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By Jamie Harrison
In international or corporate espionage, it is considered quite a coup when one comes into possession of his adversary’s plans. These plans often reveal cherished secrets, and may detail the program with which the opposition seeks to gain advantage over others. In the past, prior knowledge of an enemy’s plans have sometimes changed the outcomes of wars, and shifted global balances of power. This, of course, is why so much energy is directed toward keeping, and stealing intelligence.
Fortunately for us, the international cricket scene is a more welcoming, open arena, and test-playing nations not only do not protect their plans, but they actually go so far as to print them, bind them and distribute them for all to see. So it is that my good friends at Cricket Australia have sent to me a number of their publications that address CA’s developmental programs. These illuminating booklets lay out a very structured, and very carefully thought out program by which the Australians take a child of five years and shepherd him or her through their system, all the way to the national test squad, if good enough.
In examining this thorough and highly practical system, one cannot help be but struck by how perfectly its tenets could be transplanted here. I am also gratified to see in Australian cricket a validation of the USYCA approach to youth development, where novices are given time to fall in love with the game in a safe, low-pressure atmosphere.
In a series of columns here on DreamCricket, I’m going to examine each booklet in detail, and then talk about their application to American youth cricket. As we peer into the Aussies’ “state secrets,” please do not lose sight of the fact that this is the system that allows Australia to be a top cricketing nation year-in and year-out, regardless of personnel.
In the 2006 book, “Well Played: Australian Cricket’s Playing Policy and Guidelines,” CA lays out exactly what programs should be directed at children of certain age groupings. An introductory message from CEO James Sutherland tells the reader that this book will, among other things, help to “Implement appropriate game formats for children aged 5-16 years of age” and “Make cricket fun and inclusive for all.” Both of these are worthy goals for US youth cricket to adopt.
“Well Played” spends its first few pages addressing issues of etiquette, sportsmanship and character, but then moves purposefully toward the heart of its content, called “Pathways and Game Formats.” In this area, each age grouping is assigned 15 specific characteristics that distinguish its cricket format from other age groupings. For example, 5-8 year olds are to use a “yellow safety ball,” wear no protective gear, suffer no dismissals and may use batting tees, while 8-10 year olds are allowed, if the skill of the child is elevated enough, to use a red “modified solid core ball” and then wear helmet and pads if they do. For both age groups, however, there are no dismissals – batters merely change ends if dismissed, and there are no LBWs.
Some of the directives are very specific. In the U-11 and 12 age group, boundaries are to be maintained at a maximum of 40-45m and the ball used will be the red safety ball for the U-11s and the 142g-leather/composition ball for the U-12s. The pitch length for U-11 is to be 18m, while for the U-12s it can be increased to standard length. Dismissals and the LBW rule are first introduced to the U-12 group, and through this age group boys and girls will play on the same team; at U-13, girls may still participate in boys competitions at a rate of two years above the age level (i.e. a 15 year-old girl would be allowed to play in a U-13 boys competition).
These very specific instructions go all the way through to social cricket for adults. It is truly a “cradle-to-grave” system, and before you sneer at what may seem like a heavy-handed approach, remember the quality of player this system consistently produces. I don’t advocate importing all of the specifics of the Aussie system point-by-point, but what I did take away from this is the idea that novices, and especially children, must be gradually introduced to cricket skills, and not rushed into helmet and pads. For ages 5-10 year olds, we are told that they should have “fun with an emphasis on basic skills – running, jumping, hitting, throwing etc.” Once the child has reached age 11, and we can assume he’s played “fun cricket” for a few years, the focus shifts (slightly) to “Fun, with an emphasis on cricket skills development – batting, bowling and fielding…” Even then, though, the first point of order is that the child must have fun.
The booklet also lays out practical restrictions to protect the players’ health, such as how many over’s may be bowled at any age, and the length of the rest spells between overs for bowlers. For young children, it also presents a “restricted zone” of 10m around the batter, into which no fielder may move until the ball is either hit or passes the batter. In addition, “Well Played” discusses coaches and umpire training, safety tips, risk management and legal considerations.
In the end, “Well Played” is a great overview of the Aussie system by which great cricketers are produced as if from an assembly line. It should also be noted that much attention is given to “the spirit of cricket,” and protecting the health and welfare of the children. It is a truly holistic system that gradually, gently imbues a child with a love of the game, the skills to play it well, and the heart of a champion. It would serve American cricket well if we would pattern our developmental program on the Australian model, and then display the patience required to reap its rewards in future years.
Look for the next installment of this series, “Get Into Cricket.”