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.
Let me begin by declaring an interest: on most aspects of the Dutch competition I have strong and frequently-expressed views, and on the topic of a ten-team versus an eight-team Topklasse I was the sole dissenting voice on the Board when it decided in 2016 to move from eight to ten.
So the debate which the Board initiated last week is one with plenty of personal resonance, although the central questions affect everyone with an interest in the future of the Dutch game, and the eventual outcomes ought to be those which ensure the growth of that game, both in quantity and quality.
Club representatives took part last Wednesday and Thursday in two consultative meetings, to discuss a series of proposals from the Board:
to reduce the top divisions again, from ten teams to eight, probably with some form of play-offs;
to play top division matches on Saturdays throughout the season, instead of only in the first six weeks;
to restructure the Twenty20 Cup, limiting it to 16 teams;
to consider establishing a separate competition for ‘development teams’, essentially the second elevens of clubs with a youth section; and (most radically of all)
to introduce over a five-year period a set of criteria to be satisfied by any club before they would be allowed to play in the top three divisions.
These are far-reaching and, in my view at least, mostly laudable proposals, but the fact that they received a somewhat mixed reception from the club representatives was due, not only to innate conservatism and the undoubted tendency of some to consider only what was in the interest of their own club rather than the needs of Dutch cricket as a whole, but to the fact, admitted by KNCB secretary Robert Vermeulen, that the initiative had had a ‘less than optimal’ preparation.
The Board had established a Taskforce to review the competitions back in February, but various factors had conspired to prevent it bringing its deliberations to a coherent conclusion, and the Board had now decided that if changes were to be made, the first steps needed to be taken immediately.
But the problem was that the arguments for change had not been fully worked out, and certainly had not been presented in advance, and many remained unconvinced about the need for change at all.
One starting point was the increasing pressure from the programme of the national men’s team, which could affect as many as eight of the 21 or 22 playing dates next season and more in 2021, even without taking into account the potential impact of the Euroslam T20 competition, assuming that it goes ahead next year.
That demanded, the KNCB’s interim competition manager Bart Kroesen argued, greater flexibility in the domestic competition schedule, something which could scarcely be achieved with a ten-team competition with its minimum of 18 playing dates.
That calculation immediately leads, however, into one of Dutch cricket’s perennial debates, about whether, and to what extent, the competition can fairly be allowed to continue when national team players are unavailable to take part.
As the demands upon those players increase the impact upon their clubs grows correspondingly, especially when the national team management seeks to limit players’ role in club matches they are released to play, as for example permitting bowlers to complete no more than five overs.
In some cases this amounts to a contractual problem: if a player is contracted both to the KNCB and to a club, which commitment takes precedence, and will the Bond be prepared to take on the whole cost of that player if his availability for the club drops below a certain level?
There are, from this perspective, broadly two alternatives: either the top competitions can be played only when all players are available, in which case there may be room only for 14 or so matches and the limitation to eight teams becomes essential, or it is played through with or without the members of the national team, in which case a ten-team competition is feasible but there are serious concerns about its fairness (summed up in the much-used Dutch term competitievervalsing, or distortion of the competition).
Whether this is the right basis on which to decide the league structure is itself a matter of dispute, and one to which we shall return in a further article, but other arguments, such as the claim that the expansion to ten teams in 2016 has failed to produce the projected increase in the number of young Dutch-produced players taking part, or that the ten-team league is more or less competitive than its eight-team predecessor, either come down to highly subjective judgements or rely on evidence which the Board is not yet able to produce.
Everyone agrees that a key objective of the domestic competition ought to be the creation of an environment in which talented young Dutch cricketers can develop and prosper, and most agree that this is not enhanced by the elimination, in order to comply with the Netherlands’ stringent anti-discrimination laws, of any check on the influx of overseas players.
But there is less agreement about how best to achieve that objective, and a good deal of fractiousness (to put it mildly) about the Board’s apparent inability – at this stage at least – to convert broad strategic objectives into a coherent, consistent, well-argued plan for a stable, equitable league structure.
