June 11, 2014

What's more important: participating or getting better?

If clubs in junior cricket focus solely on retaining players year after year, there is bound to be a dilution in talent and the level of competition

Learning to deal with disappointments is crucial in cricket as in life © AFP

In response to my most recent piece on junior cricket in Australia, I received this message from an international coach:

"Really enjoyed the article on cricinfo on the trend to incentivise mediocrity and 'turning up' to play for children. It creates an 'unreal' world for children where there is a utopian fairness to learning, which has no grounding in the real world. Being challenged, stimulated and stretched within our range is central to the learning process and finding out how good we can be, even if it's in the third team. I think so much of this is because learning is now controlled by adults who seem to have forgotten that children learn through play and amazingly don't need parents or coaches to learn. My generation of the '70s and '80s learnt cricket, soccer and rugby at the oval, in the street, the garden and in playing ... there was no adult interference other than a lift to the game on Saturday morning and a few well-intentioned, but usually misinformed words from a parent who acted as umpire and team manager."

Prompted by this erudite analysis, my next few articles will focus on tackling some issues relating to junior pathways. While the focus will be on the Australian system, global feedback is encouraged. The contrast between junior systems around the world will be fascinating - each with its own advantages and drawbacks.

Let's begin this series by looking at the issue of participation. Cricket, like many other sports, is fighting the philosophical battle of inclusivity versus exclusivity. As kids get older, the two become almost mutually exclusive, especially in a sport like cricket, where the more successful one player is, the less participation it means for a team-mate. A batsman who bats through an innings (if allowed to) often results in team-mates watching from the sideline.

For the youngest participants, Australia has a well-balanced system. All players get equal opportunities, batting, bowling or fielding. That is driven by the imperative to get as many youngsters, boys and girls, to try the sport. In the formative years, it is a safeguard to ensure that the kid who gets bowled first ball every week will not be lost to cricket before he/she has had time for skill acquisition.

At some point, perhaps around the Under-11 age group, pure participation may need to be compromised slightly if developing excellence is a goal. It is normally the age at which "out is out" and you no longer get to face x number of balls, regardless of how many times you are dismissed. Not surprisingly, it is also the age at which youngsters start to feel the pain and isolation of "grown-up" cricket. You see the tears and the tantrums (sometimes from the parent too!) when Little Johnny suddenly realises that he is out second ball and that's the end of his innings. Cricket can be cruel that way, perhaps more cruel than any other sport I can think of. If you're not cut out to cope with that sort of disappointment, cricket is probably not going to be your thing. So participation/retention numbers start to fall dramatically.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? Consider this: my club, Valleys in Brisbane, has over 60 junior teams. Realistically, those numbers are unsustainable if adult retention rates remain at close to 100%. Brisbane simply won't have enough cricket pitches, umpires, scorers, volunteers and facilities. Some will argue that it's a nice problem to have - too much participation - but the realities of logistics suggest that at some point you actually need to start filtering the retention rate or you'll run out of space/facilities.

A recent study of participation rates suggests it is not necessarily an indicator of international success. Hockey has dropped by 20%, cricket by 8%; yet in both sports, Australia is consistently at the top. Soccer is arguably the sport with the highest participation rate for boys, but for a variety of reasons, Australia is unlikely to be truly world-class. Big numbers can mean more talent or more mediocrity. Quite possibly, it can also mean a greater dilution of talent.

In the case of hockey, it might just be that with limited (falling) numbers, it allows more scope for the elite players to enjoy a bigger share of what's left (game time, coaches, facilities, funding). The elite talent can then rise to the top without having to share these limited resources. It's an economic rationalism model based on scarcity leading to prioritisation of available resources, leading to high-quality output.

