Another statement.

Let me *work through* my angst, first. I should be sat in the Press Box at Edgbaston, today.  I should be.  But because a) I have a useless laptop b) the accreditation process is understandably medium-convoluted c) something, somewhere went wrong… I ain’t. Despite what I took to be a confirmation.

So breeeeeeaaaaathe. So relaaaaaaax. Then on.

England Aus. We think it’s an ultimate – a confluence of mighty, daft-glorious challenges unrivalled throughout the universe. We know (don’t we?) that we kid ourselves. But surely there’s something wonderful about this, as The Game takes on an exotic uberlife transcending the tradition for rationality, decency, maturity.   Perfectly reasonable, in this context, to dress as a banana, or a Mexican, or a Fish Finger, n’est-ce-pas?

We’re freed-up, even those of us who think we might yet reclaim the word ‘civilised’ into acceptable conversation, into believing we’re big enough (in the Eng Aus moment) to bark rather than park the prejudices around colonies, around deportations and stuff, and judge and enjoy, without yaknow clutter – without really offending.

Everything becomes cobblers; everything becomes inoffensive ; everything’s relative.

I find myself happy to risk alienating my sagacious Aussie oppos, rolling around in the chocolate mudbath that is the bantzfest around Poms v Shackledraggers. I’m happy to unload The Very Worst of Me on David Warner as he strides bullishly out – or sheepishly back – from the wicket. I don’t pray but I pray Starc has a mare – has a Mitchell Johnson-onna-really-bad-day kindofa spell, because that’s only right, given he’s a threat, yes? And I can do all this because it’s broadly understood.

In all seriousness, this may be sport’s finest achievement; the generous appreciation that shockingly prejudicial bawling against some bloke you *in that actual moment* hate for his squat Aussie machismo is okaaay because… this is sport. And his lot will do the same to us. And mostly this self-polices itself. (You guys put the necessary qualifications in here – I’m on a roll!)

Tuffers and Aggers on the radio get into this. Or at least they comment on the specialness of the contest, the atmosphere. Earthy, noisy, boozy Edgbaston feels the right place to have well-meant philosobantz: during a game the Aussies must win, with feelings running high over the Oz-hating English weather.

Opening over from Wood is a massacre, which like the first of the game from Ball draws no runs. Finch and Warner are wafting or worse(?) slashing at mid-air. Then bat makes scratchy contact and the Aussies find themselves at a very fortunate eleven for nought after three.

To their credit – probably, it’s beyond risky – the visitors respond by going on the attack. They go from looking flummoxed to looking a threat.

In fact a few overs further in they are flying – a real turnaround from those very early moments, when Wood in particular was close to unplayable. Suddenly the level of aggression from the Australian batsmen is extraordinary: they smash it.

Readers overs about forty may still be trying to come to terms with the notion that it’s okay thinking, from opening batters, to go all out when (actually) they’re getting mullered by the bowlers. Whether the thinking centres on limitless faith in those who follow them or a kind of cultural psychosis ingrained by a worryingly needy and/or alpha-masculine coach, who can say? But the gamble paid off, handsomely, as Finch and Smith picked off increasingly mixed bowling from Stokes and Plunkett, transforming the energy and direction of the game.

Warner was first to depart – caught behind off Wood, for 21. Never mind.

Finch followed him on 68, when there seemed more danger of Australia entering the Running Away With It and Thumbing Their Noses phase. Despite that loss, with Smith now in and cruising towards fifty – and Henriques sparkling, albeit fitfully – the gallant SD’s were surely ahead on points around twenty overs.

But then Rashid bowls a maiden: there are twitches. The England leggie is looking composed – comfortable.

Henriques has come in at 136 for 2, announcing himself with a classic square drive followed immediately by stunning pull (both for 4). He looks good but then misreads Rashid and is nonchalantly caught, low down by Plunkett. Momentum change?

No, not quite. Smith is going well and the run-rate is decent plus: England though, work at this.

Swann on Test Match Special is notably complimentary about Rashid, who looks the part and critically appears to have almost completely eliminated the shocker that any of us might despatch. *Clears throat*. Around this Rashid Axis, Plunkett fights back, Wood lurks and the team – it feels like a team effort – strikes.

England – muscular, fit-looking, on it looking England – find something. Smith lobs a daft one, then Maxwell, Wade and Starc fall almost together. Crucial wickets, crucial times.

Australia find themselves at 245 for 7 when it  might have been 300 for 2, with overs remaining. At the fifty, Morgan’s impressively determined posse keep Aus down to 277 for 9 when 340 had looked very gettable.

