By Steve Morgan
Sporting the Three Lions may be the pinnacle of every Englishman's ambition, but a love of the grassroots game and the salutary lessons it offers are never forgotten.
Alec Stewart talks in no less forthright a manner than he batted. And the nation's most-capped Test cricketer is in no doubt about the debt he owes club cricket, the cradle of every player's game.
"I always say I played for England, Surrey, Malden Wanderers and Midland Guildford in Perth. That's how it is," he says. "I have people at Malden who are friends for life, who have helped me ever since I was a young lad to whatever I'm doing now."
Take any England player and the testimony pretty much mirrors Stewart's. Whether they hail from north or south, or all points east and west, you'll find the seeds of a love affair sewn at grassroots level and nurtured into bloom by the characters that reside therein. Those early lessons soaked up in the middle, or in the clubhouse after as the game is played out once more, still ring true.
Besides Stewart - whose portrait hangs proudly in the bar at Malden Wanderers' Cambridge Avenue ground - other Malden alumni include John Edrich, Geoff Arnold, Richard Hutton, Ian Ward and the Hollioake brothers. Around the M25, Jade Dernbach, the thoroughly modern jack-in-the-box T20 bowler, picked up his early tricks at Old Woking CC, a few miles from where his England one-day coach Ashley Giles cut his teeth at Ripley Cricket Club (like generations of the Giles family before him). At Stoke D'Abernon, a young mop-haired bowler by the name of R Willis glares out menacingly from a black-and-white team photograph, "to scare off the opposition," he jokes.
As an introduction to cricket, the club game is nigh-on perfect; graduation from colts and age-group games to that first adrenaline-fuelled rush of facing men for the first time; real men, waiting to test you out with bat or ball. Heart pounding, you hope you can cut it here, then maybe at the next level, graduating from fourth team - or fifth, in thriving establishments - to first, on to county, then the ultimate prize: international recognition.
Paul Collingwood puts as high a price as Stewart on his own start, at Shotley Bridge Cricket Club in his native Durham - his "second home", as he calls it. His brother Peter, skipper of the first team, has now compiled 16,000-plus runs at a handsome average of 35-plus since 1991. Shotley Bridge remains a family affair for the Collingwoods. "My dad rolls the wicket every now and then and cuts the grass. My mam still sits in her sleeping bag on the sidelines when it's cold, watching. They're always down there. And I pop down and have a couple of pints every now and then to watch my brother."
Club cricket helped the young Collingwood hone a technique that served him so successfully for his country in countless gritty, valuable knocks across 68 Tests and a record 197 one-day internationals (not forgetting the 2010 World Twenty20).
"The club wicket was a fast bouncy pitch, so I had to build a technique around [it], which put me in great stead for the future," he says. "But it wasn't just the technical side; it was also the mental aspect of playing against men at such an early age - gaining confidence and doing well against them. It's a massive step, absolutely huge. And a nerve-racking one, as well. You go into the unknown, and you've got to find the belief that you can do it at that level.
"Whether it's going from under-13s to first-team cricket, or from being an amateur cricketer to getting a professional contract, or from first-class cricket to internationals, you've always got to find a way to perform at the new level. Until you do, you won't have the confidence. That's the same at grassroots level."
For Alec Stewart, son of England and Surrey's Micky, Malden Wanderers was a 10-15 minute walk from the family home. "My brother Neil [now coaching Surrey's youngsters] and I basically lived down there in the summer holidays," he recalls. "There would be a group of us in the nets and on the outfield from a young age."
An outstanding talent, Stewart was playing for the thirds at 11 and the first team at just 16. Though his dad gave him a big helping hand with his coaching, he attributes much of his development to the sink-or-swim environment of his early club games.
"When you're playing against a strong adult, bowling that little bit more quickly, it does sharpen you up," he says. "As long as you can cope, that's the thing. I'm all for people playing above their age group in adult cricket if they can - but don't just put them in there. If you don't get it right, it can actually set them back, so it's very important when they're promoted that they can handle it."
One player clearly able to handle it is Joe Root, the latest graduate to the England set-up, who wrote his name into Ashes history with 180 at Lord's this summer. Root came through the ranks under the watchful eye of dad Matt, a fellow opener and one-time Nottinghamshire seconds skipper, who has been at Sheffield's Collegiate Cricket Club since 1992. Ask anyone there about Joe Root and they'll tell you the same thing. Entranced by the example of local hero Michael Vaughan, Root's hunger and appetite to improve was plain for all to see, as Matt Dixon, first-team skipper these past seven years, explains.
"He's always been a very composed, very organised player. He's always practised ridiculously hard, always wanted to have people give him throw-downs or bowl at him,” he says.
"In the nets, he'd bat for his allotted time, go and bowl, put his pads back on and want to go to have another bat. You'd be in the bar after a session on a Thursday night, but he'd still be out there in the middle, having whoever it was just chuck some down at him. He just had that single-minded desire and willingness to practise and a complete dedication to wanting to do as well as he can."
Matt Root recalls dropping down to the fourths to play with the young Joe. "He picked so much up, not just the technical part of the game, but tactical stuff, things that you just don't get from a net session. He worked incredibly hard at his game,” he adds.
"He'd bat a lot of the innings and was difficult to get out - he ran himself out when we were batting together in one game. It was his call, though! At 13, he moved up quite quickly - of course the trick then was for me to get back up with him…"
Even now, Root gets back to Collegiate to watch his dad, who's playing these days in the vets' team, and check out his old mates in the firsts. He even managed to squeeze in a game himself against Doncaster last season, with half the first team absent watching Sheffield United in the League One play-off final. Despite his new-found success, the concept of Root's club and all it stands for inform his love for the game.
Every club has its characters, bricks and mortar made flesh, those from whose every fibre the game oozes. "Barry Hicks. H-i-c-k-s," says Paul Collingwood without hesitation, when asked what he sees when he closes his eyes and thinks about Shotley Bridge. "He was always down there and he epitomised club cricket. Such a great guy, a real character, always around the bar and helping out, cutting the grass and stuff like that.
"Then, when he was out on the park, he was a swashbuckling big hitter; he loved having the maverick side to him when he was playing cricket. You miss guys like that around the club. But that's what it's all about. It's a great start in cricket and it gives you great values when you're growing up."
From Shotley Bridge, Collegiate, Malden Wanderers and hundreds more just like them, club cricket has long been a fertile breeding ground: the field of dreams, where the stars of tomorrow first strapped on Dad's pads, picked up an oversized bat and thought of England. Lucky are the few who make it: those who do cherish memories of men like the late Barry Hicks, those who helped them make their game what it is.