Most children's sporting heroes are figures on a faraway pitch- or known only through magazines and TV. But at one Scottish school there's a real live champion in the classroom. Huw Roberts reports
George Salmond's pupils won't be seeing much of him this month. Nor will his colleagues at George Watson's junior school in Edinburgh. But the 29-year-old teacher has a pretty good excuse: he's playing cricket against Australia. Not to mention world-class players from Pakistan, Bangladesh, the West Indies and New Zealand.
It may surprise many that Scotland even has a cricket team, let alone one good enough to qualify for the World Cup. That a schoolmaster is the team captain and that it came third out of 22 nations in the qualifying rounds is even more unexpected.
Salmond, a quietly spoken Scot from Arbroath, will be at Worcester on Sunday morning, tossing a coin with Steve Waugh, one of the world's greatest batsmen, before leading his team out to face the formidable Australians.
"This is something you dream of doing," says Salmond. "It will be a proud moment for all of us."
Also in Scotland's 15-man squad, and hoping for selection, are two other teachers: all-rounder Michael Allingham, who teaches at Tony Blair's alma mater, Fettes College, and off-spinner Nick Dyer, a teacher at Purbrook infant and junior school in Hampshire.
George Watson's school has given Salmond this month off, and Sir could be missing from his primary class of nine and 10-year-olds even longer if Scotland qualify for the later stages.
Given the strength of the competition, Salmond admits this is unlikely, but says: "The school has always been incredibly helpful. A couple of years ago I had a month off to go to the World Cup qualifying tournament in Malaysia. After we qualified and came back, we had to take part in the Benson and Hedges Cup, and I declared myself unavailable. But the principal called me into his office and told me 'We want you to play'."
George Watson's is the largest independent school in Scotland. Mixed, and mostly for day pupils, it has around 900 pupils in the junior school alone. It is best known for rugby, with former pupils including Scottish international players the Hastings brothers, Gavin and Scott. "Sport is one of the school's attractions," says Salmond. "The facilities are terrific. There are six or seven teachers who coach cricket in the junior school and at senior level."
Salmond plays club cricket for the Grange Club, a leading amateur side in Scotland. He hopes involvement in the World Cup will raise the game's profile outside private school strongholds.
"One of the Scottish Cricket Union's priorities in the past few years has been to get the game into a lot more state schools, and there is real evidence of growth. We are getting much better players through at under-13, under-15 and under-17 level."
As for his own pupils, Salmond says: "They keep up to date with what is going on. I can expect some mickey-taking if I am out for nought, but they'll also say something if I've done well."
Salmond knows how important individual teachers can be in inspiring pupils to take up a game. He was introduced to cricket at Tiner Green's Primary School in Arbroath by teacher Chris Plomer, who took cricket as an extra-curricular activity for children aged 10 and 11.
"Cricket stopped at my secondary school, Arbroath High School, because of a pay dispute (in which teachers refused to take out-of-hours sport), but I played club cricket for Arbroath United. Chris is retired now, but still goes into primary schools to teach cricket. Arbroath has a good youth cricket set-up - almost entirely thanks to his work."
Cricket ambitions delayed Salmond's own entry into teaching. He didn't go to the Northern College, Dundee, until the autumn of 1990, when he was nearly 21. "I tried to make a go of professional cricket," he explains.
As it was, he got the best of both worlds. After qualifying as a teacher and beginning to play for Scotland's national team, he spent several months abroad, supply-teaching history and English in New Zealand. A timely return to Britain in 1995 saw him land the job at Watson's and get the call to captain Scotland.
Reflecting on the connections between teaching and cricket he mentions "patience" and "managing people". He adds: "And some people would say that cricketers are more infantile than primary children.
"As an ordinary player you just turn up and play. As a captain you have to be aware of other issues. It is probably the first experience I have had of taking responsibility for adults, and that has come in very useful in things like dealing with parents."
Salmond, one of Scotland's key batsmen, can look forward to some fast bowling from Australia's Glenn McGrath and a battery of other top players within the month. He knows it will be tough. "Other teams include the best professionals in the world, while our team is composed of people who play their cricket at weekends and have jobs to go to during the week."
The World Cup, says Salmond, is "every cricketer's dream", but he'll still be thinking of his pupils at Watson's. "I do miss the childen when I'm not there. Not the marking though. I don't miss that at all."
The 1999 Cricket World Cup begins today with England v Sri Lanka at Lords. It will be played in Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands over the next five weeks. The final is on June 20