I had an interesting exchange with Reuben Herbert in a County Cricket group during the summer and asked if he fancied putting his thoughts down. Here he writes as a guest blogger. His thoughts on structure would work across most sports in this country.

I made a comment a while back that county clubs should be limited to 18 professional players with the development side of the game run through an amateur structure.  This is a brief explanation on how I came by the idea.   

The origins of this goes back to the mid 1990’s.  The background in cricket was a sharp fall in player numbers due in main to the sport being dropped from the State School curriculum in the mid 1980’s.  County Clubs were poorly funded and players badly paid.  By 1999 England had dropped to the bottom of the Test World Ranking.  The dip in playing standard was as a result of neglect of player development processes.   

My research was to look at how we could address these problems. 
 
In 2005 the ECB signed its first broadcasting deal with Sky.  While this pumped cash into County Club coffers it only served to mask over the underlaying problem.  County Clubs used the windfall to increase player wages and sign Kolpak players which papered over the shortage of quality players produced locally.  The sport looked healthy from the outside.  However, participation numbers continued to fall and player development processes never improved.   

Central contracts rescued the fortunes of Team England.  However, the gap between First Class and International cricket is huge; insurmountable for many as we’ve seen with the high turnover of players at the top of the batting order the last 10 years.  The County Championship can no longer be considered a development ground which prepares players for International cricket.  It simply acts as a talent spotting process.  The ECB has invested a huge amount into a development programme at Loughborough and the Lions designed to bridge the gap. 

Fast forward to 2020 and a new financial problem hit the sport.  Covid has made a huge dent in income and county clubs are financially vulnerable.  Falling player numbers has never been addressed and is now critical.  Poor development processes mean our system can’t produce enough players to service 18 full time counties.  There is a renewed call to reduce the number of counties (reducing the number of counties without resolving the underlaying problem is a short-term fix).   

We need to fight to retain an 18 Counties system.  The issues of the 1990’s have never been properly addressed and is taking its toll on the sport.  Given the recent announcement by the ECB to look at cost saving, I believe my ideas from back then have merit today.  We need urgent and drastic change to rescue the sport. 

My research in the late 1990’s was across cricket, hockey and rugby union, 3 sports with similar demographics and development structures.  England cricket had fallen to the bottom of the world rankings.  With the introduction of professional clubs and leagues, rugby union was on the rise but yet to win the world cup.  Hockey won a gold medal at the 1988 Los Angeles Olympics, but, despite the introduction of a National League, participation numbers were falling and the national team had become the whipping boys.  

 I set myself a task to look at sport organisations from around the world that continually produced world class players and repeatedly produce world class teams.  I wanted to know why.  My research was based partly around my own experiences.  I’d played professional cricket through the 70’s and 80’s and been through the system.  I coached hockey at National League level both men and women and have seen the development processes first-hand.  I played and coached in South Africa, Australia and the Netherlands and saw the systems at work in these countries.  I used the network of contacts I made in these countries. 

The research covered 9 sports organisations, particularly Dutch Hockey, All Blacks Rugby, Australia Cricket and German Football.  I’m not going into detail, except to say there are major similarities in the development structures in these countries which contrast markedly to how we do things. 

They are in essence simple structures.  In Australia, Grade Cricket underpins the sport.  Players can join a Grade Club as juniors and progress through club ranks to the edge of First Class selection.  It is similar in structure to Dutch Club Hockey and NZ Provincial Rugby where clubs take players from age 8 to the edge of international selection. German amateur football clubs form the base of their sport; that takes a large numbers of young players to gain professional contracts at age 16 (15 of the 23 players for the Germany squad that won the 2014 World Cup came through the amateur ranks). 
 
The similarities are that they are open and inclusive, available to all.  Also, they are amateur.  Development is done in a club environment where youngsters play with their friends.  The focus is on fun and enjoyment.  It builds life-long affiliations to the club and sport.  All the best players play in the same system.  Players are promoted on performance.  There are strong junior competitions.  Young players are moved into competitive adult sport early and promoted on merit.  Regional and district teams are picked from the club system and based on real time performance.  The use of academies for fine tuning. 
 
By contrast our sports structures are fragmented, exclusive and selective.  Most players come through the Public Schools system and Universities – a very small and shrinking player pool (there is evidence cricket is on the decline in Public Schools).  The Public School system is exclusive, only available to a very small band of our population who can afford the fees.  Students need to pass exams to go to University and that closes it off to the vast majority.  County age group squads are selective.  We are making selections for future elite players based on trials at age 12.  Professional academies are selective – there is very strong evidence in professional sport they are not fit for purpose. 
 
Most current players were identified at age 12.  They are fast tracked through ‘player pathways’ that includes age group cricket, academies and scholarships to Public Schools.  The development is done in theory.  They are not exposed to competitive adult league cricket through the key development years aged 15 to 20. 

There is no one place all our best development players play competitive games.  It is split over public school sport, university sport, county age group teams, county academy teams and county second teams – all non-competitive. 
 
We need a radical rethink.  Undoubtedly the Public School system is excellent.  We should embrace it.  But, also, replicate their excellence in a club setting to attract a broader base of the population.   

There is ample evidence that best practise is to develop players in an amateur environment.   

 
So back to my point.   

I’d have an umbrella organisation that runs cricket in each county (ie County Centre of Excellence).  This is split to 2 divisions, 1.  Pro Cricket and 2. Amateur Cricket.   

The Pro Cricket Division is limited to a playing staff of 18.  Clubs need to be forced to make harder choices on who they retain.  At the moment it’s too easy and they make lazy decisions.  We need a quicker turnover of players and break the cycle of 30 year-old career pros playing for next year’s contract.   

The Amateur Cricket section deliver the junior and adult cricket programme.  This uses existing facilities at clubs.  It produces our next generation of players, volunteers, coaches, scorers, umpires and supporters. 

The Centre of Excellence (CoE) give the support structure to both Amateur and Pro divisions (Coach Development, Umpire Development, Sports Science and Elite Coaching) and delivers County Second Eleven and County Age Group Cricket.   

The Amateur Programme and CoE is funded from part of the ECB income already paid to Counties. 

Initially target 20 clubs in each county to act as Academy Clubs. 
Clubs form the hub of the programme. 
All development players play the club system. 
Clubs delivery strong age group and adult competitions. 
All clubs deliver School / Club Partnerships (All Stars). 
 
Former pros head up cricket development and coaching at clubs. 

It’s a part-time role. 

Gives them financial support in the transition from full time cricket. 
Gives those that don’t gain full pro contracts a job in cricket. 
All coaches are affiliated to the CoE and part funded by the club / CoE. 
 

Elite player performance coaching run by CoE. 
Targeting elite age group players and club players. 

 
County Age Group teams and County Second Eleven are picked in real time based on performances in Junior and Club Cricket. 

Replace MCC University Academies with 6 Regional Development Teams (picked from the County Second Team comp).  

Club do not pay players. 
Investment is made in infrastructure and coaching. 

This is a self-sustaining player development model.  It’s a medium to long term vision that will broaden the base for our sport and drive up quality through best practise player development processes; and, at the same time, reduce the cost to cricket.  The plan is to give players a lifelong affinity to their club and build strong enduring friendship networks.  These are important to rebuild the fabric of our cricket community, historically ignored by County Clubs in their quest for the next pro player. 

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