A brief mention for one signature moment – and yup, it could be that this is a sympathy vote thing. Roy took the kind of two-phase boundary catch previous international cricketers simply would not have contemplated. Magnificently, triumphantly. But a glorious farewell, perhaps? Who cares? In the moment even the non-bananas went bananas.

Let’s pause on this though; we need to talk about Jason, right?

If you haven’t heard he went for 4, lbw to Starc.

My hunch is a) he should probably be rested (and will probably return) b) you really could put Bairstow in there – to open. (Aggers on TMS made the reasonable point that  in the semi England’s openers will not face express pace, meaning Bairstow might be marginally less exposed should he be given that nerve-shredding job. I might add that Bairstow’s nerve and his eye seem in pret-ty good order.)

Faith in players is all very well but this is a competitive business where quite rightly there is pressure on places constantly. ‘Keeping faith’ is great but may set a dangerous precedent… and there is a tournament here to be won. I admit it’s a hunch but I’d get Bairstow in there.

Re-start post the rain and Morgan booms first two balls to the boundary. *That making a statement thing*. But the skipper is flirting with danger – witness a near-chance or two shortly after. He’s slogging and it feels closer to the reckless than the realistic end of the batting spectrum.

Whilst it works – even whilst it works – it’s bum-squeakingly dynamic entertainment: I get that this is the modern way and wait for Prince’s ‘Sign of the Times’ to boom out from the speakers.

51 for 3. Hales and Root gone. Morgan being heavily examined by the Aus quicks in rotation. Shortish. Both sweet, violent runs and rather troubling misses.

The crowd are loving it – by that I think I mean Morgan’s ballsiness. The skipper is flailing with some passion, black-eyed and beyond determined to dominate. Crucially, he’s making it work.

Well before England actually get unassailably topside, there’s a hilarious and only mildly vindictive chorus of ‘He’s going home, he’s going home, he’s going, Finch is going home!’ Great fun and fascinating to those of us who still view Warner as Offender-in-Chief against the Motherland. Theories, folks?

It’s not long before all of us – in or out of the Hollies Stand – recognise a counter-attacking classic, from Morgan & Stokes. The latter plainly world class now, the former a brave, hugely skilled slapper & manouevrer of the ball.  The hitting is largely pure, the intent raw intimidating.

To do this against a truly frightening bowling attack is really something. Aus, as Eng get to 128 for 3, look if not despondent then already unable to respond. Edgbaston, sensing England are undeniable, launches party mode.

177 for 3 and Oz, despite reverting to pace from that allegedly feared express attack, are looking impotent, almost humiliated as both Stokes and Morgan reach for their most outrageously compelling best… and maybe beyond.

The power of the hitting is frightening and visibly demoralising for those on the receiving end. The crowd of course lap it up, targetting Finch with more of those *pretty good-natured* verbals. They see the mighty Aussies have no answer. Not Cummins, not Starc, not Hazlewood. Skipper Morgan and the Million Dollar Man render them an irrelevance as they steam towards a 159-run partnership. The brummies, bless ’em, are in Absolute Dreamland.

Maxwell weirdly-comically avoiding a reasonably regulation catch only adds to the reverie – as does Cummins when palming a thunderbolt from Buttler onto the boundary rope. Guffaw, cruelly copiously, Hollies Stand? Just a little.

Against the inviolable grain, the onslaught stalls briefly with Morgan comprehensively run out for 87 from 81 balls.

Clearly the quality and timing of the partnership puts Morgan and Stokes beyond criticism… but they looked set to bring England home. Imagine how important that might have been, oh fellow students of cod psychology? To crush the Aussies, in front of a full house, whilst KNOCKING THEM OUT?!?

Crazy-churlish to allege an opportunity missed, yet I imagine I’m not the only one carrying that thought as the captain departs?

195 for 4 off 32 becomes 240 for 4. Because Stokes remains imperious and the lad Buttler has come in… and he can bat.

Fabulously, the terminal rain comes immediately as Stokes smashes a boundary, to gather his ton. That’s only right. Despite carrying a knock (remember?) the man’s played like a god for 102 undefeated. Difficult to know where to start with the positives – this really was emphatic.

Some minor faffing about, a little confusion and it’s all over, confirmed: end of innings, end of match. A blessing for the Aussies, poor loves.

 

Slaven to the rhythm(n?)

Not sure how comfortable with the idea I am, but have been slightly comparing (if that’s a thing?) my medium-local cricket team with Premier League ‘equivalents’. Something to do with straining to get or put a handle on the role or leadership style of Robert Croft. Because Glamorgan – in fact based exactly 100 miles away – is my team.