The previous reduction of the top leagues from ten teams to eight, in 2010, was the result of a long, comprehensive consultation process, which ran from August 2008 to March 2009, and even then some of the conclusions were immediately undermined by compromise and continuing resistance from some intransigent quarters.
The reversal of that change in 2016 was much more ad hoc, but both bear witness to deep-seated divisions in the Dutch game, and the absence of a clear consensus on the best way forward.
If the current Board can achieve that it will be greatest contribution to the future of Dutch cricket it could possibly make, but it may take more than a couple of meetings, or even a winter of debate, to achieve that goal.
We will attempt, over the next couple of weeks, to contribute to the discussion by considering each of the Board’s proposals in greater detail.
And so, once again, it falls to us to take up our self-appointed task of selectors of TKcricket’s Topklasse Team of the Season.
RL: Unlike most clubs we’re confining ourselves to two overseas players, but making that choice has become more difficult, not only because there are more to choose from, but also because the definition has become somewhat blurred. Several names do, however, leap out at us: leading run-scorer Sharn Gomes of HBS, who made 832 runs at 52.00 and HCC’s Bryce Street, who tops the averages with 722 at 65.64, both have strong claims among the batsmen, as do Nic Smit, who entered late but often held Voorburg’s staggering batting together, and Gomes’s team-mate Zac Elkin was an effective opener for HBS. Among the bowlers two stand out: Dosti’s Kuldeep Diwan with 36 wickets at 10.36 and Brady Barends of ACC, an outstanding spearhead throughout the season and not far behind with 33 wickets at 13.58. Which pair we opt for in the end might depend on the balance of the side, but I’d provisionally go for Street, a genuine allrounder, and Barends.
BdJ: The somewhat stringent restriction we’re placing on selection here inevitably means some deserving players will miss out, but Street is first name on the sheet for my money. Besides topping the batting averages he was also HCC’s lead wicket-taker with 25 scalps at 22 and also topped the outfield catch count with 16 grabs. I think the case of Gomes might be referred to our event technical committee given his length of residence in the Netherlands, but three names from last year’s team might give us pause, with Taruwar Kohli, Jay Bista and Lorenzo Ingram also having excellent seasons again. Bista’s absence for the first few matches arguably cost Quick in the end, his 625 runs coming at a strike rate of well over 100 and his off-spin also contributing 17 wickets, likewise Kohli’s early departure told against Dosti. Ingram meanwhile had the second best average of any bowler after Diwan whilst also racking up almost 500 runs. With Street already filling the seam all-rounder’s role I’d be tempted to go with Diwan over Barends for the second slot, though that would certainly make Barends the unluckiest player to miss out. An honourable mention too for his ACC team-mate Jean Marais, who had an excellent season with the gloves, effecting 21 dismissals in his 13 matches and conceding just 6 byes, while also doing a job with the bat after being promoted to open. Had he stayed on a full season he might well have forced his way into the side.
BdJ: If Elkin and Bista miss out for want of a Dutch passport then we’ve arguably benched the league’s two most successful openers already, but there a handful of candidates for whom a strong case could be made. HCC’s Adam Wiffen was leading the run scoring tables for a decent chunk of the season before being eclipsed by his team-mate, and doing so against the new ball. With 525 runs at an average a shade over 40 and a top-score of 135*, even a comparatively quiet later half of the season is probably not enough to rule him out. VOC’s Max O’Dowd is another strong contender, though his best performances this season have come in Orange or away at the European Championships, with 575 runs at 38 he’s the only full-time opener other than Elkin and Bista to break into the top ten scorers of the season. Just one spot behind him is VRA’s young Vikram Singh, who broke 500 runs for the first (but surely not last) time this year.
