By Jeremy Blackmore, ECB Reporters Network
For young Luton cricketers like Muhammad Arham Durrani, Northamptonshire’s Steelbacks Academy is providing an opportunity to showcase their skills and gain exposure to top-level coaches and facilities.
The revolutionary new sixth form programme, headed up by Northamptonshire trophy-winning coach David Ripley, is celebrating its first anniversary as it taps into the huge interest in cricket among Asian communities in the Luton area.
Delivered in partnership with The Shared Learning Trust over two campuses at The Stockwood Park and The Chalk Hills Academies, it enables students to combine their studies with a taste of life as a professional athlete.
Since joining the programme last September, Durrani, 18, a hard-hitting batter and part-time keeper, has already represented Northamptonshire Under 18s and featured in two games for the county’s Academy side which qualified for the ECB’s T20 finals day. He also scored a century against the Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough.
Talking about the experience, he said: “It's been a good opportunity for all of us, not only to get chance to showcase our skills to coaches like Rips, and Academy Director Kevin Innes, but to show that people from Luton can play the same standard of cricket as people in Northamptonshire or other major counties.
“And I've had the chance to play for Northamptonshire Under 18s and a couple of Academy games, which has brought me into the eyes of the actual county itself.”
Durrani first started playing cricket for Luton Caribbean CC in Crawley Green Road. Aged 15, his skills with the bat earned him a trial with Bedfordshire and he has represented the county’s age group sides since.
He was immediately drawn to the Steelbacks Academy programme as an avenue to pursue both his post-16 academic and sporting ambitions, attending three weekly training sessions with Ripley, including access to the indoor school in Northampton.
“The exposure to coaches like Rips and then the exposure to facilities at the County Ground with the eight lanes, and bowling machines, everything really appealed to me,” he said.
“I thought it was a good chance to increase my skill level and maybe show other people I can actually play at a high level myself.
“Training where the professionals train, gives us an opportunity to really get into the lifestyle of a professional player. We do fitness tests the same as the Northamptonshire first team. The exposure is really good here. It's getting a chance to do everything the senior professionals are doing – a taste of what's to come if you want to go forward with the sport.
“David’s experienced, he's been a past professional for Northants, he’s England Under 19s capped. We couldn't ask for a better coach.”
Durrani says the programme’s academic mix is helping equip him for the future as he pursues A levels in sociology and accounting alongside a BTEC in sport. His dream though is to become a professional cricketer.
“Ever since I was a kid, I've always wanted to play professional cricket, be on TV and play in front of big crowds,” he said.
“So, hopefully going forward, if I perform well, Northants can take me up for a rookie contract and then we can go from there.
“Obviously, I'm going to have to give good performances. Hopefully, everything I'm getting taught in my first couple of years can help me through life and play professional cricket.”
As well as access to professional coaches, the youngsters also received a video message from England international Moeen Ali wishing them good luck and a visit from former Northamptonshire player Adam Rossington, now of Essex and London Spirit, who held a session with the young players and took part in a Q&A.
Ripley and the Shared Learning Trust are working closely with Amran Malik, Cricket East’s Senior Wicketz Development Officer as part of a joined-up approach and showcasing the Steelbacks Academy as a route for youngsters to continue their post-16 cricketing journey, as well as other parts of the Northamptonshire pathway.
Indeed, young players from Luton have recently featured as part of the Northants EPP and Academy.
Ripley says the response from the community in Luton has been very positive: “Everyone I've met has been cricket mad, very welcoming and very respectful. The lads themselves and everyone I meet around the cricket world has made my start to the programme very enjoyable. That's definitely something I've really appreciated.”
Ripley said the programme is more than just trying to find the next Monty Panesar with youngsters able to pursue academic qualifications alongside their cricket and develop life skills.
“Finding the next professional player for Northamptonshire would be a great outcome,” he said.
“But it’s not the only one, because I still enjoy what we're doing in terms of lads that are growing up as people and improving their cricket. And we all need a strong base in our club cricket as well.”
The Steelbacks Academy has expanded further this autumn with Ripley coaching at an after-school club at the Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough. Northamptonshire hope to launch a full Steelbacks Academy programme there in future. Discussions are also at an early stage with Milton Keynes College about a possible further expansion there.