Is there a Less Meritocratic Sport than Cricket?

2nd January, 2018.


Rewind to last night - Monday, 1st January 2018 - and Rob Cross has just completed arguably the most incredible rags to riches story ever witnessed in professional sport by winning the PDC World Darts Championship.

While this may appear a bold claim to non-darts followers, it's worth mentioning that until 15 months ago, Cross was an electrician, and didn't turn professional until February 2017.  There's a viral picture going around on Twitter with Cross posing with a £14 prize in a doubles competition last year - he won the grand total of £7 in that particular event, a far cry from the £400,000 prize he picked up last night at the Alexandra Palace.

At this point, it's worth making some reasonable comparisons with some other sports.  In Tennis, it would be the equivalent of a player winning a Grand Slam less than a year later from being unranked, and similar in Golf also - winning a major without having a Tour card less than a year previously.  Perhaps the golfing equivalent would be John Daly's first major triumph.

In team sports, it would be like a footballer being part of a World Cup winning team less than a year after turning professional, and a similar comparison can be made in cricket as well.  

With these examples borne in mind, it is extremely evident how unlikely Cross' achievement is across professional sport, largely because darts is an exception in professional sport in being extremely meritocratic - there really are few barriers to entry for anyone aspiring to be a professional player good enough to perform at the highest level.  There are much lower day to day expenses than a tennis or golf player will need to incur - sports where even lowly players need to compete around the world - not to mention the large investment costs that a promising junior tennis or golf player inevitably incur throughout their development.  Naturally, such barriers to entry in tennis and golf mean that many talented prospects fail to realise their potential.

Team sports such as football and cricket have different issues, in that a player can be the best player in the world, but unless they are selected by their coach or picked up in drafts/auctions, they do not have the opportunity to show the world their talents.

However, football and cricket management have a marked difference - accountability .  A football manager whose recruitment is poor, in conjunction with poor on-pitch performance, will face the sack very quickly, while an under-performing player will be quickly transferred.  The obvious reasons for this focus around media and fan pressure, and particularly from financial pressures - clubs will do everything in their power to avoid a huge drop in income from relegation, while even finishing one place higher in the Premier League can yield millions of pounds in extra prize money.  

Contrast this with cricket.  There are no such pressures.  With possibly the exception (and in some cases even this is stretching the imagination) of three areas - national teams, English counties and the IPL - teams and coaches are left in peace to continue to underachieve.  

In truth, there is very little incentive to change.  Teams will get the same income regardless of their on-pitch success, while there isn't really a system to significantly reward teams that perform well that there is in football, such as the Champions League or bigger prize money for winning leagues.

Will England get the same attendances in home series this year despite predictably flopping in The Ashes?  Almost certainly.

Will the same journeymen continue to travel the T20 circuit getting 'gig' after 'gig' despite being in obvious decline or having clear limitations?  Almost certainly - and let's not forget that the mean wage in T20 franchise leagues for players over 30 is considerably higher than for any other age bracket.

Will coaches still pick their countrymen over much better options (e.g. Australians in the IPL)?  Almost certainly.  

Will the same players continue to be left unsold in auctions and drafts, despite being cheaper and of greater quality than 'household names'?  Almost certainly.

Will teams continue to make shocking on-pitch decisions - highlighted here previously?  Almost certainly.

It's difficult to see anything changing with cricket in the short-term.  

We live in a world where the winner of the IPL is unable to defend their title as they are no longer a franchise.  Can you imagine if the Premier League told Leicester City that they were not able to defend their shock title last season?

We live in a world where domestic teams are effectively considered to be a feeder club for the national team, with teams like the Perth Scorchers and Yorkshire, often decimated by the requirements of Australia and England, respectively.  In truth there is very little incentive for a cricket team to develop young players with the potential to play for their national team, because as soon as they are good enough, they get taken away from them.  A domestic team would be better off having a squad of 15 players who were good, but 'weren't quite good enough' to play for the national team.

Again, can you imagine similar in football?  How would England manager, Gareth Southgate, get on if he told Manchester United manager, Jose Mourinho, that he could not select any English players because they were required by the national team?  The answer wouldn't be particularly polite.  In an English context, it is without doubt my opinion that running a successful county (both from a financial and on pitch success perspective) is mutually exclusive to being the national team feeder club.

We live in a world where three selectors are somehow tasked with covering 18 first-class counties in the UK, with the national team coach seemingly unwilling to pick players he hasn't seen.  Of course, any player (even world class ones) can fail on a given day, so what is a selector supposed to achieve watching players play on a one-off basis when variance will have significant bias on their opinion?  

If there was ever a task for quality analytics, this would be it, but based on England's squad and team selections, it seems likely that either their analysts don't have any influence (it would be an extremely bizarre algorithm that selected James Vince or Mason Crane, for example) or that that they don't use any analytics at all regarding squad and team composition.

Of course, England aren't alone in making bad decisions.  Virtually every T20 match features extremely questionable decisions, from dubious batting orders to bowling choices, not to mention team selection and absurd player recruitment.  

Until cricket authorities, teams and coaches have an incentive to change, then the same status quo will continue.  We've even seen Northants continually over perform their resources in England's T20 Blast competition using 'Moneyball' tactics, yet these same tactics are still viewed with suspicion by almost everyone in the sport.  

In the meantime, there is so much edge for cricket teams willing to embrace data and run their business in a meritocratic way...