@cricketmanwales meets Mark O’Leary… & talks MCC University Cricket.

Please note that this post is very much a companion piece to the preceding feature – On #firstclasscricketersfirstclassdegrees.

I spent some time with Mark O’Leary – Head Coach at Cardiff MCCU.

It’s not what you might call hard-hitting journalism. In fact it’s not journalism. I like the bloke; we talked.

O’Leary is something of a rising star – ECB Elite Master Level 4 Coach, workshop maestro, deviser of wittily wicked drills – who combines the cricket role with teaching on the Cardiff Met academic staff.

We talk about everything from funding, to honoured alumini, to the future for the scheme. Have a listen.

 

 

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! 

 

 

Spitting and Swearing.

Bristol, yesterday; lifting (as we say in Wales) with festivals and beery but beaming fans – football fans. Shrill and St Paulsiferous in the dizzying sunshine.

Today it may be hotter and the festivities are rich again but different. Smelling less dope, seeing similarly fabulous levels of colour. Some of this, of course, describes inadequately and I hope not in any way pejoratively the Indian support; but also the home fans, brightly if not luridly t-shirted for the day’s cricket. It’s proper summer and proper hot – 30 degrees.

1.30pm. News. Kumar may be out with a stiff back and Root is dropped, Stokes is in. Which is a sharpish reminder that sport at the top end is competitive. I *decide* that my typical ball-by-ball attack on this is OUT; big call but it’s bloody intense to do that for two innings.

This means theoretically I can sit back a little, enjoy and hopefully be maturely, authoritatively, entertainingly reflective. In practice and in truth, could be that my twitchy nature means I pour out the instinctual cobblers as usual. (*I do*).

First over from Chahar. Buttler clatters him through extra and then mid-on and (lols) we need to change the ball. Buttler miscues that new ball for another four, to square leg and there are 13 from the first over.

Umesh Yadav now follows from in front of us in the Pavilion End. The Indian quick looks powerful and committed but ominously, England’s keeper despatches him straight and then really middles a pull to backward square. Buttler is flying early.

Roy joins the fun, driving classically with beautiful hands –  straight – then profiting from a misfield, then clattering Yadav over mid-off for the first six. England have bolted to 43 for 0 off 4. Siddarth, in his distinctive red headband, has the unenviable job of bowling the fifth.

The scoreboard is already strongly indicative of a more bat-friendly strip that the unusually lively one at Sophia Gardens on Friday. Both Roy and Buttler appear to be striking with potentially demoralising ease. The runrate soars to over 12 as we reach 73 for 0 after 6. Apparently the guys on the telly are suggesting India have misread the green tinge on the pitch for seamtasticism. Nope; it’s easy-pickings – currently at least.

India put down two toughish but maybe catchable chances as Roy bursts on to 50 from 23 balls. Crazy to think it but *right now* there is a medium-legitimate possibility that India might get humiliated here. Roy absolutely nails one which thuds spookily loudly against the window five feet to my right – nearly brutalising the cameraman innocently stationed on that balcony.

Siddarth, having changed ends, responds by bowling Buttler, attempting to heave a very full one to leg. The Indian support get behind him and there will be more to cheer, as Roy, who had looked impregnable, in trying to guide over the keeper, edges to the keeper. England are still going great guns – over ten an over – but the familiar sense that there is no contest between batter and bowler, has drifted.

This is a smallish but pleasantly flooded-with-light kindofa ground: it seems full – fuller than Cardiff, on Friday. Short boundaries straight, again, like Sophia Gardens. Conditions for playing and spectating could barely be more perfect.

A further shift: Morgan skies two, the second of which is taken by Dhoni, waddling over and then trashing through the stumps. (The previous really should have been taken, at extra, but as the fielder is subsequently escorted from the field clutching his head, maybe the cries of ‘Village’ really do need to transform to sympathy… and then to support).

