The relative age effect refers to the situation where sport teams feature a disproportionate number of players born earlier in a year (relative to the competition under-age cut-off date). Essentially, players who are older and stronger are often selected, regardless if a younger player has more potential.
Recently there have been three articles published in cricket that have investigated the relative age effect. One study focused on Australian cricket, another focused on English cricket, and the third study took a global approach and targeted super-elite players at the professional level.
Let’s see what they each found.
Australia – Connor et al. (2019)
The relative age of players selected in the Cricket Australia’s national youth carnivals was assessed between 2011 and 2015 (n = 2,415). These carnivals include U15, U17, and U19 age groups for males, and U15 and U17 for females.
Results revealed a clear relative age effect across each age-group, but only for certain type of players. It was most pronounced in batters, fast bowlers, and all-rounders in males, and all-rounders in females – the skills that are more likely to benefit from early physical maturation1. Spin bowlers and wicket-keepers were largely unaffected for both males and females2.
England – McCarthy et al. (2016)
This study took the analysis one step further. They assessed 668 English players across a 10 year period, with the aim of identifying if the relative age effect remained present from youth cricket through to senior international cricket.
As expected, there was bias towards relatively older players (relative to competition under-age cut-off date) in youth national academy teams. However, this bias reversed when the players transitioned to senior international cricket – a greater percentage of relatively younger players went on to play international cricket (T20, one-day or a test match) 3.
Global super-elites – Jones et al. (2018)
A study of past and present “super-elite” male cricketers across a 20-year period (defined as being ranked in the world’s best 30 players at least once in their career , n = 262) revealed an overrepresentation of players born earlier in the year (i.e., in the first quartile relative to their under-age cut-off date) and an underrepresentation of players born later in the year (i.e., in the final quartile relative to their under-age cut-off date) for batsmen and spin bowlers. Notably, this outcome was not present for fast bowlers.
At least three conclusions can be drawn from these studies.
- The relative age effect is a genuine phenomenon that exists in youth cricket and therefore warrants scrutiny.
- Being relatively older does not appear to increase the chances of playing international cricket; however the world’s best batsmen and spin bowlers have typically been relatively older (born in the first quartile relative to their under-age cut-off date).
- The opportunities given to relatively older fast bowlers in youth cricket does not necessarily provide an advantage.
Connor, J. D., Renshaw, I., & Doma, K. (2019). Moderating factors influence the relative age effect in Australian cricket. PeerJ, 7, e6867
Jones, B. D., Lawrence, G. P., & Hardy, L. (2018). New evidence of relative age effects in “super-elite” sportsmen: a case for the survival and evolution of the fittest. Journal of Sports Sciences, 36(6), 697-703.
McCarthy, N., Collins, D., & Court, D. (2016). Start hard, finish better: further evidence for the reversal of the RAE advantage. Journal of Sports Sciences, 34(15), 1461-1465.
- Fast bowling performance, in particular, has been shown to be influenced by anthropometric and physical characteristics in junior cricketers.
- For males, there was no evidence of the relative age effect for spin bowlers or wicket-keepers in either age group. The results were less clear for females; there was an overrepresentation of spin bowlers born in the second quartile in U15 but not U18, and the relative age effect was present for wicket-keepers in U18 but not U15.
- Of the initial sample, 7% of players who were born in the final quartile (relative to competition under-age cut-off date) played at least one international match. This is in comparison to 4% from the third quartile, 2% from the second quartile and 1% from the first quartile.