The numbers donít add up because players are slipping through the system
by Ryan Bailey

Itís improbable Mark Twain had cricket in mind when he coined the phrase Ďlies, damned lies and statisticsí but for a game which is defined by numbers, itís highly applicable. Granted, the scorebook never lies but there is a fixation on numbers which manufactures the context to mercilessly accentuate an individualís failings like no other sport.

Statistics are ingrained in cricket. We measure success by numbers and we determine the level of a playerís performance by statistics. How many runs, how many wickets, how many fours, how many sizes, how many dot balls, how many catches?

Ultimately, cricket is an individual sport masquerading as a team game. Indeed, itís great when the team is winning but if youíre not contributing, there can be very little satisfaction. You can train twice a week, perform painfully tedious drills and spend hours in the nets but all you will be judged on is the numbers that are written beside your name.

Itís a demanding sport, a volatile one and a game with fluctuating fortunes. It can be thoroughly disheartening at times.

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Looking back, we werenít a bad team, a side comprised of several promising cricketers. Most of us had been playing cricket since a young age. It was the centre of our attention during the summer holidays - playing youth games during the week and dipping our toe into the bigger pond of senior cricket at the weekend. Cricket consumed most of our time - some of us even harboured hopes of representative honours, maybe more.

It was the Leinster U17 league final, 2008. On the day, we were caught cold by superior, more experienced opposition. It was our first experience of failure and first meeting with cricketís unforgiving side. We were bowled out for 47.

Five years on, just two of that team played cricket - in any form - last season. Itís unlikely that humbling defeat - in fact, it didnít - have any bearing on the other nineís decision to abandon their cricketing ambitions but it substantiates Twainís expression about statistics: they donít tell the whole truth.

Sure, thatís just one team, in one club and one example but it illustrates the universal conundrum cricket faces. Participation levels have hit unparalleled heights here but that matters little because those who have progressed through the system are falling by the wayside at an alarming rate.

As much as Cricket Irelandís development programme is built upon widening the resource pool, the biggest challenge is in retaining those already in the game.

Of the 25,000 children playing cricket across the island of Ireland this year, how many will still be involved in the sport in five, ten, fifteen years time? The answer - very few. The dropout rate, across all sports, currently exceeds the rate at which people are taking up sport.

Cricket, despite all the fanfare surrounding the rapidly-growing popularity, is no exception. You donít need any statistics to know it is in a perpetual battle with the traditional sports. It would be a futile exercise to engage in the participation war, not yet anyway, but the current dropout rate continues to stunt cricketís growth on these shores.

This week, the England and Wales Cricket Board released disconcerting survey results which showed a considerable drop in playing numbers across the board. It can be argued cricket is heading in an opposite direction here - moving on an upward curve - but there is no reason for the next cohort of young cricketers to be any different to the previous generations of players that slipped through the system.

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Josh van der Flier was part of that U17 team a couple of years ago. He was a talented cricketer, he mastered both disciplines and was an athletic fielder. He had all the attributes to make the grade at an exalted level. Last month, he made his Leinster debut against Zebre. Cricketís loss is rugbyís gain.

ďItís just not possible to juggle two sports,Ē he said. ďI really enjoyed playing cricket and miss it a lot but when it came to choosing, there was obviously more chance of me progressing in rugby and making a career.Ē

A survey conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute shows participation in regular sporting activity is almost universal during the primary school years for both male and females. What happens in the formative years is, essentially, what matters most.

Cricket is a demanding sport. There are several routes to the divorce courts but ten-hour Saturdays may be one of them. Of course there are common factors such as work and college commitments and family responsibilities that are all attributable to the dropout rate but there must be more substance to why the transition from adolescence into adulthood leads us to become disenchanted by previously obsessive activities and forget our boyhood cricketing ambitions.

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The growth of individual sports such as running and triathlons is a significant factor. They may take up several hours of the day but there is no stringent schedule and no rigid commitment. Research compiled by the ECB indicates the length of the game is a deterrent. In the last year, the ECB estimated there was a 10% drop in playing levels among 18-25 year-olds.

But, there is one underlying factor. It goes back to the fixation on numbers, the pressured situation to score runs, take wickets and the requisite to win. Itís fine if youíre playing at a high level but for those who want to play the game for the love of it, because itís ingrained in them, itís becoming harder and harder.

ďThere are a number of factors but from our research, we found that the Ďofferí of cricket isnít right for many teenagers. Once their youth level days are over, the chance to play with their friends in a social environment is reduced significantly,Ē Chris Lock, the ECBís Participation Manager, said.

ďThere are no short-term or high impact solutions to this problem because itís more about helping to bring about a culture change where young players are really valued within clubs, and clubs begin to do more to keep them involved and engaged.Ē

In Leinster, there were just 120 registered players in the U19 age bracket in 2014 while a mere 25% of all the cricketers in the province were aged between 19 and 25. Itís not a problem that has only reared its head but why are the number of players giving up the sport rising with each passing year?

The ECBís survey suggests Twenty20 cricket is the way forward at grassroots level. 90% of young people said they wanted to play more recreational cricket in a non-competitive environment, with less emphasis on winning.

Perhaps thatís the answer.

Of course, nobody likes to lose but as Kevin Pietersen outlines in his brash and outspoken autobiography, cricket alienates people and fixates on their shortcomings - whether thatís a dropped catch or a misfield - no matter what level. The prominence placed on winnings trumps everything else. Some people relish that environment, others donít - especially when theyíre giving up their weekends.

So, is there a possible solution? It seems a little far fetched and irrelevant for us to be comparing ourselves and our neighbours across the water given the vast differences between our cricketing cultures but we can learn from them.

A new competition was launched this year across England and was designed to allow teenagers to play cricket in a social environment on their own terms. After a year of piloting, the new format will begin next season and will allow players to manage their own club side, wear coloured clothing and play with their peers.

The competitionís core values reflect the age we live in. Programmes need to fit opportunities to participate around busy lives, there is no commitment, no excessive membership fees and the use of social media to drive interest and engage with existing and potential players. 85% of those involved in the test-run said they are more likely to play again in 2015.

With a possible ascension for Ireland on the horizon, the need to breed a greater calibre of player on a consistent basis cannot be concealed. More specifically, the retention of younger players already with a rich cricketing education needs to be made a priority or else all the work of the past few years will matter little.

With a small resource pool as it is, we can ill-afford to let prospective internationals slip through the system.