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