Short pitches: fairer selection
Selectors, I have argued, should have fairness to players very low on their list of priorities. The selector’s job is to assemble the team best equipped for the task in hand – usually a match, but sometimes a future series of greater significance.
I was, of course, writing about the realm of international cricket. A long, long way from there, one week into the season, my junior coaching colleagues and I are actively debating selection in junior club cricket.
Junior cricket is, of course age-group based – under 16s, under 13s, etc. There is some flexibility: usually the groups mix players across two years; and younger players can, where safe, play for an older age group. It’s also worth noting that in the league where our juniors play, girls are allowed to play for an age group two years below their school year – a good initiative to encourage their participation.
But, as one of my colleagues has argued, it’s expedient and far from ideal.
Cricket is organised in age groups. Let’s consider why? Children of the same age can exhibit a huge range of abilities. I’m sure we can think of Under 9s who wouldn’t be out of place in an U11s team, and U11s who wouldn’t be out of place in an U9s team. If we were to pick a team based on abilities, it’d have a very wide age range – a bit like the Sunday 3rds, where 40-something Dads struggle to match the skills of the 14 year olds (I speak from bitter experience).
The reason teams are grouped by age is simple: it’s not that it’s a GOOD way to do it, but it’s an EASY way to do it, as it mimics the school years. There’s no universally-adopted unit of measurement for bowling skills, or batting, or fielding, or captaincy – but we can measure someone’s age easily, and group them using a September 1st cutoff. So that’s become accepted practice – at cricket, as well as school.
The ideal would be that each junior player represented a team, participating in a competition, that stretched their abilities and maximised their opportunity to develop. We are able to cater to some degree by having younger able players represent older teams. But we cannot offer anything to the older player whose needs would be better met in a younger team.
Junior football in England is even more age-bound than cricket, with almost all teams spanning a single school year. And it was from this more tightly organised sport that has emerged a novel suggestion. Rather than eligibility being defined as ‘players born on or after a certain date’, it could be based on average age (1). In this regime, an under 13 team could give the opportunity to a couple of 15 year olds to find their level, as long as there were a couple of 11 year olds capable of playing in the older age group.
It does sound fairer than the inflexible application of birth dates. On the other hand, it makes something very straightforward, quite complex. There would also be the fear and accusation that teams were gaming the system; for example, choosing a strong over-age player who could have a disproportionate impact on a 20 over game of cricket.
Should we stop ourselves running junior cricket in a way that could help all players develop their game because of a bit of complexity and fear that unscrupulous opponents (never our team, of course) might get one over on us?
(1) The average team age eligibility rule was brought to my notice by Steve Lawrence (@stevelawrence_)