On #firstclasscricketersfirstclassdegrees.

 

 

 

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Friends we can be pretty sure that Messrs Bayliss and Farbrace don’t order the kit, sort the stop-overs, book the buses and the umpires. They don’t frame their work around ‘equally important’ other stuff – for the players, I mean – academic stuff. Mark O’Leary does.

He does because he’s the Head Coach at the Cardiff M.C.C. University Scheme. This as many of you will know is the project that for two decades has offered both a route in to professional cricket *and* the safety net of a university education.

Initiated by the inimitable Mr G Fowler Esquire of Durham and now based around six centres across England and Wales, the scheme has played a significant role in the careers and indeed the lives of (to take current figures) some 26% of county cricketers.

But even this apparently strong result in the value-for-money department has not rendered the project immune from the administrative/cultural/fiscal or accountability-driven revolutions carving and helicopter-shotting their way through the cricket landscape.

Recent features of that hypnotic but not always helpful flux include the M.C.C. pulling out after years of noble and very much-appreciated support, business (i.e. Deloitte) pulling in, and – within the last week or so – the E.C.B. confirming that they will bankroll things, post 2020.

There had for many us been a sense that after years of low-level uncertainty, a clear, bomb-proof structure needed to be in place and that if there can be such a thing, the ECB (the original funders) seemed the natural sponsor. However just how bomb-proof, how durable, how comforting on a day-to-day basis, is the future for the scheme looking?

As an outsider but interested party, I wanted to get a handle on how this felt from within: I scooted to the capital – to Cardiff.

Mark O’Leary is tall, tall and shaven-headed. If he lumbered a bit more you might place him somewhere rather worrying – like a tube-station, maybe, skulking with the rest of The Firm – but no.

He’s one of those big guys who gives off no darknesses. Refreshingly, there’s no ‘physicality’, no sense of a man asserting big-ness or power or dominance. He’s a light, open, smiley guy, welcoming me into a narrow, functional office, not some site-of-ambush.

I say this because O’Leary is a successful Head Coach, a team leader and a bloke about 6 foot five. One might expect a degree of machismo: I’m sensing none. He may not always be calm, quietish, affable and willing to listen… but he is now.

We talk and we go for a wander round the campus – Cardiff Met.

He describes the structure of the Cardiff Process and the responsibilities he has. He stresses the genuine gratitude he feels towards the now-departed M.C.C. for their central role, not just in having the vision to fund the scheme but also, more personally, the opportunity it has afforded him to develop himself over time, through experience.

O’Leary, like his counterparts at the other centres, really is everything from coach to logistics man to quality-controller of the whole cowabunga; even more so than his opposite numbers, as the Welshman also lectures on the academic curriculum.

Sure, certain specialist roles are delegated – for example to the Strength and Conditioning or Sports Psychology team – but the Head Coach is all over everything else.  He describes this epic multi-skilling modestly, in entirely philosophical fashion, free of any of the eye-rolling many of us coaches get drawn into when relating the menial stuff, the crèche-control-thing that most of us have to endure.

My guided tour is similarly conducted in an open, engagingly informative way. A friendly word to everybody; a quiet affirmation of respect for the S & C guys, ‘whom I really should meet’; a nod to the world class stat-analysis and athlete-monitoring systems, which O’Leary oversees but sidesteps any particular credit for.

We spend time in the gyms – where the 23 players do three, testing S & C sessions a week, starting at 7.30 a.m. We linger in the ungenerous office/corridor space that is the beating heart (lols) of the Strength & Conditioning Department. Peering out I imagine visiting sixth-former applicants gawping at the magnitude of both the facilities and the challenges they are applying themselves towards: ‘awesome’.

At the perimeter of the spectacular indoor tracks – yes, plural – Dai Watts (Lead) and Chris Edwards (S & C Coach) brief me, with just a touch of quiet pride, on personal training plans, scheduling etc etc.

Dai is employed by the university across a variety of sports. Dipping briefly into anorakdom, he nevertheless makes clear that a) the cricket at Cardiff Met is kosher, in terms of the integrity and commitment required for professional sport and b) that the O’Leary curriculum is fully fit for purpose in respect of the aspiration towards exceptional performance. Crucially, I also sense that these guys between them make sure that the House of Pain is also a House of Fun.

Without any whiff of sycophancy, Mr Watts plainly respects the cricket bloke: I suspect, given the S & C man’s demeanour and own, impeccably high standards of work, this is a privilege not always gifted.

A further detail from our tour. Outdoor facilities; immaculate 3G pitches, athletics field, track – all that – tick the boxes, emphatically. But look closer. Cameras.

O’Leary expands on this. The cameras are providing extraordinary levels of information for analysts, who then guide coaches and players on movement, discipline, tactics.

It escapes me at the time but on reflection this may be less relevant to the Cardiff M.C.C.U. than to their powerfully successful football and rugby equivalents: however I note it because the inference was absolutely that the cricketers benefit from precisely the same degree of support. That is, as O’Leary says, “world class”.

We retreat to The Office to chat further.

The Head Coach briefly recounts some salient, personal cricketty-info. He’s been coaching 26 years – implausibly, given I’d have stuck him in his late thirties – delivering across all age groups and abilities up to international (Wales) standard. He’s ECB Elite Master Level 4 qualified, has an MSc. in Sports Coaching and finds himself very much in demand; workshops, fielding sessions, playing for M.C.C. all this over and above the day-job.

