This weekend 90 of the country’s best emerging 16 year old cricketers made their way in two groups to the ECB’s National Cricket Performance Centre at Loughborough University to undergo, in a little over 24 hours of intensive activity, a series of Talent Tests.
A few weeks ago 13 year old emerging players underwent similar tests and 19 year old and 22 year olds will make their way to the Centre in the coming weeks.
These ages are seen as significant gateways for those who eventually become world class. Age 13 is when the best are taken on to the County/ECB’s Emerging Players Programme. Age 16 is when assessments for entry into County Academies tend to take place. The world’s best are often establishing first team places for County sides at 19 and by 22 they are knocking on the door to international cricket.
One of the ideas behind the testing is therefore to have records of how world class players mature and how they were performing mentally and physically at these ages. The data is being compiled and analysed at Bangor University.
The young men and women under assessment are defined as batsmen, pace and spin bowlers or wicket keepers. All undergo batting tests which include performance against pace and spin with the emphasis on forcing the pace either pinch hitting in the earliest power play overs of an ODI or in the later frenetic run chase. Pace bowlers are speed tested and the spinners have their revolutions measured and their accuracy assessed for both their stock delivery and their variations, such as arm balls.
Besides physical strength and stamina tests (the Bleep Test has given way to the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test [ SPARK (Yo-Yo) Test ], there are also psychological assessments, learning style analysis using the Fleming VARK model, (visual, auditory, reading/writing tactile/kinaesthetic) and assessments of tactical awareness. A detailed history of cricketing practice, reaching back to their experiences as 7 year olds, is also taken. There is also a session on The Spirit of Cricket.
The environment of the testing is deliberately pressured, with as much physical and mental stress applied as possible. There are late nights and early rises with each individual responsible for getting up at the right time, getting to the right test at the right time, with the right equipment and having done the right warm-ups. There is no coaching, it is purely assessment and an individual’s ability to function well under stress and tiredness is part of the examination.
ECB expects world class cricketers to be fighters who accept a challenge and thrive on responsibility, and they are looking for early and consistent signs of this.
The results are not necessarily used to make selections. Certain individuals prior to these tests have been invited to join demanding England Development squads with full-on programmes which for the 16 year olds for example would mean around 7 days a month being dedicated to the Development Programme at Loughborough, Derby, South Africa and Australia. The ECB’s aim is to win two World Cups in the next four years.
For these young cricketers a very difficult decision is upon them as their academic education is bound to take second place to cricket and for them and their parents there is a stark choice. For the old pros who joined their county staffs at 16 this would have been no big deal, but in a world where academic qualifications matter far more for future life chances the decision is a very large gamble: enter this special gateway to cricketing opportunity with nothing guaranteed or go the university route, perhaps through a University Centre of Excellence, and hope you still have the ability and experience to make it as a cricketer with an academic qualification in the bag, just in case.
It is difficult to believe, though, that individuals who demonstrate ‘The Right Stuff’ and who put together interesting performances in all or some of these tests and match these with good performances at Under 17, Academy and Second Team cricket next year won’t be drafted in.
Similar programmes are already well established in other test playing countries, so England is considered to be lagging behind, as recent performances in youth World Cups tend to confirm when England talent has lacked temperament.
The whole process is overseen by the ECB’s Head of Development and former Chairman of the Test Selectors, David Graveney. It is clear that Graveney has a sharp vision of what is required, has sold that vision to the people who hold the purse strings or worn their resistance down, has put together a strong support team and is determined that England will catch up fast in the field of temperament as well as talent identification and development.
But, just as individuals and their parents have had to make difficult choices, so the culture into which they are being welcomed has itself been the subject of selection and development. “What is that culture and is it the right one?” are questions that Third Man would like to … well … to assess.
The painting above is Young Spartans exercising by E. Degas whose CRB check is pending.