The Clubhouse Debate: Selection Politics

The Clubhouse Debate: Selection Politics

You just pick your teams based on ability from first team downwards, right? In club cricket, it’s not that simple, as Rich Evans explains.

Team selection is one of the most fiercely debated topics on the club cricket scene. Sure, you can have a dreamy selection policy oozing with logic, but with declining memberships and club cricket scuffling for attention and relevance, surely player power prevails over any bullet points composed by dogged romantics in a committee room? After all, no club has a mission statement that reads: must ruin people’s Saturdays.

The ideology of selection is thus: If you have four teams then the first-team captain picks the best balanced XI from the best 44 players available. The second-team skipper then picks his best balanced XI from the remaining 33 and so on. What could possibly go wrong? “The teams shall be selected primarily on ability and shall aim to produce in each team a balance of specialist abilities,” is a logical statement by St Albans CC. “Selection for a particular team depends upon, and is frequently governed by, the availability of other players.”In other words: you play for the club, not one team. But it’s not that straightforward. I can only play at home. I only have time for the shortened format the fourth team plays. I wantto play with my mates/family. These preferences, sometimes ultimatums, make the mid-week selection process a minefield.

Who wouldn't want to be part of this on a Saturday?
Who wouldn’t want to be part of this on a Saturday?

“I always base my selection on performance”, says Neil Elvidge, first-team captain and chief selector at Scarborough CC. “First team comes first, then the second team, and the thirds then get what’s left.” But what other factors exist? Hampton CC, for one, considers the following criteria: Team balance, reliability and commitment to the club, training attendance, social events attendance, form, appearances, availability, how contactable they are and punctuality. Fitness, attitude and conduct are also found on other teams’ policies, as is the payment of match-fees and annual subs. But when needs must, well-intended principles become highly disposable.

So, what’s the biggest headache? “Numbers,” says Elvidge, who is also Scarborough’s head coach, without a moment’s hesitation. “Getting 33 players each week is an absolute struggle. I’ve been in the job three years and this year I had to concede a third-team game for the first time.” Dave Smith, chairman of selectors at Tunbridge Wells CC, concurs: “Availability is the biggest nightmare. We’ve got a lot of talented private school kids who aren’t available until mid-July. We’re usually scratching around to fill the fourth XI. When the private school kids come back we have no problem at all.”

Selection: it can be an absolute nightmare
Selection: it can be an absolute nightmare

Any forward-thinking club should provide a strong junior pathway into adult cricket, but you can’t neglect the regulars and the veterans. “We have a few boys that play Saturday for Tonbridge School,” says Smith, who is also a senior coach at the club. “They’ll go on holiday in half-term. From mid-July they might be around for a few weeks, then they’ll go on holiday for the whole of August. They’re only around for four or five games a year. You think, ‘I know you’re good but is it worth messing our teams around and dropping someone who commits 90 per cent of the time just to accommodate you?’”

Elvidge, who picks all three Saturday sides for Scarborough despite his own captaincy duties, has also noticed a shift in attitude and ego: “When I was growing up, if I got dropped I wouldn’t take it personally. I’d say ‘Right, I’ll prove you wrong and I’ll work as hard as I can to get back into the first team’. This generation of cricketers aren’t prepared to fight for their places and they take the easy option by either not playing or leaving. If they aren’t batting first, bowling first or standing at first slip then they take it the wrong way.”

No club has a mission statement that reads: must ruin people’s Saturdays

Smith walks us through the TWCC selection process: “At the end of a Saturday the players give their subs in and fill out their availability for the next two weeks. I text around on Sunday asking all captains to advise availability and I start collating a ones, twos, threes, fours and Sunday team. On Monday night or Tuesday morning, I’ll ask the players if anyone else has become available. Either myself or the first-team captain will collate and essentially have the final say, because we run training and know all the juniors.” A skippers’ WhatsApp feed has replaced email correspondence, while Smith stresses the importanceof communication between captains and players, especially when dropping a player: “We give them a call or talk to them at training before the teamsheet goes out.”

So is a chairman of selectors the way forward? Smith,who’s been involved with three clubs over the past 15 years, says: “I think it’s important for someone to have the final say. Otherwise, in my experience, some captains have their own agenda or get their own mates in. If they have a player who should be playing at a higher level then they’ll try to hold them back. You need a chairman of selectors who is a good overseer of situations, who is not overly committed to one team and is always at training to see what’s going on.”

Players will often disagree with, or completely disregard, the selection committee’s verdict. Scarborough had a first- team bowler and lower-order batsman who was working away, missed a Saturday game and could not train during the week. When Scarborough’s opening bat pulled out of the next game, Elvidge called up a batsman who had scored 80 not out for the second XI the previous week, instead of recalling the returning player, who then refused to play for the second XI and subsequently left the club.

While some players think they’re better than they are, there are just as many who prefer to be a big dog for a lower XI than a bit-part for their natural XI. One Tunbridge Wells player played four games in the first team, where he is an occasional spinner who bats at 10, before dropping down to the second team, where he bowled 10 overs and scored 60 not out in the middle-order. Having enjoyed the experience, he has since refused to play for the ones.

The role of the bit-part player – a.k.a. ‘fill-in’ – is a controversial one. It could be a first-team guy who bats 10and doesn’t bowl but would be the best player in the twos. The second-team captain may argue it’s a waste of a decent player but the first-team captain could insist on fielding his strongest line-up. You also risk damaging the player’s moraleif he’s repeatedly given a peripheral role as a specialist fielder. Like so many selection debates, there’s often no clear-cut right or wrong answer. That vague word ‘balance’ often crops up, and not just in terms of ensuring there’s enough bowlers and batters. A fourth XI may be a youth development side but you still need some stalwarts to guide (and chauffeur) the pups.

Team selection is a constant balancing act between keeping members happy and ensuring the club reaches its goals, while a lack of availability, especially in the first-half of the season, is indicative of grassroots cricket’s constant battle for playing members. Smith defines the unenviable midweek selection process as “juggling expectations, logistics and availability problems” – the very issues confronting club cricket as a whole.

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