RL: There aren’t too many locally-produced openers who had a really consistent season, and Singh – who has both youth and left-handedness on his side – is undoubtedly one who made real progress. He therefore makes my list, alongside Wiffen or O’Dowd or, if we feel inclined to gamble on his hit-or-miss approach, Tobias Visée of HBS. He only made 417 runs at 27.80, but with a strike rate in excess of 140 – the best in the competition by a distance – he takes a lot of the pressure off his partner and the later batsmen. For T20 it’s a no-brainer; for the longer format the call is tighter, and the safer choice would be either Wiffen or O’Dowd.
RL: For the three or four top- and middle-order batsmen there is perhaps a wider range of options, although many of them are scarcely unfamiliar names. Wesley Barresi didn’t have a stellar season, but he still made 597 runs at 49.75, and his century against HCC in the opening game was simply a joy to watch. He had the advantage of batting in a very strong top six, but others demand consideration because they held their side together week after week: VRA’s Peter Borren, for example, whose 721 runs at 48.07 included a century and six fifties in 16 innings, or Mudassar Bukhari (Sparta 1888), with 589 at 36.81. Another in this category is Quick’s Geert Maarten Mol, whose contribution was ultimately unavailing but nevertheless a model of true grit. These four are in the veteran category, and it’s a little disturbing that of the younger brigade several made less impact than might have been hoped, or flourished briefly and then fell away. My foursome would therefore be: Barresi, Borren, Mol, Bukhari.
BdJ: Another fine season for Borren with the bat, though you’d say he’d already nailed down a place in the side on the strength of his captaincy, turning VRA’s season around after taking back the armband with the Amsterdammers looking Hoofdklasse-bound. When it comes to purely batting performances, however, I’m not sure any of the above can reasonably lay claim to a place ahead of Ben Cooper, who’s 629 runs came at exactly a run-a-ball and put him 5th on the overall scoring table. Cooper could also fill the number three role, where the other contenders have all preferred to bat down the order this season. Bukhari has been coming in at five or six for Sparta, though as he’d likely be making the team on the strength of his bowling anyway I’d be tempted to drop him down the order to make room for another specialist bat, ideally Gomes at four if we deem him eligible.
BdJ: The wicketkeeper’s slot is also a little trickier than it was last time round, if Toby Visée’s preferred opening role is already taken it’s tough to make a case for him on keeping stats alone, while his nearest rival last year, VOC’s Scott Edwards, only kept in six games all season. Conversely Sparta’s Atse Buurman is a long way in front on total dismissals, 13 ahead of his nearest rival on 34 across 17 matches, though of course that has a fair bit to do with where and with whom he was playing. With ACC’s Jean Marais ruled out on nationality grounds, I’d be tempted to go with VCC’s Noah Croes, fourth on the dismissals count and the only full-time gloveman to break 500 runs for the season.
RL: I hadn’t completely ruled out picking Visée as an opener, but unless we went that route I’d agree with my distinguished colleague that it’s hard to include him for his keeping alone. Buurman’s an interesting case: 20 of his 34 victims came in nine games at the Bermweg, and while more than half his catches came off the bowling of Mudassar Bukhari and Joost Martijn Snoep, he accepted chances from all Sparta’s other bowlers as well. Purely on keeping I think you’d have to go for him, but he had a disappointing season with the bat, and if that’s a consideration then Croes might well get the nod.
RL: It wasn’t a vintage season for spin bowlers, and the most effective of them was ACC’s Saqib Zulfiqar, who took 30 wickets at 17.77, well ahead of any of his Dutch-based rivals. If we don’t pick Kuldeep Diwan as one of our overseas players then leg-spinner Zulfiqar is the obvious choice, ahead of other possible contenders like Umar Baker, who made the most of limited opportunities at Excelsior, Philippe Boissevain (Voorburg), Leon Turmaine (VRA), and national captain Pieter Seelaar (VOC).
BdJ: Yes the slow bowlers have played something of a supporting role all season, and the lack of competition only strengthens the case for picking the season’s lead wicket taker in Diwan. Saqib Zulfiqar’s 30 wickets make him the strongest candidate for a second spinner, though his ACC team-mate Devanshu Arya also had a fine season, picking up 24 wickets at a shade under 17. Lorenzo Ingram has also been particularly parsimonious for Excelsior, going at barely over 2.5 per over and his 26 wickets coming at an average of 12.69.
