Potential Ulster Schools players have recently been involved in net sessions at the Queens PE Centre on the Stranmillis Embankment. It doesn't seem that long ago that Indoor Nets were in their infancy in this country, although few would argue that they are anything other than an essential in out climate. Yet such is the demand for the use of sports halls that, without reaching swimming pool proportions, the availability is far from ideal.
In the past Ulster Schools were fortunate enough to be able to hold their nets on Monday evenings. However this year only Fridays were available and this has had an effect on the participation of candidates. Lest you should suspect that this was due to "social" reasons let me assure you otherwise. The fact is that we do not have such a large pool of players that we can afford to ignore the "dual-sports" performers. With important fixtures, often in the latter stages of high profile cup competitions, to be played on Saturday mornings we cannot realistically expect the same boys to turn out for cricket nets on Friday evenings. You can imagine the feelings of a soccer, rugby, hockey or whatever coach if one of his star charges rolled up on the Saturday to report that he had pulled a shoulder muscle, or was suffering from a slight twinge of the ubiquitous shin-splints.
The difficulties of coaching for even representative schools squads is then exacerbated by the examiners, who now seem to cover every inch of the summer term. This year, at least, we have the advantage of an early Easter, and longer than average Summer term, in which to try to prepare for the cricketing challenges ahead. Even so it will in most cases come down to what the players actually achieve during a concentrated and hectic school season to determine who secures selection for Ulster or Irish Schools. Perhaps it should not be otherwise.
These considerations often prompt me to think about the thousands of pounds (and now euros!) which are invested by Irish Cricket each year in age group teams from a very early stage. Has anyone ever done a cost/benefit analysis to see what the return is? How many of those identified (if sometimes only in their own minds) as stars at the age of 12 or 13, are still playing cricket in any shape or form by the time they are 19, let alone in their mid 20s?
I cannot but feel that we should try to run a system which seeks to identify our more talented young players. We should continue to challenge them against older, but still developing Irish players, until they have reached 3rd. level education or its equivalent. At this point we should channel them into some form of cricketing Academy, at a time when it has become fairly clear cut that they hope to make a significant success of their cricket.
As an Ulster Schools coach (of sorts) it would give me much greater satisfaction to know that many of my charges were to progress by a route that enhances their cricketing development, even if they weren't the most talented performers in their age group. One would always hope that those likely to devote their abilities to other sports will continue to play cricket at school but increasingly it is clear that it will be others who progress furthest in the summer game. It would be easy to conclude that there will never be another "Double International" though I wish Neil Doak every good luck in proving this wrong!