James Lowe has been reflecting on his first nine months as Yorkshire’s head Academy coach, a period filled with a plethora of positives according to the former first-class batter.
Lowe moved down to Headingley after a 19-year association with Durham in March, heading up a coach team included the likes of Mohammad Azharullah and Jim Love.
He took up post just in time for a summer which saw many Academy and Emerging Players Programme cricketers contribute to the second team’s Championship title success in 2022 as well as the Under 18s reaching the regional final of a national 50-over competition as well as winning their regional group in three-day cricket.
Fast bowler Ben Cliff and batting all-rounder Yash Vagadia, who captained last summer, have signed professional rookie contracts with the county, while other young guns have caught the eye of ECB pathway coaches.
“It’s been a really positive year for lots of different reasons,” said Lowe.
“The progression of the players, there were some really good highlights. Yash and Cliffy signing rookie deals is great news for the club.
“We had four lads selected for the Super 4s at Loughborough, Josh Hoyle, Charlie McMurran, Isaac Light and Noah Kelly. They all performed well and put themselves on the ECB’s radar.
“We also had some really outstanding individual performances and a lot of lads from the Academy playing in the second team right through the summer. That was ideal.
“Although performances on the field aren’t the be all and end all, you still want to see the team performing well.
“In the 50-over knockout Under 18s competition, we lost narrowly to Lancashire in the North Region final having beaten Durham and Northumberland. We should have won that game, but we had a decent run in that cup.
“In the three-day Championship, also Under 18s, we were unbeaten in that and topped our group. We drew against Leicester, Derby and Notts and beat Lancashire and Durham.
“The lads were outstanding in that, and we had a nice mix. Although the senior players stood up and performed, we had quite a lot of younger lads in that as well.
“Will Bennison from the Under 15s played in the Under 18s tournament, and he also played in the seconds. That’s a great achievement for an Under 15.
“We had two or three lads from the Under 16s play in the Under 18s, again a couple of those played in the second team.
“In terms of the lads moving their cricket forwards, it was really successful.”
In three-day cricket, given there was no national final after the regional phase – largely for scheduling reasons, Yorkshire achieved all they could in that format.
The schedule for the summer just gone looked much different to recent years, with no Academy team taking part in the Yorkshire Premier League North.
Instead, the Academy played friendlies, including a mini tour of Scotland in July, and the same players also took part in the aforementioned Under 18s one-day and three-day competitions.
“A bit of background on that first (the decision not to play in the YPL, from our point of view,” continued Lowe.
“Now that it’s stipulated that Academy has to finish at 18-years-old, I think it’s really difficulty to field a side of 16/17/18-year-olds in a good, strong standard league.
“That’s why, across the country, a lot of counties aren’t doing that anymore.
“We still play a lot of cricket, including three-day matches.
“From our side, it was successful.
“Not playing in the league as a team also meant we could manage the workloads of the players easier. If they needed a Saturday off, we could give them one.”
Of course, players would still play Saturday Premier League cricket, but for their home clubs instead of the Academy.
“I hope the clubs who have brought these lads through appreciated them being back with them,” said Lowe.
“Also, if we have a side on a Saturday, there’s a limited amount of opportunity – only two can open the batting and bowling, only one can keep for example.
“If these lads can go back to their clubs, more can fill those roles.
“There will be some who agree with that decision and some who don’t. But I see the positives outweighing the negatives. I thought it was pretty successful from our point of view.”
Yorkshire’s first team obviously encountered a challenging 2022, but success at second-team, Academy and Under 18s level should be the source of significant encouragement for Yorkshire supporters. It certainly is for the club’s hierarchy.
“There is so much good work going on behind the scenes at the club, and everyone is pulling in the right direction,” said Lowe.
“We have some exciting young players in our latest intake of Academy and EPP (which will be announced early in the New Year) and in the age-groups as well. I’m really excited for the next few years.
“Hopefully we’ll see some lads pushing for first-team honours in that time.”
While head coach Tom Smith and his trusty aide Tim Boon led the second team, Lowe and his team certainly played a part in their Championship title win.
“It’s been great working with Tom,” said Lowe. “He’s happy and keen to give young, local players a chance at that level.
“There was a game at Blackpool against Lancashire where Will Bennison from the Under 15s played, Harvey Round from the Under 16s. Yash Vagadia played, Noah Kelly as well.
“They were playing alongside Matty Fisher and Harry Duke, who were brilliant with the young lads in making them feel welcome. To play alongside them would have been so good for their development.
“The environment and attitude of all the senior players and coaches is top drawer.”
Cliff and Vagadia have both now progressed to rookie pro contracts for 2023, with the latter hoping a first-team debut will come next year. The former debuted in this season’s one-day Cup.
“They deserve what they’ve got,” said Lowe. “Ben spent pretty much the whole year training with the pros, so we didn’t see much of him at all. That was great for him.
“He played regular second-tram cricket and progressed.
“Yash was Academy player of the year. He was an outstanding performer in all formats for the Academy and Under 18s. He captained the side brilliantly as well.
“He had a bit of a tricky first half of the year with exams, and you could tell that took a lot of his energy. But, after that, he just flew and was really impressive.
“He offers a lot through his batting, bowling and fielding as well as with his thoughts on the game and leadership.
“Against Lancashire in the three-day game for the Under 18s, he got a hundred in both innings and captained the side to a really good win.
“I think he had three or four fifties in the second team, and he’s a really exciting young player.”
Another player who has been signed on a rookie pro contract is opening batter Fin Bean, the 20-year-old who hit a record-breaking 441 in a second-team Championship draw with Nottinghamshire in June.
While he went straight from league cricket with York into second-team action, Lowe sees him as an important tool in terms of the development of the club’s Academy.
He explained: “Fin’s situation is a good example to our players for a number of reasons, one importantly being that he had gone out of the Academy system a few years ago and has now come back in.
“That sends a great message to a lot of people.
“Having the cut-off for Academy at 18, it means we have to select earlier. And we won’t always get it right. There will be players who, for whatever reason, don’t get a contract at 18. That doesn’t mean they’re not a good player, they might be a late developer for example.
“So for Fin to go away, come back in and seize his opportunity, that’s a great thing for young players to see.
“We’ve just had lads at the end of the season who we’ve not been able to offer terms to, but I’ve said to them, ‘Go away to your club, like Fin’s done, perform well and force your way back in at second-team level. Then you can take your opportunity.’ The door is always open.”
Lowe, a former Durham batter with nine first-class and one List A appearance to his name between 2003 and 2006, still plays league cricket for Middlesbrough, who won the North Yorkshire South Durham League title this summer.
They qualified for the Yorkshire Premier League play-offs, though were beaten heavily by Appleby Frodingham.
His coaching means he is far from a regular at the top of the Middlesbrough order, but when he does play it gives him a different view when assessing young talent.
“There are many different ways we search out talent, and I guess that’s one of them,” he said before taking on a less serious tone.
“It’s actually been an inconvenience the games being streamed now. If I play a particularly bad shot, they lads are straight onto me. But it’s all good fun. They’re a great bunch.
“From a personal point of view, I’ve absolutely loved the last year.
“I feel very privileged to be working at such a great, ambitious club with a fantastic team.
“There’s a lot to be excited about over the next few years, that’s for sure.”