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By Peter Della Penna (on Twitter)
In June, the ICC released its Development Program Census Results for the 95 Associate and Affiliate countries for 2011 and also included participation figures for each country dating back as far as 10 years for most of the 95. The census charts each country’s participation level in terms of increase or decrease in the number of players, number of coaches and number of umpires as well as the increase or decrease in the number of facilities. It doesn’t take long to realize when scanning through the figures the importance youth participation numbers has on the overall success of many nations.
More often than not, countries with strong youth participation figures, especially countries whose youth participation figures strongly outnumber the adult participation figures, have experienced a significant amount of success or improved results over the timespan of the census compared to those countries where adult participation outweighs youth participation.
For example, Ireland had 4515 adult players and 3540 youth players in 2007, the year they pulled off a massive upset victory over Pakistan to advance past the group stage of the World Cup in the West Indies. A year later, youth participation levels had gone up 57% to 5565, eclipsing the adult figures of 5340. Through 2011, the youth numbers had grown to 8145. Seeing the impact the win over Pakistan had percentage wise from 2007-2011 and bearing in mind Ireland pulled off an even bigger upset in 2011 over England at the last World Cup, Ireland could have 15,000 or more youth players by 2015.
Nepal’s successes at U-19 World Cups in the last decade have not only contributed to success at the senior level but have resulted in an uptick in youth and overall participation numbers. In 2002, Nepal’s adult participation numbers were at 3240 and their youth numbers were at 1080. By 2011, the adult figures have grown to 7500, but more impressively the youth figures have multiplied more than eight-fold to 9285.
Other countries like Namibia may have small participation numbers overall, but their numbers are still skewed heavily in favor of youth percentage and ratio wise. In 2004, Namibia had 465 adults and 1185 registered youth players. In 2011, those figures were 765 and 2405 respectively.
In 2004, when USA participated in the Champions Trophy in England, the country had 12,675 adult players. Based on the other aforementioned countries and figures, one would assume that USA would have had several thousand youth players at the very least and by 2011 conceivably should have had double or triple the amount of youth players, well into the tens of thousands.
Unfortunately, neither is the case. In 2004, USA had 960 registered youth players. After reaching a high of 1020 registered youth players in 2007, USA experienced a 41% drop to 600 in 2010. In 2011, USA’s adult participation numbers were 16,680, a 32% increase from the year they played in the Champions Trophy. Meanwhile, USA reported 750 youth players registered in 2011, a 28% drop in the same time span that the adult figures went in almost the exact opposite direction.
So in a country of more than 300 million people, there are only 750 registered youth players. That includes roughly 400 players participating in the New York City Public Schools Athletic League. Outside of New York City, there are less than 400 youth players playing in organized cricket competitions nationwide. If you don’t believe that, keep in mind that the Central West Region failed to send a squad to the USACA U-15 National Tournament in 2010 and 2011. That’s right, the Central West is a region that has three thriving adult leagues in Texas with a combined 85 teams – that’s more than 1000 adult players in Texas – and one league in Colorado and had four players named in the USA senior team for 2012 ICC WCL Division Four in Malaysia but could not come up with 11 players aged 15 and under to participate in a national tournament.
Most shocking is the overall ratio disparity of adults to youth cricketers in the USA. While most top tier Associate countries are hovering around 1:1, 2:1 or 3:1 ratios in favor of youth to adult players, USA has 22.24 adult players for every one youth player. As evidenced by the Central West, some regions have a disparity of somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 adult players to one youth player.
Image (left) - Long Island City celebrates winning the 2012 NY PSAL championship. When will other cities follow the lead of New York and establish their own youth leagues? [Courtesy: Peter Della Penna/DreamCricket.com]
In April, USACA vice president Michael Gale posted a PowerPoint presentation on the USACA web site advocating for an increase in youth participation levels to “2000 active U-19 youth players in order to pick up 5% that could be competitive on a world stage.” Top 5% from any figure is just scratching the surface and would include a lot of mediocre talent by international standards, but with a sample pool as small as 2000 that would especially be the case.
