As part of my job as Head Coach, I manage the Under 15 team. It's a duty I am not keen about because it doesn't involve any coaching.
The way I see the core of my job, at any level, is to prepare players to be at their best. In season, the process should be,
- Play a match.
- Review the performance.
- Practice, based on the review.
- Play the next match.
- Go to 2.
At junior level, this does not happen. Players are often busy with other activities, including a full programme of school cricket. Two of the boys are at boarding school and we see them only during the holidays. These are valid reasons.
Yet the DNA of coaching is that five step process. Without it we are just filling fixtures.
Take last night's game where, due to a school tour and a festival, we had nine players with four under 11 guys way out of their depth. Only three players were there in time to warm up. I had to score and umpire the game. We got the fixture completed but there was no coaching or developing happening.
We got hammered but it didn't matter. Our star batsman hit 30 not out with no real challenge to him (he plays for Scotland Under 15 and our adult 2nd XI). None of the smaller kids batted or bowled. One got hit on the knee fielding. He was OK, but it was hardly a fun experience. It's the type of night that puts kids off cricket forever.
So, what's the solution?
In my mind, the development of young cricketers in a good environment is more important than anything else at this level. So, I would like to see a change in the structure of the game.
- Tier 1: Introduction to cricket from about six years old can be done with soft ball cricket played in tournaments, as it is now.
- Tier 2: When they are ready, kids can move up to hard ball pairs cricket played in midweek. This could be done by age group, but I would prefer it done by skill level. Most kids will be in the 11-13 age range.
- Tier 3: Above the pairs level is full midweek cricket played by any age, but with a focus on the 14-17 ages. This will be fully competitive, although still with a focus on development over trophies.
- Tier 4: Sunday 40 over cricket played with adult players.
Most of all, all these groups must have a training session where they can go through some version of the coaching process. This will clearly be different for a six year old than a 16 year old, but the basic process is the same, and the basic aim to get better does not change. Better juniors can attend adult training and those not ready can go to the junior session.
My thinking is that by grouping players into broad skill levels rather than narrow age groups, you can have better player availability (and perhaps even a selection meeting) and match player skill to games. For example, we have a talented 12 year old who plays adult cricket and would have no trouble with the top level junior games and adult training sessions. We also have a couple of 14 year old players who would be better off playing pairs as their development is slower.
You could even have adults playing in the tier 3 games to help players develop further and solve any issues of player numbers. You could certainly encourage more club members to come along to score or umpire so the coach can do actual coaching. Admittedly, this might be an issue with both admin (getting criminal checks done) and cheating (playing good players to get the win), but I'm sure it's possible.
If you wanted to get really crazy, you could also switch the Teir 3 and 4 games to eight a side. I made my case for that bonkers idea here, and it's not as crazy as it sounds. And it's a no-brainer to give the teams funky T20 names: "Partick Panthers"rather than "Under 11".
There are questions about this system; notability how you stop competitive coaches and clubs fielding strong teams to win within the rules but not the spirit of development.
But it's worth sorting them out because, for me, development and enjoyment should be way ahead of filling fixtures at junior level. This system puts our aims back at the heart of junior cricket.