The performance outcome cliff of early professionalism
Russell Degnan

The last decade has seen professional contracts expand across both associate and women's cricket. The opportunities have improved player skills, and undoubtedly history will be kind to the first generation of professional players wherever that has occurred. But it also causes a problem. One that has manifested in many of the teams across the world over many years, both at international and first class level.

Namely: if you give a small number of elite players generous contracts to improve performance, the next generation won't be able to displace them until they are in steep decline.

It was a problem, misdiagnosed largely, when Australian first class cricket aged considerably in the early 2000s, with the Kenyan team of the same era, and more latterly, with the English women, and the Irish team, both of whom bemoan the lack of emerging youth.

The phenomenon is best demonstrated with a simulation. In the graph below, five careers overlap, with different starts, peaks and lengths. The blue lines represent the best outcome for a player (continually professionally contracted), the red lines represent a player contracted only if they were in the top two players in the previous year. They receive a 10% performance jump in the first year, and 25% in subsequent years, while contracted. The thick lines are the average of the top two players

In an optimum selection outcome, players A and B would be selected through years 7-12, A making way for C until year 14, B for D until year 16, C for E until year 18, when C returns for D at the end of their short but prolific peak. The selected pair maintaining an average of close to 50 from year 10 until 18.

In the selection outcome with limited contracts, A's declining performance is not matched by an under-developed C until year 14, when they are actually replaced by D. C comes into the side for B a year later, but the lack of experience means the average drops into the low 40s from year 13 to 17. E, similarly, does not emerge from D's shadow until year 19, causing another gap from optimum to selection to form.

The numbers in the simulation are made up - if hopefully in the appropriate ballpark. We don't know what the performance advantage of a professional contract is, and there is still a glaring hole in the research over peak performance years. But the general shape will be correct, and that points to a gap between potential performance and what teams get on the field.

This may not be the problem right now. There may be no players in Ireland with the potential to perform better than the golden generation in situ. But with only eighteen contracts on offer for the entire squad, there are certainly going to be young players that aren't getting the opportunity to reach their peak. Some, many, will drop out altogether, as non-professionals tend to do. Others will have a late career bloom as the simulated C and E did, but not achieve as much as they ought.

This is an under-appreciated aspect of professional development in sport. Across most sports a player will not reach that peak performance until their late-20s. Yet, their future must be decided by their early 20s, because they need to be in the system until they reach the top. Club programmes work through this via a process of drafting and recruiting, second teams and development leagues. They tend to be cut-throat, and not necessarily in a good way.

A centralised representative sport like cricket tends towards promoting only the top performers, letting late developing or second-tier talent drop off. Often this also manifests as the flip-side to letting talent drop: of prematurely promoting youth on potential, in the hope that they will develop faster in an elite environment.

Perversely, premature selection can be a good thing, as limited opportunities are best given to those with the greatest potential. But it will always be inferior to selecting the best option from a group that have all had the chance to reach their peak. The challenge for all teams, is ensuring they find, and more importantly, improve the talent they have available. Repeatedly, we've seen a strategy of giving contracts to the players you need now, and not the players you might need later, result in ageing stars wondering why noone was there to replace them.

Cricket - Analysis 24th August, 2016 12:57:20   [#]