The redaction back to footiestuff – as though that’s the Natural Yardstick – concerns me a tad but put that down to historical-familial linkage. Much as the righteous heart of me turns away from the diving, the feigning, the insufferable and delusional arrogance of too many contemporary football legends, I am in it (football) for life. Without pardon.

Cricket, meanwhile, insinuated a way in subtly and built over time. I played cricket as a wee lad, loving bowling from the first moment: however post comprehensive school (for reasons I won’t bore you with now) I flitted in and out of the game, returning fleshed-out and mature to coach, work for Cricket Wales and then really get back into it in my (ahem) middle years.

I now follow Glamorgan, from my hundred mile distance, ever more keenly. The daft-beautiful tribal nonsense-thing has properly kicked in.

This feels great, if challenging. Given the voluptuous up-and-down-ness of the current Glammy trajectory, I’m Kinda Concerned, of nr Tyddewi. And I’m wondering if it’s the ubiquity of fickleness itself – or what? – that draws me towards dubious analogies with more spiteful sports… and (ya know) Slaven Bilic.

Glamorgan under Croft just sounds right – and probably is. Former player, of great distinction and unquestioned commitment. Committed welshman – plus! Croft takes his archetype shooting, fishing and singing: slings his arm round it, man-hugs it, banters with it, in the dressingroom, sportsbar, tv studio. I reckon he broods with it, whilst softly crooning Canon Lan, wader-deep in the Tawe.

This is not (I promise you) to patronise the man. Bob Croft is loved and respected by many for his flawless, brilliant, imperfect, unstill, sanguine-genuine welshness but he is Head Coach at Glamorgan because of cricket; knowledge and nous.

Croft, I have felt, has the potential to be truly inspirational – a quality many coaches simply lack. It’s not in their biology, never mind their c.v. – however impressive, however legitimising. The Glammy coach’s strengths and weaknesses will increasingly inevitably be looked at as time goes on but few will question his ability to stir the blood of his players. Which is where (probably?) Bilic comes in.

Croft and Bilic share the p-word – the one that salespeople or businesspeople who should be stood against the wall and shot increasingly claim. (Shoot them for their impudence, their lifeless, dullards’ cheek, their hard-horny-shell-like unawareness; for they know nothing of… Passion!)

The geetar-playing Croat has it. The bloke from Swansea, too. Real, human, kosher, bonafide passion – the sort that implies a degree of poetry, of creativity, as well as that thing where you’d fancy sharing a boozy night out. Bilic and Croft are bigger than their sports – and this is why we are hopeful.

Today Bilic meets/met the West Ham board, in what the papers are characterising as a) crucial talks and/or b) routine, post-season discussions. Could be that like Croft he is both loved and under some pressure. Pressure because a) it comes with the territory and b) neither fella has sufficiently gathered his troops. The Happy Hammers have barely chortled, Glammy are steepling between Ingram’s brilliance and raw uncompetitiveness. Let me say now I hope both come through it (whatever it is) and go on to glory.

But what glory? What’s possible, in the nearish future? For West Ham maybe a cup, for Glamorgan likewise? What would turning it round look like?

Notwithstanding the brave retreat currently being fought by Ingram and partner in the four-dayer against Notts, in which at this very moment Chris Cooke is currently – perhaps symbolically – being treated for a blow to the head, Glamorgan have lately too often been battered. They appear off the pace in the longer format and were frankly wildly inconsistent in the LV One Day tournament, failing to progress.

Rudolph, the captain and theoretically the international-class statesman amongst a reasonably youngish group, is also under the spotlight. More than Noble (or whoever is West Ham’s skipper) might be. The role of the cricket captain is broader and  arguably more intellectually-demanding than the fooball equivalent but shares, clearly some fundamentals. You have to play well and you have to lead.

For Rudolph, this means more than anything that he has to get runs, against the fiercest, freshest bowling the opposition can muster… and he has to keep on doing that.

At every level in cricket the performance of the opening bats is crucial – even when (as say, in junior junior games) the result just doesn’t matter. Batters three, four and five settle, their whole experience of the game is transformed positively if the openers just see it out for a while, then get comfortable.

Glamorgan have rarely been in this position. Rudolph has (from memory) one much-needed ton to his name this season but his position will, as they say, be being looked at. He cannot lead, truly, without scoring pret-ty heavily.

Croft will have a big call to make on this – assuming agreements are not already in place. He must also seriously address what feels like a team-wide tendency to either gift-wrap wickets, or concede them somewhere on that spectrum between the mad reckless and the careless. Glamorgan batters have to stay and bat. More.

