Australia's grassroots problem
For young Australian cricketers with ambition, this time of the year can be an exciting one. Those who are ten years and upwards begin to taste the life lessons that come with trialling for various representative teams, learn to perform under pressure, cope with disappointment, occasionally savour triumph, and most importantly, realise that this is a long process that has very little relevance to what happens a decade later at first-class or international level.
My ten-year-old son is in the first stages of this education process. He is only moderately talented, so I'm guessing the end of the line is nigh. Thus far, he has made it through a few selection trials and the lessons learned have been useful, especially in staying composed in those tense moments when team selections are being read out, where one boy's disappointment is another's chagrin. We prepared him for both scenarios and he came through the process with reasonable grace and humility when he was lucky enough to be among the 12 selected for his district team.
As someone who has been through the system (albeit in the 1980s, when things were different), I was at some pains to point out to him that his future success will have little to do with junior teams. At the end of the day, it will be runs and wickets in senior (grade) men's cricket that will count. Yes, the extra coaching may help to improve some player's prospects of making it into first grade but they still need to put numbers on the board. No one gets selected to play Sheffield Shied cricket based on what rep teams they made at 10, 12, 14.
It is a mistake that many well-meaning parents lacking cricket savvy can make. I've already witnessed it a dozen times over these last few weeks. Some think there's significant pride in taking their sons to a trial, oblivious to the fact that their talents lie elsewhere. Attending a trial, in most cases, is merely a matter of having the time to take your child to a certain venue. Making it through to the next round requires some talent but merely attending the trial means nothing. I haven't got the heart to tell them that the only skill required at this stage is a tank of petrol and a few spare hours!
Where it becomes silly - to the point of it being a potential problem for the future of Australian cricket - is the exorbitant cost of making these representative teams, even for ten-year-olds. One of the teams that my son might have made, if allowed to go to the next stage of the trial process, would have cost him A$1300. At ten years of age! That's £750, 12,000 rand, 75,000 Indian rupees, for four days' cricket at age ten. It is a legitimate expense to cover travel costs, cricket bag, cap and the like, but it is still an astronomical outlay for kids who are barely old enough to bowl off the full pitch length.
Fortunately my son understands that I, with my job as a wildlife guide in Africa - our whole family is heavily committed to sponsoring a tiny little village in Zimbabwe - was never going to agree to parting with that sort of money when it could mean life-saving medicines, food or new shoes for all the kids in that village. (As an interesting aside, the little village is the same place where Guy Whittall found a crocodile under his bed last month. I will be sleeping on that same bed in early October!). As soon as we found out about the cost of making that team, we told our son that it was not an option, and he agreed that it was too much to pay for a boy of his age to play cricket when his 250 "cousins" in Zimbabwe could use it for malaria treatment.
Regardless of whether I could have afforded it or not, on ethical grounds alone I have some difficulty stomaching the notion of a junior sporting system that requires an investment of this magnitude for the youngest representative teams. Perhaps most parents will sacrifice anything to send their children to junior carnivals like this but do they realise that it has little bearing on senior success, unless a particularly vindictive selection system deliberately puts a black mark against a child's name, say, and that continues to influence future selections.
How many young kids with talent will not come through this system if they have to fork out this sort of money? When you add other talented siblings (a likely possibility) and other sports during the off season (rugby and athletics, in my son's case), $1300 was never going to be on our radar. It's a decision based as much on principle as it is on affordability. We've made the decision that our boy is simply going to have to do it the tough way - make runs and take wickets in grade cricket - if he's ever going to make it in the sport. He might be discriminated against for our stubbornness but if he's good enough, his sheer weight of performance should be enough. And if he's not good enough (the more likely outcome), we wouldn't have spent close to $15,000 over eight years sending him off on a wild goose chase.
When you read about how much the "big boys" get paid in Australian cricket, it really makes you wonder if the system has got the balance right. Instead of the top 25 players making multi-million dollar salaries, is there no way that Cricket Australia can divert some of those funds to keep young talent in the game for longer? Sure, pay the Australian players a handsome wage but can some of those millions not be used to foster the next generation? Australian cricket faces a challenge from so many other sports (rugby, AFL, rugby league, soccer, basketball); those same boys are likely to be talented at these sports too. Are we in danger of more parents like me just refusing to (or not being able to afford) forking out the equivalent of a month's mortgage or grocery money for a ten-year-old to play for a rep team that counts for nothing? Does Australian cricket have the depth?
I would be fascinated to hear from other parts of the cricketing world; what does it cost to start putting your son through cricket's representative process? Is it similarly prohibitive in relative terms? Are there some parts of the world where parents will sell their souls to make these payments because cricket is just so important to them? I know that in South Africa and Zimbabwe, for example, if the cost of making it through the system from age ten was this expensive, there would be a huge number of incredibly talented black African kids who would simply not even be on the radar. What about the West Indies? Are you losing your best athletes to another sport, or simply to no sport at all?
The voices from the subcontinent will be fascinating to listen to. Perhaps the obscene wealth accruing to the top cricketers is enough to tempt any parent to sell their souls (literally and metaphorically) to get their kids on the elevator to possible success. Perhaps, despite the temptation, some dreams are simply out of the reach of the common man. Is cricket doing enough to ensure that it doesn't lose all those kids for whom $1300 at age ten is just not something that their families can afford, despite the best intentions and broken hearts?
Just this week we spent time with a refugee family in Brisbane whose total income is $650 a fortnight, and their rent is $580. That's $70 remaining for everything else for two weeks. And these are the lucky ones! They were watching highlights of the Champions League on a tiny TV set, a significant step up from their refugee camp in Chennai. Their little boy will never play for Australia - he's just too far behind the pack. Fawad Ahmed, take a bow mate. Your dreams deserve you.
In one household in Brisbane this week, there sits a young boy who knows that if he is going to make it, it will have to be despite his parents, not because of them. To his credit, he showed no resentment as he gave his father a hug at Brisbane airport, bound for a beautiful little village in Africa. He knows that there are some things that money can't buy.
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane