There comes a time in a young age-group county cricketer’s cricketing experience when he or she may find him or herself selected for an ECB Development Programme. It is now as much as a 50:50 chance that this player will one day gain a county contract of some kind. This is the measure of their potential in the meat market that professional cricket development has always been.
As they sign tri-partite ‘contract’ with the ECB and their county, they will be given a diagram of a pyramid. On the bottom rung is the young hopeful. At the apex is a player who is called ‘World Class’ or top ten in the ICC rankings.
Organisations like the ECB have all the stats. They know just how many of these young hopefuls there have to be to find one world class player. Actually they know ‘down stream’ how many people have to pick up a bat and a ball when they are seven or eight to make a world class player.
They think they know a lot about what world class players will be doing at 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21. It is all charted. A world class player is able to do x in test y at z years. By 21 the meat assessors know all they need to know about the potential of the carcass.
As a young cricketer, Third Man only ever played with one world class player and everyone ‘kind of’ knew it at 16. Internationals were a grade or two down – awkward sorts: awkward to get out, or awkward to face. But world class … something obvious.
So, it really matters just how many eight year olds are playing cricket. Sure, it is necessary to provide them with age-appropriate coaching and it would be good to get the psychological development right as much as the technical but that base, that sheer number of players coming in at the bottom of the triangle, matters most.
There was a boost in the numbers following the 2005 Ashes victory and the impact of that series, shown free to air, persisted. But actually, the top class product of that era is already in the game. The players coming in during the next few years come from a generation deprived of free to air cricket. This generation will have come in on the echoes. Soon it will be a privileged generation: in the main sons/daughters of club cricketers and sons of parents able to afford a very expensive education, or sons able to win scholarships to such institutions.
Is that enough? No, and hasn’t been enough for years. Where would England have been without Mr Smith shepherding his boys to England, or Mr Lamb, Mr Hick and Mr Pietersen enriching the cricketing gene-pool of England cricket?
Sky provides the wealth and reduces the size of the base.
That is the truth. It ensures that the players of the future will predominantly play their earliest cricket elsewhere, find ‘polish’ from scholarship to English ‘public schools’ and ‘top up’ the home grown players emerging from a narrowing base drawn from the clubs.
The ECB is taking for granted that people will accept such teams as ‘their’ national side. Their England. Spectators want to believe they are watching England, but there is just so much and no more disbelief that they can suspend.
What a shame. Third Man’s bat gently weeps.