Of course Croft is aware of this – and no doubt working hard, pushing his players hard. Would be fascinating to know just how much Croft is prepared to blur the lines/protect his players/genuinely accept ‘positive cricket’ and/or ‘expressing yourself’ as an explanation for near-humiliation. I imagine he gets angry but also wants that positivity, not just from his precious jewel-of-the-moment (Ingram) but from likely lads Donald, Lloyd and co.

Glamorgan’s gaffer – and the man above, the impressively assured and committed Mr H Morris – are plainly and rightfully trying to find a way through meaningful encouragement of welsh talent AND via less popular (though necessary) judicious recruitment, with presumably smaller resources than most ‘bigger’ counties. They are also clearly targetting white-ball success. You would hope that Croft’s powerful bond with the county might suit a high energy, adrenalin-rich culture:  this year’s T20 Blast is feeling important, already.

Players talk of rhythym(n)s – of feeling good. Movement feeling natural, the game flowing or feeling easy or even energising, despite the tensions. I’m not neutral here but if I was, I’d still be hoping Croft (and Bilic) can charm, bully, or conduct their men towards that magical, tuneful, expressive flow.

 

This time it’s personal. It always is.

I’m finding it difficult to bear the news about Ugo Ehiogu. Not because I knew him, or supported Villa or Boro’, or have avidly followed his life and career inside or outside of football. Something has connected, though. I am genuinely saddened and undone in a way you’re going to have to give me time to describe, at a moment when words are inadequate.

Ugo was, to me, a really good player cut cruelly, cruelly short. I know nothing of him as a person but I promise you I totally get the weight of this. The depth of the grief, the merciless bleakness – the shock. Unbelievable as it may sound, I understand. For me and mine, this is about hearts.

It’s about hearts and possibly artsy indulgences – for which I should probably apologise in advance. However I want to make a contribution here, despite the likely inappropriateness, the embarrassment, the intimidatingly personal whorl I’m about to unleash; so I’m going on.

My dad was a sportsman and (actually, I came to realise) a great human. He died of a cardiac arrest, on a badminton court, playing with his mates, on a Sunday night, aged forty-four.

It was February. It was dark, it remains a blur.

I was sixteen or seventeen. Some word had come back that something had happened and my mother was whisked off. I remember one of my three brothers quietly saying to me, as I innocently got on with the most banal of things, that ‘ this really might be significant’. I had no conception of what he meant.

My mother returned, looking both shocked and calm. Her sister – who had ‘lost’ her husband (a doctor, at 38!) to heart disease about a year before – was physically supporting her. My mum said ‘I’m sorry to tell you, kids, that he’s gone – your father’s died. And there’s never been and never will be another one like him’.

My Auntie Marie couldn’t stop herself crying ‘yes… there has been – there has been’ before we wept, together.

I carry this loss every moment of every day. I have in some sense counted the days and years ever since with a shared, maybe schizophrenic focus;

1. to pour good energy in

2. to absolutely deny the possibility – deny, deny! – that I could leave my own wife and kids in the same situation.

I notched something when I went past forty-four a dozen years ago. I notched something too, later, when I had time in the back of ambulances, then hospitals, having mysteriously ‘gone’; when we had immense banter as some bloke put a ‘tinna sardines’ (an ‘at rest’ pacemaker) into my chest. I did this/do this utterly fearlessly, because I am recognising but denying – positively – still.

My next unspoken goal is to get both my kids past their teens and into Proper Adulthood (nearly there). Then there’ll be another marker-point, another effectively sub-conscious notch, done with that same unshakeable calm. Because I am not letting anything happen to me – because I do believe that I can, by act of will, persist into daft-glorious (in my case) Oldish Age.

But what’s this got to do with anything?

Our own family tragedies changed our lives. Sounds glib? Powerfully, devastatingly, inspiringly true. We learned about accepting sadness as part of the richness. I became powerfully angry and committed and I hope inviolably generous. I became (by all means chortle) An Artist Who Responds. I lost all that crap about being ashamed to say stuff deep or loving in public. My essence became truer and more determined, better… as a way of fighting back, perhaps?

I say all this because I think maybe the universe – maybe a particular family? – needs this kind of energy, today. Hearty stuff, stuff that’s de-baggaged, de-peer-group-pressured: fearless. I also want to say something about health – what health means.

The implication here is plainly that I do believe we can make some meaningful contribution to our own state of wellness by being positive and open. Let me both re-tick that box and contradict it by saying something about lifestyle and diet.

As a mob we’re a disgrace to our wonderful planet. We’re wasters, we’re soulless, medium-heartless irriots with an insultingly low capacity to think or act well. This applies particularly pointedly to issues around health.

