There are many elements to developing a successful, sustainable cricket programme. For the casual observer – and even for those who watch a lot of cricket – it is very easy to judge an emerging country’s progress based solely on match results. I thought it would be interesting to write a series of pieces on development themes to help raise understanding among Associate cricket followers of the issues behind the performance on the field.
One of the reasons why the ICC streamlined the tournament structures for Associates was a feeling that less established countries needed to put a greater emphasis on developing domestic cricket before they played competitively on the international stage. To use a common phrase they wanted emerging sides to walk before they could run.
The ability to select eleven eligible players is different to deepening and strengthening the player base within the country. In their most interventionist (or paternalistic if you prefer) phase in the 2000s ICC regional development officers worked with boards to implement development pathways and 5 year plans. These were tailored to the particular circumstances of the country but included common elements such as outreach and participation boosting initiatives, bringing clubs and schools into a national development programme and increasing coaching capability. The objective was to identify talent, develop it at club level and then introduce the player into national age group development squads. The end product, it was hoped, would be a player competitive at international level that emerged through the domestic structure.
One of the issues is the assumption that all cricketers should be on a development journey.
In practice this philosophy was better suited to some countries than others. In a small but established cricket culture like Jersey the links between school, club and country were natural and complimentary and as a result they regularly promoted talented youth to the national team and this helped them be competitive in the WCL. The model wasn’t as well suited to larger countries with more fragmented cricket cultures. Countries that could draw on eligible players who had learnt their cricket in Test nations often that as a quicker, cheaper path to climbing rankings and securing more funding than focusing on development pathways. In effect the ICC’s ranking system and emphasis on performance encouraged this shorter term, results based strategies. And what really underpinned this was a fear that associates would be uncompetitive at global tournaments and that this could threaten revenue generation. But I digress from the main theme.
One of the issues is the assumption that all cricketers should be on a development journey. You may have an extremely talented tape ball bowler that is spotted by a selector playing an impromptu game near their house. It may be tempting to connect them to a club or provide specialist coaching. But the kid may just be happy playing with their friends. The structure of a development pathway may not suit them, may even compromise what attracted them to cricket in the first place. So you can only provide opportunities and allow people to choose. If people just want to play recreational cricket, even if their talent promises more, then let them.
That takes me to the “club versus country” debate. I covered this in some detail in a European context in my book (above) and the underlying themes apply across the world. Some clubs take pride in developing stars to the national team. They don’t mind if those stars then miss fixtures and their absences on national team development camps cost them the league. Other clubs resent this and view success through the prism of the club alone. This can often be seen in a reluctance to play talented young players when club stalwarts don’t want to lose their place in the team. It can also be seen in a failure to make the ethos of the club welcoming to players of all backgrounds. There have been many initiatives in associates to bind clubs and country into a unified vision. The master club programme in Denmark is a good example. Strong clubs can be the foundation for a growing cricket culture and, ultimately, higher international rankings and qualification for global tournaments. But there is a risk of becoming fixated on development rhetoric and trying to retrofit the domestic structure to ensure success of the national team. In the end cricket has to be fun or people will find alternatives sports or pastimes to spend their precious time on. Many, many talented players have been lost to the game in their mid to late teens. Pressure to constantly develop has been one of the factors.
But if implemented sensitively and in full consultation with all stakeholders in local cricket (clubs, schools, local govt, parents) then a development programme can energise a cricket community. It provides goals and aspirations simply out of the reach of club players in Test nations. One minute you can be trying Quick Cricket for the first time and a few months later be representing your country in exotic climes. Playing cricket in emerging countries can be incredibly exciting and rewarding (though making a career of the game is very hard indeed).
A team of ex pat veterans may provide the best chance of winning a tournament (and winning helps raise profile, funding and momentum) but if that selection decision sees talented home grown players nurtured through development pathways lost to the game out of frustration is the short term gamble worth it?
Sharing best practice at a regional level can really help. Celebrating and sharing successful development initiatives but also being candid about what hasn’t worked and the reasons why young players are lost to the game is critical. As is a longer term perspective. A team of ex pat veterans may provide the best chance of winning a tournament (and winning helps raise profile, funding and momentum) but if that selection decision sees talented home grown players nurtured through development pathways lost to the game out of frustration is the short term gamble worth it? Clearly there needs to be a balance. A core of ex pats is often essential in an emerging cricket nation as the local player base grows. But they should be part of the pathway, contributing to coaching and building clubs and they should be delighted when talented young gone grown players force them out of the team.
Development pathways are necessary but they need to be constantly refined to grow from the cricket culture rather than be crudely applied from the top down.
Tim Brooks is Associate correspondent for Wisden and Head of Cricket at QTV Sports. Focusing on global development of cricket and tweets as Cricket Atlas.