BdJ: With Bukhari , Borren and Street pencilled in the pace section already looks fairly solid, and Barends aside it’s not easy to pick a fourth seamer. Champions Excelsior boast four quicks that all passed 20 wickets at a sub-20 average, of whom the stand-out is probably Rens van Troost who bagged 23 scalps at 16.39. But behind Barends and Bukhari the summer’s most prolific wicket-taking quick was HBS’ Berend Westdijk, who took 31 in 16 matches to lift his total career tally past 200 and breaking into the top 50 wicket-takers.
RL: Van Troost was undoubtedly one of the most effective pace bowlers in the competition once he was fully fit and he was, along with skipper Tom Heggelman, a key factor in Excelsior’s regaining of the title. And Westdijk, too, must be regarded as a serious contender, the most productive of HBS’s under-regarded seam attack, in which Farshad Khan and Wessel Coster (as well as overseas Zak Gibson) bowled some seriously impressive spells.
RL: So: we’re agreed on Vikram Singh, Bryce Street, Peter Borren, Mudassar Bukhari, Saqib Zulfiqar, and Rens van Troost. That leaves five places: an opener (Wiffen, Visée, or possibly O’Dowd), an overseas (Diwan or Barends), a keeper (probably Croes if Visée doesn’t make it, or just possibly Buurman), at least one specialist batsman (Gomes if we treat him as local, and/or Cooper and/or Barresi), and possibly another bowler if there’s room. Personally, I’d be inclined to open with Visée, who would also keep, leaving room for both Cooper and Gomes, as well as whichever overseas we settle on and one more bowler.
BdJ: There’s certainly a case for opening with Visée, who racked up 417 runs across the season despite ducking out to Canada for three games, not least because his strike rate of 144.79 might go some way to balance out Singh’s comparatively conservative approach, which occasionally saw him rack up hefty scores to the detriment of VRA’s actual chance of winning. It’s likewise considerations of strike rate that put Cooper ahead of other contenders for the upper midlle order, though his improving offspin also helps, especially if one looks at qualifty of wickets over quantity. That said I’d hesitate to rely on either Cooper or Barresi as a second spinner to back up Zulfiqar, so Diwan’s a no-brainer for me. The question we’re left with is whether both Gomes and Barresi fit into the side, or whether we plump for another seamer. My inclination here would be to go with both Westdijk and van Troost, Barresi missing out unless a convincing case be made against Gomes’ local status. If forced to choose between van Troost and Westdijk, then purely on weight of wickets I’d go with the latter, though reasonable minds may differ.
RL: Let’s think about the attack: both Bukhari and Westdijk have regularly taken the new ball for their clubs, while the other seamers – Street, Van Troost and Borren – are arguably more effective later in the innings. The fact that three of these five are genuine all-rounders makes selection easier, so I’m happy to include all of them, and to take Diwan ahead of Barends on grounds of balance. With Visée keeping we have room for another specialist batsman, and that leaves us with the difficult choice between Gomes and Barresi. Would it be a criminal offence to exclude Gomes on grounds of nationality? His claims to being local are, it seems to me, doubtful at this stage, but his batting average is a tad better than Barresi’s, and his three centuries and four fifties in 18 innings constitutes an even more impressive level of consistency than Peter Borren’s. So Gomes shades it, and if that means we need to be a little flexible on our self-imposed two-foreigners policy, then so be it.
When all’s said and done, then, the TKcricket Team of the Season is: Tobias Visée (HBS), Vikram Singh (VRA), Ben Cooper (VRA), Sharn Gomes (HBS), Bryce Street (HCC), Peter Borren (VRA, captain), Mudassar Bukhari (Sparta), Saqib Zulfiqar (ACC), Kuldeep Diwan (Dosti), Rens van Troost (Excelsior), and Berend Westdijk (HBS).