Where to start with the examples? Parents with young kids get masses of pretty good information about healthy eating and exercise from Primary Schools yet virtually no families eat truly well. Kids grow up on coke and fanta and Mcdonalds; they eat pre-prepared meals. Hardly anybody cooks fresh on a daily basis. No matter your budget or your background, this is unacceptable. Our hearts – our systems – are paying for this.

So I suppose this is a warning.

Let me tell you another cruel story – one I hope certain members of my own family don’t read. I have a strong, childhood memory of being slightly in awe and certainly slightly jealous of the tray on our cousins’ kitchen table. On it were always three or four bottles of what we used to call ‘pop’.

We never had pop. But they had red or excitingly lime-green or yellowish pop. Always. On their table. This was the family whose father died at thirty-eight – the doctor.

I’m going to compound my judgemental rashness here by adding in that two of the children from this family – of which there were four – are now morbidly obese, with acute diabetes. Last time I saw one of them he told me fairly cheerily he didn’t expect to see sixty.

These are brilliantly clever people. They would have to concede that they’ve been relatively advantaged. I sometimes wonder if they haven’t got my Indestructibility Thing arse about face ; that they’ve got some death-wish going on – some self-hatred, some Punishment Thing as a result of their own heart story.

Now I know I need to say something about that use of ‘morbidly obese’. I accept it sounds horrendously judgemental – possibly unacceptable. But I cannot help but feel that those that are dangerously big have to accept some level of responsibility for their predicament. (And it is a predicament.) The warnings are out there – the tragedies, too.

I suspect more families exercise well than eat well – just not well enough, often enough or with enough enjoyment. Thus, as a race, we are unfit. (Again… pejorative word! But GREAT WORD!!) We have to work on this. As a society. By pressuring government and by making good choices.

One of the things I know my old man would be pleased about is that the bottom line with the thing I do – working for Cricket Wales – is it gets people moving about the place. He’d like that.

Keith Winston Walton was

a) (briefly) British Army 400 metres/yards champ

b) skipper of Macclesfield Town

c) (I think) bold enough to turn down Manchester City as a schoolboy, because he wanted to play full-back for Sale RFC

d) generally (weirdly?) a fit bloke

e) alongside my grandpa (ex-MU)) my hero.

Make that IS my hero. He was no intellectual, he was no artist but he poured out the finest, most positive energy into the universe that you could imagine. I grieve him still, because we lost him, crazy young.

So… I know it makes sense – it’s essential – to do the Good Healthy Thing. And – whatever the reasons for their own, terrible loss – I feel, for the family of Ugo Ehiogu, I really do.

Changed my life.

I may have dreamt it – certainly as of now, I have no proof. So really I should go check, somehow. Except Tenby isn’t heavily stacked with Wisden Emporia(?) so that checking process isn’t that straightforward.

I’ve heard from medium-authoritative sources that I have a nod in this year’s Almanack; a mention.

In fact this under-characterises the moment. One of the writers/editors/compilers of that noble tome has twittered to the above effect.

Even allowing for Soshull Meedya’s capacity for fake news this surely registers as CONFIRMATION OF SOMETHING. Bugger it, I’m going to take it that way, REGISTERING MY EXCITEMENT in the only way I know how – by writing something about how this mad, deep, luscious, illusory moment feels. Sincerely – as though on drugs – as per.

But hold. Post what my yoga teacher (and wife) would sagely describe as a ‘conscious breath’ and notwithstanding the outbreak of a particularly cruel breed of dream, I feel a soundbite coming on: my life is transformed.

*That mention* is as we speak (or wash, or drive, or stare strangely obsessively into the mirror) legitimising everything, vindicating everything, making right everything, including the following;

  • all my qualities
  • all my qualifications
  • all my opinions
  • the general unattractiveness of… that face.

At a stroke all the things I ever said or will say in front of cricket people of whatever sort have a certain weight. In brief, I’m gold-plated.

So here (maybe after the conscious breath fogs the innocent glass, then passes?) are the repercussions; the unplanned, unchained, unthinkable thoughts. My ideas.

  • Enjoy.
  • Ignore.
  • Puff yer chest out, fella.
  • Shut up, you utter donkey.
  • Be really, really grateful. Fly to Australia and say thankyou to Melinda Farrell. Drive to The Midlands (I think) and give George Dobell an alarmingly familiar hug. Tweet something to @barneyronay @chrisps01 @TheMiddleStump and everybody else who’s been gracious enough to support my baby – cricketmanwales.com
  • Note to the universe that I’ve never met any of these people (and may never) so/but a) it feels good that they are palpably lovely humans and b) they’ve said nice things, which may or not be relevant to this moment.
  • Wonder who’s actually read what?
  • Kerriist!! Wonder (for a nanosecond) how embarrassing, really, some of the posts are, then swerve course to dare to contemplate whether someone might not just say

Hey @cricketmanwales not only is that bloody good but would you go to Sri Lanka/West Indies/Lords to write about it FOR US… and we’ll pay you something?

