How old do you need to be to play international cricket? How many seasons do you need at domestic level before you are considered good enough to receive a national call up? How do we decide if a player is really is good enough to play at international level?
Traditionalists of the game would say that young cricketers should bide their time at the domestic levels so that they can understand and learn their game. But there is a growing trend amongst sporting codes for talented youngsters to be thrust into the spotlight and given the opportunity to perform earlier in their career, at a younger age. Cricket has always been a pioneer on this front, but what is best for the player?
Statistically speaking, a cricketer’s best years are between the ages of 28-32. These are the ages when batting averages are at their highest and bowling averages at their lowest.
With the increasing number of age group and junior cricket competitions being live scored and viewed across the globe on a daily basis, players and their performances are receiving exposure like never before.
Take under-16’s player Pranav Dhanawade for example. He scored 1,009 runs not out in an interschool tournament, making headlines around the world as the first person to score more than 1,000 runs in one innings in an officially recognised match and gaining maximum exposure through social media. Like him, any non-professional player can now share their feats online via digital cricket scoring, and easily become a talking point for anyone that enjoys the gentleman’s game.
If we look at the last four debutants of all test-playing nations, 30% of these players were between the ages of 19 and 23 on debut, with 4 of these being teenagers. To date a staggering 201 teens have made their test debuts across the world. Pakistan have contributed 52 players to this number, with 18 year old Mohammad Ashgar added to this list for Pakistan's test squad for Australia in December.
The most recent teenager to make their international test debut is 19 year-old Haseeb Hameed who opened the batting for England against India in Rajkot on 9 November 2016 and scored a maiden test fifty in the second innings.
Players that display exceptional talent like this are fast tracked regardless of the number of matches they have played. Alzarri Joseph played 8 first-class matches before making his test debut for the West Indies while Lahiru Kumara played a mere 8 days of first-class cricket before being drafted into the Sri Lankan test team.
Women’s cricket is also renowned for putting their faith in youngsters. Gaby Hollis Lewis (daughter of Alan Lewis) became the first international cricketer born in the 21st century when she made her debut for Ireland against South Africa on 14 September 2014. Gaby was 13 years and 166 days at the time and is the second youngest player to play Twenty20 Internationals. The record for the youngest cricketer to feature at the International level belongs to Sajjida Shah of Pakistan who made her debut at the age of 12 years and 271 days on July the 30th 2000.
There is however a counter-argument for putting youth before experience. Players like Mike Hussey and Stephen Cook scored (combined) approximately 25,000 runs in first-class cricket before their international selection. When they appeared on the international stage neither looked out of their depth and both have gone on to have remarkable playing careers to date.
Time will tell what is best for the players long-term, but the talent these youthful newcomers to test cricket possess is evident. The talent they display not only warrants them selection but their performances also justifies the faith of their coaches and selection panel’s decision to include them.
Improved coaching, high-tech training facilities, the greater number of competitions and matches being played as well as the enhanced player-development structures are reasons why players of such a young age are able to make the transition between various cricket levels seamlessly.
Age is nothing but a number. Playing international cricket is an honour for any player, regardless of their age or the number of matches they have played previously. Based on the number of talented youngsters that are chomping at the bit to breakthrough to the international scene, things are heading in the right direction at grassroots levels and like everyone that loves the game, I hope it continues.