Sound Sedbergh schooling underpins Harry Brook’s Hundred rise
It is fair to suppose that most of those in the crowd at Headingley on Saturday night were not greatly bothered where Harry Brook was educated. Their knowledge probably extended little further than that he is one of seven Yorkshire players in the Leeds-based Northern Superchargers squad. Such a confection of local links is quite enough to command the allegiance of home supporters, many of whom would also have packed the Western Terrace for the Vitality Blast Roses match had not Covid-19 restrictions been in place.
Yet Brook will be one of the first to tell you that his education, in its broadest sense, mattered. He will tell you proper coaching matters. He might even disclose that having just a couple of trusted coaches from whom he will take feedback has been vital to his development. And before long you will be back at a school in the Howgill Fells and the man who, one suspects, will always know Harry Brook’s game better than anyone else.
It is a world far removed from the sweaty ferment of a late July evening at Headingley yet it has been integral to the development of a cricketer whose thunderous drives have put him among the leading scorers in the ECB’s darling new competition.
Martin Speight played for Sussex and Durham during a 16-year career in the first-class game and he is now in charge of cricket at Sedbergh School. He reckons he works an 80-hour week, although he tells you that in passing; if Speight possesses a trumpet it is a long time since he blew it. His day begins at 6.20am when the first cricket coaching takes place in one of the school’s two sports halls. The timing of such sessions is not dictated by Sedbergh’s staff; it is a response to the demands of the pupils, many of whom are intent on making the very most of their cricket and some of whom are on sports scholarships.
And Harry Brook is not an outlier in all this; rather he is only the most well-known Old Sedberghian playing first-class cricket. The group of which he is a member includes Jordan Clark (Surrey), Jamie Harrison (Durham), George Hill and Matthew Revis (both Yorkshire). The allrounder Tom Aspinwall has just finished his lower-sixth year at Sedbergh but has already played for Lancashire’s second team, and was named in the County Select squad to face India last month. You will hear more of him.
“On the first day of the autumn term, immediately after the first assembly, most of them will be asking for sessions,” said Speight. “I use the older of the two halls and we have four nets in there. We do two hours before school, six days a week. The fifth and sixth form come in early. They can come in as often as they want, it’s purely down to their motivation, but the culture is already present in the school. The elite players can also have one-to-one sessions with me and so Tom Aspinwall’s sessions get put down as part of his personal timetable. Most of the boys’ boarding houses have gyms and the school also has two gyms, so they will also book out sessions with the strength and conditioning coach.”
It is important to see that this degree of commitment on the part of coach and players is not symptomatic of obsession. Even though some pupils at Sedbergh will be playing county age-group cricket and plainly have an eye on professional careers, they will also be expected to do their work, contribute to the life of their house and may well play other sports as well in the autumn and winter terms. The cultivation of such a balance should serve them well, particularly, perhaps, if they land contracts like those of Brook and Hill at Yorkshire.
The coaching of elite male cricketers is only a part of Speight’s remit. He talks warmly of the ability of girls such as Harriet Robson, who is in the Northern Diamonds Academy and for whom a training session at the Riverside involves a long round trip from her home beyond Alnwick. Speight is also in charge of arranging a fixture list for the school’s seven teams and for making sure weekday matches do not clash with public examinations or overload young people who already have plenty in their lives.
In a recent 50-over match against Manchester Grammar School, Aspinwall played as a specialist batter. The game was lost by 20 or so runs, partly because two or three of the top order got to fifty without going on to play the match-winning innings. But losing such games is part of any young cricketer’s education. The coach hopes the team learned something and, in any case, when it comes to national competitions, Sedbergh is rarely far from the trophies.
But the best coaches can only show their charges how to make the best of their ability and even the most gifted cricketer will struggle and acquire bad habits if asked to play on poor pitches. It is in this respect that Speight reckons Sedbergh’s pupils are especially lucky. “Our groundsman, Martin South, has been here a long time and he knows what’s needed,” he said. “The pitches the first-class cricketers get to play on when we host county matches are the same as we get to play on in school. The pupils are immensely fortunate because they grow up playing on surfaces where they don’t have to generate pace on the ball, they just have to time it. They have the facilities that allow them to flourish.”
Sedbergh is also concerned to ensure that such extraordinary advantages are not available only to rich kids. The school takes its charitable status seriously by offering scholarships and means-tested bursaries to as many children as possible, something which makes Speight’s job in helping to select the recipients of such awards particularly vital. And the school’s record in producing first-class cricketers makes it all the more important to know what he requires from, say, batters who come for an exploratory net.
“I’m looking for technical skill, coachability and an openness to the sort of development we offer,” he said. “I’m less concerned with physical strength. Harry [Brook] was quite a short, stocky lad. Once they’re here and playing sport every day they will get stronger. If they’re serious about their cricket they will get dragged along by the people who are already here. If you’re little you have to be able to play the short ball well and that’s the same if you’re going to be a professional cricketer. At 12 and 13, young cricketers can all play on the off side but if they can play off their pads on the front foot or hips on the on side that will be a big thing for me. I’ll tell them it’s a coaching session in which we have to get to know each other because over the next five years we’re going to be spending thousands of hours together. They have to buy into the way I think about the game and I’ve got to get a feeling as to whether they would benefit from coming here.”
And when those sessions begin Sedbergh’s cricketers will find that Speight is old-school in the best sense. As long as players are not practising bad habits he believes that improved performance frequently reflects the amount of practice a player has put in. Such an approach is consonant with one theme of Matthew Syed’s influential book Bounce.
“The more balls you face the more balls you hit, the quicker you’ll pick up cues as to line and length,” he said. “The best players pick up length quicker than anyone else. My aim is to take them through a programme so that when they leave here at 18 they are technically very sound and they can then develop their power hitting. If something goes wrong – and it almost always does – they can always fall back on their technique. They will get worked out and they’ll have to learn to deal with failure but at least they’ll have their technique as a base upon which they rebuild their batting. And both George and Harry have come back to me in those difficult times. People who don’t have the technical foundation will struggle.”
Those last comments are maybe the most revealing about Sedbergh’s cricket. Many old boys recall their school coaches with affection but have moved on into the tougher environment of the professional game where county coaches dominate their professional lives. Both Hill and Brook talk warmly about Speight’s influence on their lives – he spent time with them in their early weeks at Sedbergh when both were homesick – but they then point out that they still send him videos of their batting and return to him when something needs fixing. Paul Grayson, Yorkshire’s batting coach, is kept fully informed and welcomes the help.
“County coaches don’t have the time that I might have had to work with them and technically the players slip, which is why they come back to me,” said Speight. “I spent the whole of one lockdown with Harry rebooting his technique. It’s a check that everything is in place. They know me better than anyone else because of the hours we’ve spent together.”When George and Harry went into the first-class game, they never at any stage stopped contacting me and I have to say that’s nice. I’m good friends with both of them now. All I want is for them to enjoy their cricket as much as I enjoyed my cricket… and they earn a lot more than we used to.”