  • Wonder exactly who it is I should be offering coffees/hand relief to in order to further my prospects… and then promptly bin that notion.
  • Breathe again and know – really know – that ce sera sera and anyway my indy-looniness mitigates against most ‘opportunities’… and probably always will… and this is fine. Absolutely.
  • Sing the following into the mirror – defiantly, in the happiest of furies –

but if you can stand the test

you know your worst is better than their best!

(Human League. And me, fairly often.)

  • Wonder if this really will help with ECB Media Accreditation. Resolve to take a passport pic and get that bloody form in.
  • Return to the slight fear that I am God of the Unwise, as well as (obviously) God of the Unwise Word.
  • Then feel good. Because though of course I’ve courted retweets and bombarded the timelines of a few folks with me-ness, I know I’ve put my own voice out there. And this feels important.

Now. IS there a quality bookshop in Tenby?

 

 

Day in the life of.

So up at 6.50 to do the domestics. Wash up, in a haze, reply absently to the dog’s effusive welcome. Get daughter up. Scramble through shower/shave routine whilst porridge bubbling. Get wife up. Take dog out then eat porridge, blueberries, banana on return. Know motor’s loaded with multifarious Cricket Things so safe to exit rapidly. Forget phone. Go back.

Cosheston. Rain. Have missed (due to general fluster) the facebook message telling me session can’t go ahead. Don’t care – or rather don’t worry. Know a) this is a fabulous, supportive wee school where the staff will be pleased to acommodate an @cricketmanwales special (The Cricket Assembly) b) that this will be fun enough and genuinely helpful re the signposting of kids to local clubs.

Former Wales international and all-round deelightful human (and Head) generously in favour of said assembly. So 9.20-odd, as the rain pours, me and years 3/4/5/6 talk sport. Had feared that as I have ‘only’ a relatively past-its-sell-by-date Chance to Shine vid (Jessie J, Domino!) it might feel bit lame. But na.

Clip myself into the audiokit-thing for the hearing-challenged (that the right phrase?) girl in the posse and off we go.

We start with an observation that maybe WHY questions are kinda tough. But… why am I here? What’s that all about?

Wonderful range of responses, from kid X telling me exactly what he thinks I want to hear to eye-moisteningly sincere stuff about inspiring children to be ‘really healthy and happy’. The usual mixture of blankness and soaring-because-childish profundity.

I am absolutely comfortable telling folks I believe in sport. Believe it’s wonderful, believe it transforms and enriches. I find the right words to make children listen to all that – that ‘message’ about activity being essential on a zillion levels. They hear lots of dull stuff about health and happiness but I want them to believe that movement/activity and for me maybe particularly TEAM SPORTS hold a special kind of magic.

Naturally, I get them to tell me why they love their horse-riding or swimming or rugby or  whatever. Then we watch a hugely upful video about the brilliance of cricket. And Jessie J does an Indian/Mexican wave. And does dive-catches and rolls about and smiles – no, beams.

Righteously, sisters, women feature in the on-white-board cricket action. So I ask the kids if  ‘it was all blokes’.

No-o!

We talk about how soo-perb Anya Shrubsole is – and stuff – how it’s not just for blokes. How there’s an argument that our best team over recent years *may not be* Chelski or Man Yoo or Swansea or Ospreys but may actually be the England & Wales Women Cricket Team. (Because yes, Ffion, when you’re unbelieeeeevably ace at cricket you will or can play for England… and Wales.)

So I talk unashamedly, proudly, psychotically honestly about sport for good, for health, for your mates, for the craic, for good. And – because it’s siling down – I do this three times, at three Primary Schools, today.

Different contact hours then. No outdoor boomathons or multiskill darts and dashes or small-sided games. So less time: instead shortish but realish corporate messaging. Meaning time to knock out a blogette and also to rest up a little and re-charge before leading the coaching at our Training Hub South tonight; this for teen girls and women, experienced players and slightly nervy beginners.

Somehow, some goodly feelings in the Pembrokeshire ether have genied-up two new womens’ teams for the county’s Ladies League. Whether we Cricket Wales peeps can take any credit for this is very much open to question. More likely the commitment and generosity of people like Mickey Marsh at Kilgetty CC and just a couple of key individuals at Lawrenny CC, plus some awareness of abstract but hopefully positive forces in the sporty consciousness – Womens World Cup/big upturn in visibilty looming – have enabled important progress.