My comments will inevitably splinter opinion. Some will say that participation and fun should be the only policy imperatives for all ages; I'm of the view that at a certain age, after kids have tried the game for a few seasons, talent needs room to breathe. I know of a child who is marginally better than most of his peers but he's at an age where he needs more time in the middle to learn to build an innings. Twenty-five balls before compulsory retirement just isn't enough to take his game to the next level. The system allows him to come back in again if the rest of the team is dismissed, but that often didn't happen because the other kids who were dismissed showed signs of boredom, so the coach (a fair and decent man, who often discriminated against his own son) declared the innings prematurely. The "disengaged" kids got to participate again so they signed on again next season. That's good for retention statistics but when does the undefeated batsman learn to make big scores? Lowest-common-denominator principle?

That sort of system is inclusive, generous and kind but it will never produce the likes of the famous Tendulkar-Kambli partnership that is now the stuff of legend. The modern Western child, accustomed to playing video games and restarting whenever they "crash", may not be content with watching two team-mates score 400-plus. Why sit and watch someone else bat or bowl when you can load up the Xbox again and have another go? Or let boredom become so obvious that the coach is forced to do anything to get them back in the game?

It comes back to when inclusion becomes a barrier to excellence. If participation and retention are the sole end goal, it may also be an own goal.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Simon on June 15, 2014, 4:54 GMT

    Interesting, Michael. However, we can easily create a parallel system to the 'process driven' coaching and admin which saw so many Australian sports strangled at the elite level, if we over analyse the participation factor. While your quoted elite coach is correct that being stretched - or match conditions - teach junior players of all abilities what they're in for, Clubs are in the position of needing to retain numbers to maintain all facets of their Club. I Participation cricket at the lowest level isn't a bad thing, because we all know a gifted player can more up the age ranks quicker and they become accustomed to the highs and lows which playing to win brings. Attempting to retain all players on your list might not be imperative with 60 junior teams, but small country areas with 6 or 3 junior teams see it as vital as even the gifted players at 16-18 juggle part time work, girl/boyfriend, leaving school/uni and sport. It's alright to teach, we just have to recognise a balance.

  • Rizwan on June 13, 2014, 12:26 GMT

    In Sri Lanka , school cricket is the main feeder to national and club cricket . The standard is of a very high standard - Arjuna Ranathunga played his first test as a 18 year old while he was still a student at Ananda College and Aravinda De Silva and Mahela are other great examples who walked in to the national team straight out of school.

    I only managed a few games at C team at school but have been cricket crazy since I was a 6 years old . I still recall Percy Abeysekera barracking SSC when they played Bloomfield ( Percy was very close to Bandula Warnapuara ) - It was all good fun and despite the lack of female fans , the crows flock to watch international . club and school matches (the Royal - Thomian and other big matches were always well attended )

    If school competitions are encouraged and tournaments held in respective age-groups ( starting from under 11 as is the case in Sri Lanka ) , it would bode well for the future of the game .

  • Jai on June 13, 2014, 9:20 GMT

    "Should you have to continually retire a kid who's got ability and desire so the rest of the team gets a go and the other team doesn't quit? In today's world the answer is yes, unfortunately"

    Despite my experience, this 'everyone is a winner' culture in the Western World still shocks me; why do numbers matter at all? I'd rather have 500 people who really cared, than 5 million who don't care, but still turn up. In India incompetent kids are laughed at, not cared about, bat at 11 and don't bowl, and they still show up all the time and there's never a shortage.

    Keep this up, and the only ones who will leave are the ones who can actually play and they will take up some other sport where being good won't see you banned within 5 minutes.

  • Philip on June 12, 2014, 8:16 GMT

    I'd like to disagree with one part of the article - "For the youngest participants, Australia has a well-balanced system. All players get equal opportunities, batting, bowling or fielding." The quoted sentence espouses the theory. The reality is not always the same, however. I know from experience that at local levels it depends entirely upon who is running the thing. And that about sums up the whole juniors deal - whatever way you do it you have to do it well....

  • Matt on June 11, 2014, 23:20 GMT

    Growing up, my love for the game was in the contest between bat and ball. I'm 23 and now captaining a club side, and my love for the game is still in the contest between bat and ball. I bowl a bit and bat usually at 4 or 5 (depending on the situation), but I would never have gotten there if I had not had friends who kept pushing me to the next level. I didn't grow playing the sport. I grew up playing football (soccer), and I still, to this day, love football as well. My cricket development, though, was sparked by my mates, not so much by my coach. See, most of my mates have more talent in their little fingers than I have in my entire body. However, a desire to become better, always striving to refine and correct my game is what keeps me pursuing cricket. OldBertie is right. Getting more people to love cricket should be a priority, but recognising the talented ones and pushing them should, I believe, supersede that at some point.

