Lions tours are usually about the future, but a trip to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst last week had Middlesex spinner Ollie Rayner reflecting on his past.
Rayner has been a curiosity throughout his career with Middlesex and Sussex as the only first-class cricketer born in Germany – the result of the military background of his father, Mark.
That background included two spells at Sandhurst, the Academy which has been honing military leaders for almost 70 years – first as a cadet, and then at Staff College having served as a Colonel.
“I was only very young when Dad was at Sandhurst the second time at Staff College, so it was great to have the chance to spend some time there,” said Rayner, who at 31 will be the senior figure in the 16-man Lions squad heading for Dubai this week – and whose 51 wickets at less than 24 played a key role in securing Middlesex’s first Championship title for 23 years.
“I think he was pleased to hear we were going. He told me a few things to look out for, and for me it was great to have the chance to experience and appreciate a place which was very important to him, and to reflect on what happens at Sandhurst. I really enjoyed it, and I think the rest of the lads would say the same.”
It is the second year that Andy Flower, the Lions head coach, has taken the players to the Royal Military Academy early in their winter programme – working with Gemma Morgan, a former Sandhurst student who was the first woman to be awarded the Carmen Sword for outstanding performance as a young officer (and also captained Wales at lacrosse!).
“I think it’s a great place for the players to spend some time,” Flower explained. “It takes them slightly out of their comfort zone, and makes them think about teamwork and leadership – areas in which the military have such vast experience, with Sandhurst’s motto of Serve to Lead. It’s about their development as people, not just as cricketers.
“We also have the chance to spend time with some of the cadets, and to visit the Royal Memorial Chapel, which has been a memorable and humbling experience for all of us. It has been a privilege to have the opportunity, and we are very grateful to Gemma and everyone else at the Royal Military Academy who has made it possible.”
After 36 hours in Surrey, Rayner and the rest of the Lions headed north to England cricket’s Performance Centre in Loughborough for a four-day camp to continue their preparations for Dubai.
Here again, Flower and England cricket’s other lead coaches were aided by external expertise. Graeme Swann spent a day at the Performance Centre, working with Rayner, Jack Leach and Tom Westley on the grass pitches in the heated marquee outside the Performance Centre before joining current Test seamer Mark Wood to speak to the whole squad about the challenges of stepping up to international cricket, especially on the subcontinent.
Julian Wood, the former Hampshire batsman who has worked as a specialist power-hitting coach with Gloucestershire, Somerset and Middlesex, began his second winter stint with the Lions which will continue in Dubai.
Flower even brought two members of his local boxing club in Stratford-upon-Avon, coach Matt Pickering and lightweight Will Foley, to give the players the chance to do some sparring – an unusual and enjoyable way to improve their footwork and evasive skills.
The Lions will spend almost four weeks in Dubai, practising at the ICC Academy before playing three one-day matches against the United Arab Emirates at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, followed by an historic first-class four-day match against Afghanistan which is set to be played in Abu Dhabi.
They return on December 12, when a squad will be picked for a five-week tour of Sri Lanka in February and March including two four-day matches and five one-day games against Sri Lanka A.