Use skill to judge skill
I was listening to one of the many sports programmes on radio these days when one of my colleagues made the rather surprising statement that the former St George's College player Cordel Benbow had more natural skills than Jobi McAnuff and Gareth McCleary. The statement came from a man who has been strident in his belief that more local-based footballers should be involved in the national set-up and ran consistent with his theme that some of our local footballers are actually better than some of these hardened and seasoned overseas professionals.
I disagree with the comparison and feel my friends on radio should know better, but they are not the only Jamaicans who have a seriously warped impression of young local talent. Indeed, there is a lesson to be learnt here which is the bigger point that I really want to make, and that is the danger of overrating youth talent when comparing to senior players.
In the case of Benbow, he was an outstanding schoolboy player, but we go badly astray when we start comparing schoolboys in that way to professional adults, especially in the context of modern schoolboy football in Jamaica, which is not at a particularly high level. I have been at pains to point out that to find out if a schoolboy is more 'skilful' than a senior player who has to ply his trade against other hardened professionals, we must put the schoolboy through the same mill. He has to execute this skill, not against gangly, sometimes awkward teenagers, some of them just learning the rudiments of the game, but against seasoned, grown men.
'Skill' in the Jamaican football context is a term we use to describe the art of beating players and doing fancy tricks with the ball. We use the word incorrectly. A skilful footballer is really one who has mastered the 'skills' of the game, and dribbling past defenders is only one such. Trapping, heading, shooting, marking are all skills, and the one who exhibits a high level of competence in these disciplines is a skilful player. By the Jamaican definition, there is no such thing as a skilful defender, and that makes no sense. But even if we work with the colloquial definition that a skilful player is one who can 'salad' and 'pile' a man, we still must be careful how we rate a schoolboy player in these acts.
When the defence is suspect, it's far easier to run past them and embarrass them with some fancy footwork. To know how good a schoolboy really is, you have to put him in senior competition to test his real quality. The fact that he is an outstanding junior player does not by any means make him even a decent senior player. Sports history is packed with examples of those who shone brightly as junior players but flopped badly when they touched the bigger league. We must be careful how we talk about skills and techniques in junior players and assume that those skills and techniques would automatically match him up with seasoned players.
I gave the example on radio of how a schoolboy batsman can look 'clean' and classy when he is batting against his peers. He can appear to have impeccable technique when the standard of bowling is below par. To find out if his batting technique is better than that of a senior player, you have to make him bat against the same bowlers that the senior batsmen face. The classy 15-year-old with the supposedly great skills and techniques may look completely at sea if he is asked to face a rampaging Dale Steyn.
There are some skills a young prodigy may have which could match him up with veterans. Those are skills that don't rely on the quality of the opponents. A junior who is a good free-throw shooter in basketball, for example, is likely to be able to transfer that skill to the big stage because essentially, he doesn't need to do anything differently. The quality of senior opponents wouldn't affect his ability to replicate the mechanics of throwing a ball in a hoop. In football, a junior who is brilliant in dead-ball situations will be able to transfer that skill on any big stage because the quality of the opponents hardly matters. But the art of what we call skill in football must be judged against one's peers. To suggest that a good Jamaican schoolboy footballer is more skilful than established international acts is taking 'brambleness' a little too far.
- Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.