  • Philip on June 11, 2014, 22:31 GMT

    The idea of a more effective division system for different levels of ability may work in urban areas, but in less densely populated rural areas such where I come from an individual sport's participation level amongst kids is invariably on the wane, possibly partly because there are now so many sports to choose from but mostly because other forms of entertainment have taken over. Therefore, cricket is lucky to survive there at all. In these situations just getting a game is a major operation; in not upsetting other teams by actually thrashing them, in not bowling your best bowlers, in retiring your best batsmen early, in playing with less than eleven, in not batting out your overs necessarily; generally in being diplomatic to the extreme when one is criticised for having not stuck to the league rules -because the rules weren't written for such situations - how could they be? Under these conditions, it is hard to find junior coaches!

  • norman on June 11, 2014, 13:02 GMT

    Hello chaps. It seems that the same things apply to many fields. I am a martial arts instructor, and have to walk the line between numbers and standard. Newbies just can't do the things that they could ultimately achieve given enough time and the right environment. My classes need to emphasise participation at entry level, and this needs to be rewarded by promotions & badges etc. But you can't do it indefinitely. Eventually there has to be a point where each individual has to understand the point of the activity. In martial arts, the end goal is to learn a set of skills; watering it down only ruins it for everyone. The same applies to cricket - you need the cream to rise; the remainder are necessary to the process even if they will never scale the heights. Kids pick activities for many reasons, but they can't all excel. Life isn't fair, and that is a lesson that everyone learns sooner or later. You can't shield them forever - sooner or later they will have a job interview.

  • Adam on June 11, 2014, 10:12 GMT

    Its difficult. I retired a junior yesterday on 15 not out - his highest ever score - because we simply had to get some more kids a bat if we expect them to come back and play next week.

    I would have loved to give him a chance to get to 20, 30, as far as he could, but if the other players don't get a fair go they will go and play soccer instead, and there is no cricket team, and then no-one plays any cricket. That's the bottom line in a lot of cases.

    In reply to Old Bertie, I think my main job is to produce a stream of players leaving the system that have sufficient skills and understanding to be able to enjoy playing cricket at a decent standard for the rest of their lives.

  • Yuji on June 11, 2014, 9:31 GMT

    There should obviously be a step-wise progression: 1. Participation 2. Basic techniques 3. Tactical play While starting out, every child should spend at least a couple of years in each stage before moving on to the next, in order to be a well-rounded player. A purely age-group based standard can cause problems by selecting children who are extremely competitive, but haven't got the hang of either participation or the basic techniques. This creates players who aren't very good team players and have flawed techniques. On the other side of the spectrum, a seemingly average player might have good basic skills, but since he doesn't look ready for competitive play, he might be put on the bench by his coach.

    Perhaps the solution is to mix things up, even up to the U-16 level, so players are well grounded as team-players and are skilled in the basics before they start playing actual "serious" cricket.

  • Philip on June 11, 2014, 7:47 GMT

    It's a hard question. Should you have to continually retire a kid who's got ability and desire so the rest of the team gets a go and the other team doesn't quit? In today's world the answer is yes, unfortunately. But tell that to the young bloke who scores a single off the first ball of his overs in the U12/13s, so only scores four retired not-out before his time is up. Tell him in the U14/15s when he's never made a really big score because the only time he had the chance he didn't know the rules suddenly allowed him to. Tell him again when regional selectors overlook him for not having enough such big scores on the board. Tell him when he leaves that he had to go through that because doing the right thing by the majority is the only way the sport survives at that level. Except of course, it survives if the standard is high enough - is it not the club that holds high standards and expectations that lifts the whole league? Kids will participate if they think they can prosper fairly.