The Tenby Training Hub has been an outstanding success, given no history of training sessions, given reasonable wariness around a) a bloke like me leading b) self-consciousness/alleged lack of cricket skills. More than 20 attended the first Thursday (7.30, Tenby Leisure Centre, Free!!) and these numbers seem likely to continue.

Thus far, ably supported by the aforementioned Mr Marsh and powerfully buoyed by the attendance of some Proper Quality Women Cricketers, our sessions have been real good fun, with a significant dollop of generous role-modelling from experienced players facilitating great learning and universally brill application. We’re running six sessions in total before the Pembrokeshire Ladies League – the only one in Wales – gets going.

In terms of what we’ve actually done – what the sessions look like – I’ll offer the following:

  • we’ve gotten folks (women, girls) moving. By daft-friendly, slightly buzztastic warm-up games. Which are about smiling because you’re moving/chasing/beginning to really get at it.
  • We’ve kept technical stuff to a relative minimum but gotten into throwing, posture, dynamism – how we need to find a way to enjoy fielding – to be in the game.
  • We’ve bowled. And tried to feel what control of that ball – that seam! – feels like. (All this with a wind-ball-like ball… but one with a decent seam, right?)
  • Session two we went batting, after an enjoyably energetic netballistic warm-up.
  • We apologetically but fairly briefly went through questions around length – short length, in fact. We marked on a pitch (for all to see and discuss) where a short, good length and full delivery might land.
  • We centred on the short ball, reasoning that pull shots would feel good, would be do-able, would introduce notions around footwork and maybe recognition of healthy instincts… like going back to make time?)
  • We got a bit concerned that things might be concept-heavy, so we smashed plenty of balls, in small groups, before re-gathering and offering a backfoot defence option.

Generally, coach looked, hard, because the range of comfort and understanding and execution of shots was excitingly ‘challenging’.

Last week’s was a top session. Tonight I’m thinking let’s get forward… and let’s hit some more.

4.13 p.m. Weirdly copious lump of time to lose… in Tenby… before tonight. Maybe I should write something?

JD. Thank you.

(Thinks). Wow. Now that’s class. That may be the best series of cover drives I’ve seen! Powerful, really powerful hitting… but so, so STILL!

The scene? Tenby Leisure Centre. Another dollop of coach education for a bundle of us clumsy amateurs. John Derrick, of Glamorgan – the ‘bloke who was leading the Performance Programme’ (or something) was ‘in’ – was demonstrating.

John hit the ball beautifully but boy did he hit it. Repeatedly. Hard. The strokes were controlled but not flashy, there was no sense that he was showing off – grandstanding, we later learned, just not being his thing. John was just demonstrating – like us coaches used to do in the oldish days.

It was beyond striking, in every sense.

The fact that he went on to reduce a glorious but complicated ‘technical skill’ (or the coaching thereof) to a single word has remained with me since that moment, as a kind of touchstone and a warning against my own verbosity. The execution both of the shot but also the art of coaching was about as perfectly judged and quietly impressive as anything I’ve witnessed in sport. And I’m medium ancient… and have done loads of sport.

John, bat whirling magnificently in that mighty but controlled arc, creamed the ball past cover or mid-off or wherever he wanted to cream it and said only… HEAD. It was all he needed to say.

This was probably ten years ago, or more. I’ve seen John irregularly regularly ever since – either at coach workshops or for gatherings of the Cricket Wales/Glam Cricket Massive. Can’t claim to be soulmates but we tended to have a laugh, to get on.

We’ll all have our own memories, now, poised on that spectrum from the plain daft to the ecstatically triumphant to the utterly tragic. I wasn’t there when he won trophies with Glamorgan or worked in South Africa, so mine will be mid-ranking; but important nevertheless, to me.

I sat next to JD at an alarmingly civilised Christmas Party at The Cricketers near the Swalec a year or two back. I saw him do the office thing, the strategic planning thing. But mainly we met in sports halls, or similar. In his element, in other words.

John could just do it. Play, coach, say the right thing. He was rooted and calm and he had the necessary crafts. He had energy gathered and he focused it. Once, after a particular coaching session, he made a point of eyeballing me and told me what I’d done was

brilliant – seriously.

It was a quiet couple of words. Undemonstrative. Genuine. It means even more now than it did then. Because we’ve lost him.

John’s gone, cruelly, another victim, another good ‘un ripped away too early. Some of us had been gently primed for news of this sort… but it barely helps. Time to give up on faith or retreat into something darkish and miserable? No. Absolutely no.

