his skills", he said.

The cricketers get a scholarship of AS$34,000 (Pounds 17,000) to cover accommodation, travel - in and out of the country - equipment, coaching and medical benefits as well as essentials such as beer. The federal government donates AS$300,000 and the Commonwealth Bank sponsors it with AS$180,000.

Mr Marsh thought that the English county system mitigated against setting up a similar institution in the UK. But he told Mr Sproat that the Australian coaching system was far more developed than the English one.

Jack Potter said: "You have good technicians, but you've lost the plot in how to win and prepare teams."

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