The very model of a modern competition?

Rod Lyall 23/09/19


What do we want the top divisions of the Dutch domestic competition to do?

Ideally, they should be a testing ground for the best young local cricketers, offering highly-competitive match situations and providing a showcase for the Dutch game.

That is, of course, an extremely idealistic view: for the clubs, the objective is to win the national championship – or at the very least, not to be relegated – and, wherever possible, to make a profit over the bar.

So there is inevitably a tension, between giving their young players a chance to shine and strengthening their squad by bringing in potential match-winners from overseas or from other clubs.

There’s a great deal of pious talk about the need to develop home-produced players, but when it comes down to it there are few clubs who would not give a key role to a star bowler or batter rather than invest in a young player who may or may not immediately be worth his place in the side.

And that was exacerbated this year by the collapse of the KNCB’s attempts to regulate the number of overseas players clubs are able to fly in for part or all of the season.

The main argument deployed in 2016 to justify the re-expansion of the top divisions to ten teams was that if the threat of relegation were reduced, with one team in ten facing the drop rather than one in eight, clubs would be more willing to pursue a proper development policy, giving promising young players their chance.

In my view at the time, the first part of the argument weighed much more heavily in the minds of club administrators than the second, and that has been proved right by subsequent events: there were actually more young Dutch players playing in the eight-team Topklasse in 2015 than in the ten-team competition this year – or, for that matter, in 2018, before the open-door policy on overseas players.

The truth is that some clubs were mostly interested in creating a cushion between themselves and the relegation zone by bringing in a couple of clubs who were weaker than they were, while others, lower down the rankings, could see that in three ten-team divisions they would have a better chance of moving into a higher bracket.

Still leaving the vexed question of the national team’s commitments and their impact upon the competition out of account for the moment, we return to the two objectives with which we began: which structure produces the best cricket, and which best fosters the emergence of talented young Dutch cricketers?

And it turns out that they are, in fact, closely related.

I remain convinced that there are simply not enough Dutch players of any age available to sustain ten competitive sides in the top flight.

Just take the statistics from the season just past: of the 45 batsmen in the Topklasse who achieved an average of 20.00 or better, 20 came from overseas, leaving 25 Dutch players who managed that basic level, and while the bowlers, as usual, did rather better – 32 of the 46 who had an average below 30.00 were Dutch – that still means that, throwing in a wicketkeeper for good measure, there was an average of three or four players per team who were essentially making up the numbers.

It will probably be argued in reply that this year’s Topklasse was the most competitive for years, and with four sides in contention for the title for the first dozen rounds or so and the relegation battle going down to the final round, that is undoubtedly true.

But did that indicate that the quality of Topklasse cricket has risen since the expansion to ten teams, or does it reflect a levelling down effect?

Even with the advent of an expanded cohort of overseas players this year, much of the cricket played was frankly disappointing, with several sides relying to an excessive degree on the performances of a small number of big-name players.

And that is surely linked to the relative paucity of youngsters who are pushing their way into their clubs’ first teams.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions: VRA’s Vikram Singh, who made his international debut last week, is a case in point, as are, to a somewhat lesser extent, ACC’s Shirase Rasool and Aryan Kumar.

But you can count such examples on your fingers, and as long as the present situation prevails that is unlikely to change.

There are numerous reasons for our being where we are: too few clubs have a coherent youth policy or even a youth section at all; the level of youth coaching Is at best uneven; the collapse of the under-19 competition and the current difficulties of the under-17 one mean that the opportunities for young players to develop their game against their peers are becoming ever more scarce.

In a healthy cricket environment, clubs’ second teams would be full of highly-motivated youngsters making runs and taking wickets and forcing themselves onto the selectors’ attention.

That is, however, hardly anywhere the case, and as what should be pathways disappear into the undergrowth the demotivating effects lead to more and more talented young players simply giving up.

That’s what’s so interesting about the Board’ idea of creating a separate development competition for the leading clubs’ second teams: if the clubs were to embrace this as a key part of their youth strategy (and I concede that’s a big if), the combination of a few experienced players as mentors and a bunch of talented youngsters could be the seedbed for stronger, home-produced first teams in three or five years’ time.

Along with that, though, there is a strong argument for reverting to a Topklasse comprising the best eight sides facing strong opponents almost every week, with the next best taking part in an equally hard-fought Hoofdklasse.

That would be a fair, realistic reflection of where Dutch cricket now is, with fewer than 2000 senior male cricketers of all ages playing at all levels, and it would give us the best chance of achieving that other objective of a national side in which Dutch-produced players are able to earn their place on their merits.

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