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Bold new changes to junior cricket rules and game formats have the old-timers fuming. But what impact will modifying the game to meet the needs and wants of today’s kids?
My first game of junior cricket was in 1993, an under 12 C grade game in a suburban competition in Melbourne. In our batting innings, 51 wides were bowled. That’s 51 balls that did not land on the wicket. 51 balls that the batsman did not get to hit and the fielders did not get to field. 51 balls where the bowler felt embarrassed. And 51 balls where parents questioned what on earth they were doing with their Saturday morning.
People always accepted that this is how kids’ cricket is played – however unattractive and boring that may be.
Cricket Australia’s recent changes to the rules and format of junior cricket to prevent the wash, rinse, repeat cycle of the above have been met with much hand-wringing by the self-described ‘traditionalists’, who fear it will be to the detriment of the game they love.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. The game needs to change if it is to thrive and prosper, and these changes are a big step in the right direction.
Let’s take a look at where these changes have come from, what they actually entail and what the impact might be.
But first, a brief word on the state of play…
Cricket faces stiff competition
Kids and families have more ways to spend their leisure time than ever before and they’re choosing spend less of it playing sport.
In 2014, Roy Morgan Research found that Australian kids spent six-and-a-half times more minutes in front of screens than they did playing sport. In fact, sport ranked fifth in terms of time spent by kids behind the internet, watching TV, playing with/ talking to friends and computer/ electronic/ console games.
In such a competitive environment, sports that fail to provide a practical and attractive experience will struggle to get kids playing, let alone keep them coming back. So what does an attractive experience involve?
Kids just want to have fun
Kids’ wants and needs when it comes to participating in sport are pretty straight forward. In the younger age groups where kids are first taking up organised sports, they want to have fun with friends while learning, developing and experiencing success.
Parents also want their children to have these experiences, but with a stronger weighting on learning and development. The primary barriers for parents include time and cost, meaning cricket, with its associated costs and time requirements, falls to the back of the queue.
Changing the game
Cricket Australia looked at the way junior cricket is played and questioned the quality of the experience it delivers to kids.
It then set about a lengthy research and design process to develop, test and refine new rules, equipment and formats to address some of the barriers to a more attractive experience.
Detail of the changes can be found here. In summary:
• Equipment and field dimensions (length of pitch, boundary distance) are reduced; scaled according to the size, strength and skill of participants
• There are fewer players per team
• Game duration is shortened
• In younger age groups, batters face a defined number of deliveries, rather than being ‘out’ when they are dismissed
• All of the above conventions and formats ‘scale up’ as players grow and progress. Age guidelines are indicative and it is recommended that players progress according to ability rather than age.
This all seems logical. But a quick scan of social media will find a vocal core of dyed-in-the-wool cricket lifers who are adamant that these changes mark the beginning of the end. What are their objections?
Objection 1: Kids won’t develop skills because they aren’t playing the ‘real thing’
First, let’s talk about the ‘real thing’.
Critics of the new formats seem to focus on the rules and conventions such as the length of the pitch, number of players per team and duration of the game. But when I turn on the TV to watch a Test or One-Day International, I’m more interested in the action itself.
The ball is delivered on a flat trajectory, bouncing once before passing the batter, generally near where it was aimed and almost always within reach of the batter, tactically designed to bounce, swing, seam or spin.
Reaction time is minimal. Players have the ability to hit a bad ball into gaps and reach the boundary.
It is this movement of ball and player and execution of skill that constitute ‘real’ cricket.
By scaling the game to dimensions that more closely match the size and skill of its participants, the junior formats better replicate the ‘real thing’. Research undertaken by experts in skill acquisition and development found that the new formats lead to:
• More balls in play
• More contact made by batters
• More touches of the ball by fielders
• More balls hit on the offside (indicating more balls landing where they are intended and batters hitting them accordingly)
• More runs scored
• More boundaries hit.
By spending more time on task in these modified games executing more realistic skills against better quality batting and bowling, players’ skill development will be better, not worse. More importantly for the kids, it’s starting to sound more like fun than cricket!
Objection 2: Kids won’t learn to value their wicket if they don’t ‘get out’ for real
I sense that many of the critics have read a headline or someone else’s angry tweet before shooting this statement from the hip, so first let me clarify.
Batting for a minimum duration applies only to T20 Blast (an existing modified cricket development program played mainly by kids aged 7 to 9) and stage 1 (indicative age under 11). This means that kids ten years or younger who are still learning the very basics of the game get to face an equal number of balls regardless of their skill level.
If a batter is dismissed, four runs are added to the bowling team’s score, providing a reward for the bowler while equally acting as a deterrent to the batter.
With that clarified, the people pushing this argument are saying that a 10-year-old who loves his or her cricket so much that he or she sleeps with their bat all week waiting for game day to arrive has to trudge off the field, sit down and watch their friends play if they get out first ball – all in the name of ‘learning to value their wicket’. I can only assume that these people also replace Christmas presents with lumps of coal in their kids’ stockings when they misbehave.
Apart from being a terrible way to spend a Saturday morning, this practice reduces time on task, physical activity levels, skill development and ultimately fun. As a result, the game fails to deliver on the needs and wants for most kids and increases the likelihood of them dropping out.
Objection 3 – Talented players will be held back
Have you ever seen Steve Smith chase a rolling ball to square leg and sweep it off the ground from next to the umpire’s left foot? Me neither. In fact, I’m almost certain that he didn’t become the best batter in the world on account of his time spent playing such shots in the under 12s.
The good news is that with bowlers bowling off a shorter pitch, the next generation of Steve Smiths and Meg Lannings will face better bowling, with less reaction time, providing a greater challenge and thereby sharpening their skills.
Similarly, the next Mitchell Starcs and Ellyse Perrys will be executing their skills with more effective and safe motor patterns, allowing them to focus on accuracy and the subtleties that differ them from the rest of us, rather than just trying to reach the other end.
It’s also worth pointing out that the recommendations specify that age is indicative and that talented players should be moved through the levels as their ability dictates, continually stretching, honing and developing their skills as they go.
What does all this mean?
A stronger, healthier game
While the grumpy old men are grumbling, the kids will be being more active, having more fun, practicing the right skills in the right way and getting better, faster. These changes are no silver bullet, but they will provide generations of kids with even more fun, enjoyment and reward than those who came before them.
It won’t guarantee they all want to play forever, but it will certainly help, and the more kids that play and fall in love with cricket, the healthier the game will be.