Sparky, as he is known to friends and comrades, is perfectly content to discuss the state of the M.C.C.U. project and to reveal that over a period of time, the E.C.B’s hierarchy – in particular Mr Graveney – have been sounding out the current centres about plans for the future. (These talks have been somewhere between discreet and full-on secret).

O’Leary confirms that the E.C.B. have undertaken to take up the funding of the scheme in 2020 and that the talks have been encouraging in several ways. Firstly – dosh.

Figures have not been offered but O’Leary’s strong sense is that the E.C.B. want this to be professional and therefore to be funded adequately, at the very least. (“The aim is to develop professional cricketers”). They are consulting the Head Coaches to take a view on their individual university’s modus operandi, to keep them accountable but also very much to discuss the how and why of what works. Graveney is, to his credit, seeking guidance as well as preparing directives.

When I ask impertinently directly about money the reply is simply that Mark doesn’t know. There’s an assurance, a commitment but as yet no figures attached. O’Leary expects things to continue pretty much as they are but we talk about the possibility, raised in the media in the last few days, that other, probably additional centres may come in – that there may be a tender process.

Firstly, there is no sign of concern at this prospect; O’Leary being understandably quietly confident that the Cardiff M.C.C.U. should and indeed will thrive beyond any putative competitive scenario.

Secondly, the developments seem more about expansion than contraction, other centres being established at new venues. In our conversation the possibility is raised that funding may need to be spread more thinly over a bigger number of centres but… all hypothetical. O’Leary is planning to go on planning.

Guess what? I’m unashamedly a supporter of the scheme so offer the Cardiff man a freebie – the opportunity to make the case for his own process, his own course. Which brings us directly to the success stories, the names.

Or it would if either Mark O’Leary or myself accepted that this is just about transferring bodies into County Cricket. In a word, the Head Coach describes the rich combination of the whole Cardiff M.C.C University experience – education, discipline, bantz, performance-level sport – as “irreplaceable”.

Yes, the brief is to prepare able and talented cricketers specifically for a career in the sport but I imagine we’d all like to think (even?) the funders might get that this is bigger than cricket. (I know they do: the ECB are exploring possible community links to the scheme – prompting a diversion from yours truly, during our recorded conversation. Think Foxy Fowler; go listen).

A further brief note is in order, here. Mark O’Leary makes very clear in our podcast that there are three constituent parts to Cardiff MCCU – all of whom contribute significantly in terms of players and commitment. To give one example, Cardiff University – led by my old mucker Lee Herring won the British Universities & Colleges Cup (for cricket) last year and showed strongly in the Premier League South. The third element of the capital’s cricketing uni-scheme is the University of South Wales. I happened to visit Mark in his office at Cardiff Met. 

Heather Knight is maybe the highest profile name. World Cup Winner, world class player and captain: was at Cardiff. Jack Leach, who recently collected his first full England cap, likewise.

The trajectories, the angles vary. Jake Libby got into the scheme during his second year – it’s competitive and you have to re-compete, as it were, with every intake. Now has a three year contract at Notts.

Alex Thompson and Tom Cullen are particular sources of pride, for O’Leary, as they ‘came from nowhere’ and truly emerged during their time in Cardiff. Pro cricketers, former #crimsoncaps; i.e. part of the O’Leary Massive.

Of the current squad of 23, two are women. They work and train to the same level as the blokes, play in the university women’s team but are also involved at Western Storm (Taunton) where they get their elite cricket. It may be, incidentally, that one of the developments, come the ECB takeover, is a greater emphasis or investment in women players.

For obvious reasons there’s a strong, symbiotic relationship with Glamorgan. Many of the pictures adorning the O’Leary office feature past or present players, alumni of the scheme. Andrew Salter (formerly Cardiff Met.) has become a fixture in Robert Croft’s side; there will be more like him.Roughly a dozen of Glammy’s current first or second team squads are, or have been crimson caps.

To illustrate the diverse routes in and out we get to the example of Cameron Herring. Herring played three years of County Cricket before he entered Cardiff Met. He then brought an impressive and no doubt inspiring lump of nous and experience to the Cardiff side.

The stories go on; some tragic – Matt Hobden was a crimson cap – some hilarious and many which evidence both the completion of the Performance-Level Cricket Mission and the rich, holistic development we discuss in the podcast.

The whole points to a brilliant, well-executed programme borne aloft by the impressive and sustained commitment of students and staff alike. If the key aspiration for the man driving all this is to achieve Performance-Level Cricket Coaching, the box, for me is ticked.

However, I hear him noting that other boxes are available – are ‘irreplaceably’ a part of the Cardiff M.C.C. University package. O’Leary adds further that players may theoretically be temporarily dropped, if their academic work slips. So there is work, there is cricket work and there is camaraderie, fun: remember that?

As it happens, on the day of my visit, the universe, as so often, interveneth. Students are receiving their degree results. O’Leary politely absents himself in favour of the laptop screen, for a moment or two, as the scores come in. They’re really good.

 

 

The podcast/discussion around which this ramble is almost constructed, is on the way. Stay tuned! 

 

 

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