Back in Tenby I was struck by not just the quality of what John did, but by the simplicity, modesty, authenticity of everything around him. Folks do have an aura or feel about them: JD’s was solid, somehow – if that’s possible for an ethereal phenomenon? He gave off unquestionably good, honest, positive vibes, somehow without seeming to do that much.

Sure his presence was proper blokey – stocky, smiley, straight-talking – but he/we were all comfortable, there was easy engagement. Crucially for a coach you believed him and believed in him.

But why wouldn’t you? John Derrick was an elite level player and coach as well as an elite level bloke. His career will be charted well enough in the tributes that will pour in. John played, John coached – it’s on the record.

There’s more. The sheer volume of love and respect over-flowing from the various social media channels is testament to something beyond that list of achievements – impressive though it may be. John was special.

He was hugely loved and respected, at all levels of the game, across Wales, across the continents! John earned that love by being great company as well as a great player, Level 4 Coach, mentor. He was true. He was with you. He was genuinely, solidly, ever-reliably there.

We’re advised, these days, to seek closure in matters of trauma or difficulty – to resolve things. So let’s accept that John has left us. But is our engagement with him over? Do we need to (in any sense) leave him behind? No. Because he was fabulous… and therefore invincible… and good.

A Ready Position.

Winter nets. Arriving (as coach) in the dark and damp. Lugging those several bags of clobber from the boot to that ubiquitous over-varnished, unforgiving floor. Casting a glance for stray implements. Breathing and considering. Resolving once more to unmake that whole concept of Winter Nets.

Be honest, most nets are garbage – or if not garbage, then significant under-achievements. Folks just bowl, folks just bat. Of course that can be fine for some finding of grooves but more often – because there’s negligible focus – folks are arseing around. Even good bats swing reckless and wild; because they can; because there’s nothing on it; because ‘it’s nets’.

Your leanest, meanest fastest bowler – him with the peroxide flash – bounces and beams the club sec, for a laugh. Then he takes the innocent description ‘ag-ri-cultural’ to obscene depths when he bullies his way into bat. Things develop more as a response to the crass machismo of the universe than to the subtler promptings of the coach… who may simply not be there.

Let the coach be there. Make the coach be there.

A sports hall is a shiny-blank canvas. Could be the first thing you want think about is leaving it that way. That is, de-furl those unfurled corridors – the nets. Often, they are narrowing what you do, blinding the options. If you do use them, decide What The Point Is.

Questions you might think about include;

  • how many batsmen per net? In other words, are they running?
  • what stage of the game we at?
  • where are the fielders?
  • do we mark where the fielders are? How?
  • which bowlers are bowling at which batters. And why?
  • what are the consequences of a poor shot? Of getting out? Of insultingly obvious lapses in concentration because the batman think it’s just nets.
  • would a bowling machine be better or worse for your current exercise than a real-live bowler?
  • are a queue of bowlers waiting whilst one bowls a full over? If so, what are they doing?
  • do you have video… of anything?
  • do you have a flipchart for recording… anything? Observations/challenges/personal checklists for batters/bowlers?
  • is anyone saying anything? Meaning are there discussions on any of the above? Are players engaged with that? If not why not?
  • who’s watching, from the sidelines? Are there parents or coaches (or both) to whom you, as coach have to grandstand? Are you (as coach) telling the universe everything you know about This Particular Technical-Cricket Thing because Dave Oosit is over there and he’s Level 3?

Friendly aside; I nearly always coach with other coaches in attendance – often watching their kids in action. Some of these people almost certainly think I’m medium clueless or hopeless. I do one or two things to make this an utter non-issue.

1. Concentrate on energising and enthusing and asking good questions of my players.

2. Prepare… enough.

Few of us outside of the professional game have time to prepare properly. But I do prepare enough. I rehearse things, mumble things and make notes. If I know I am going to have to speak to a new group of parents (for example, at the outset of County Development Sessions) then I may well write a few important points or phrases down; because a) first impressions b) I want them to trust me and rate me, less out of ego than the practicalities of simply getting on c) this means I have to think about what I’m doing.

I have notebooks for this stuff. Alongside the tees and the multifarious balls and beanbags and cones and clobber.

When I arrive at Winter Nets (or anywhere else where I’m gonna be leading) I have notebooks to ask myself questions and to prompt the way. Sometimes things change – because Jonny or Sarah needs that, but often the skeleton for the session is there.

In the moments of calm before other folks arrive – because we coaches always arrive first, right? – I unpack my notebook and my thoughts. I look around the space, feel its fitness, readiness, scope. I leave the nets, to start with, and resolve not to capitulate to their charms without setting some real, meaningful points of focus. And then I am ready.