Take a look at other pro sports in the USA and less than 1% of all athletes participating from high school on up ever truly make it to an elite level. At the moment, there are 120 NCAA Division One/FBS college football programs with a maximum of 85 full scholarship players allowed on each roster, not including walk-ons. There are hundreds of thousands of high school football players across America, but only 10,200 players get a full scholarship to play Division One college football in any given season. From this already highly select group of players, only 253 became NFL draft picks in 2012. That’s just 2.48% of super elite athletes from an already elite group who may get drafted to play professionally.
College basketball is just as popular if not more so at the high school level especially with the rise of AAU teams traveling and playing outside of the high school season. There are currently 344 NCAA Division One men’s basketball programs and each program can have 13 players on full scholarship not including walk-ons. This means that of the hundreds of thousands of high school basketball players playing nationwide, only 4472 possessed an NCAA basketball scholarship in 2012. Then from this group of 4472 scholarship players, there were just 60 draft picks made by NBA teams in 2012 or 1.34% of NCAA players. Nine players who were from overseas and did not play NCAA basketball were drafted in 2012. So there were actually only 51 NCAA basketball players out of 4472 who were drafted, 1.14% of the already elite pool.
Going back to that figure of registered junior players in the USA, 750, and applying the 1% theory to it, that means that there are really only 7 or 8 players at the U-19 level in the country who could potentially be considered elite. On the evidence of the performances of the USA U-18 team in Florida last month, which should also supply the core of the USA U-19 team in 2013, saying that this country had 7 or 8 elite players in that team would be extremely optimistic. The same would be true of the squad that went to the 2011 ICC U-19 World Cup Qualifier in Ireland.
In reality, the USA U-18 squad in Florida was Steven Taylor, Ryan Persaud and everyone else. USA arguably had just two elite players out of 750 that exist in this country. Multiply 750 by seven and you get 5250. That’s how many registered youth players USA needs nationwide before they can realistically find 14 players just to be competitive on an elite level to represent a junior national team.
Image (right) - Steven Taylor is one of the USA's few elite age group cricketers. Overall participation figures need to rise in order to unearth more talent like him. [Courtesy: Peter Della Penna/DreamCricket.com]
Double that figure to get to 10,500 and that’s how many youth cricketers this country would need for the cream of the crop to be competing with each other for the right to make it into the final 14 of a youth national team. Only then will this country really begin to make strides not only at the youth level, but as a by-product the senior men’s level.
The ICC census data should be a wake-up call to all cricket administrators to get their priorities straight and put an immediate focus on youth development. Many fans and stakeholders like to place all of the blame on USACA for the historically negligent approach to youth development and USACA is a very convenient target. However, much of the fault lies directly with the clubs, leagues and administrators at the local level. In the five seasons since it debuted in 2008, the NY PSAL high school cricket league has mushroomed from 14 to 26 teams and is considered a tremendous success, a model success. Yet, no other city has copied that model and New York City remains the only city in America with a high school cricket league.
While most clubs in overseas leagues have an U-11, and U-13, U-15, U-17 and an U-19 squad as part of the overall club structure, the vast majority of “clubs” in the USA are just that in name only. The majority of leagues in this country don’t have a youth team, let alone each individual club within the league.
In reality, the vast majority of “cricket clubs” in the USA are a solitary team comprised of 13 or 14 guys in their mid 30s to late 40s with no desire to develop a formal club structure, which would mean building a relationship with the local community by inviting local residents, - boys, girls and adults – to tryout, participate and build up a membership base to the point that the municipality could designate a proper ground specifically for cricket and not to be shared with baseball, soccer or anything else.
It’s up to the clubs and leagues to develop these programs and structures themselves because if they wait for help from USACA, this country will still be hovering between 750 and 1000 junior players in the year 2020. The onus is on the administrators at the local level to help effect change. Progress is being made by the USYCA to help increase youth participation numbers, but a bridge must be built from the kids who are being introduced to the game in school programs to connect with youth leagues or youth teams within adult amateur clubs and leagues.
The Michael Gale target of 2,000 U-19 youth players will not be enough to field a truly competitive squad at the international level. USA must grow the total to 10,000 youth players over the next 10 years from which the top 1% will be truly competitive at an elite level suitable for international cricket tournaments. Otherwise, the USA will continue to be stuck in limbo while other Associate and Affiliate countries leave America in their wake.