While Chahar is being attended to, the Indian comeback continues, as Hales is out edging behind. We find ourselves with two new batsmen at the crease – admittedly these are Bairstow and Stokes – but the game has re-invented itsef… as a game. 150 for 4 as we enter the 16th over.

Like Umesh Yadav for his control and consistency. He slots another series of probing yorkers at the batsmen’s heels. It’s Pandya, though who claims Stokes, caught easily and coolly by Kohli at long off.

When Bairstow also goes, caught behind, England appear to be conjuring a pret-ty disappointing under-achievement. Willey’s edge onto middle off Yadav confirms, indeed emphasises this turnaround.

With Roy and Buttler looking unplayable earlier, England looked set for something approaching 250: we enter the penultimate over 59 runs shy of that figure. It’s over to Plunkett and Jordan to re-wrestle the initiative.

Instead Jordan becomes the third England bat to try to guide behind, claimed in straightforward fashion by Dhoni.

The Indian icon is rather more seriously challenged by the runout chance on the final ball of England’s knock. Throwing down his glove early in anticipation of the inevitable wild scamper, Dhoni flattens the stumps, in doing so reducing (if that’s the right word, it feels like it?) England to a total of 198 for 9. Somewhere, Roy and Buttler are spitting and swearing.

This could be a great game. Willey is making some things happen but immediately India counter. Rohit Sharma and Dhawan strike, purely, to raucous appreciation, as the nerves all around settle… and at the same time, jangle explosively.

Ball dives outstandingly to his left to remove Dhawan, off Willey; Rohit clatters Jordan straight; the ball is changed; the crowd is in. India are taking this challenge on, fearlessly. It could be a great game. 43 for 1 off 4.

There are flats, at the Ashley Down Road End, with extravagant views over the ground. Currently most of Bristol is up there.

They get the proverbial grandstand view, then, as Jordan races, eases then reaches brilliantly out and behind to remove Rahul off Ball, for 19. It’s a proper *moment*, fit for a clash of top, top-level players and it brings in some fella called Kohli.

After 7, India are 72 for 2. Enter Rashid.

Rohit Sharma gets to a swift 50 with a minor miscue behind off Stokes. The batsmen do, however look to have this under some measure of control. England need to do all of the following, arguably unhelpfully contradictory things;

  • hold their nerve.
  • Make something happen.
  • Either distance themselves from or feed off the crowd.

As India get to 100 for 2 – and beyond – there are increasing signs that both Rohit and Kohli are relishing this. A certain portion of the crowd is sniffing a particularly satisfying win; sniffing noisily and full-throatedly. India need 74 from 48 balls, as the heroic fielder Jordan runs in from under the pavilion.

The bowler mixes it up – one delivery ambling down there at a teasing 66 mph. He errs significantly, though, by offering a full toss around Rohit’s left shin; it’s smacked out over square leg, for six.

Plunkett finds Kohli in similarly belligerent mood. In a flamingoesque flash, the ball is propelled shockingly for a further maximum. Blimey this is brilliant, from the visitors. They appear to be easing to an impressive win.

Except Jordan. One of the sharpest catchers in world cricket takes a very sharp c&b to remove Kohli. Doesn’t, in the moment feel enough, as India need only 48 from 30 balls but hey… who knows? Rashid returns from the Ashley Down Road End – no dramas.

Big Challenge for Ball as he takes the next. His first is driven straight for four, his second dug out skilfully from off his toes by Pandya then a further boundary comes through midwicket. Nothing against Ball but strong sense in the Media Posse that he was the wrong bloke there.

29 needed from 18 as Willey comes in from under those flag-draped flats. Feels like Rohit has this, but Pandya pitching in nicely with a long-levered drive for six, then a four… then more. The fella seems intent on denying his partner a glorious ton. India suddenly need just the 9 from 2 overs.

In fact Sharma does get to that landmark – kissing Jordan down to third man. India win it, by 7 wickets, as Pandya goes big again over long on.

Fine series, enjoyed by both sets of supporters (I would suggest), won deservedly by determined, accomplished, elite-level-competitive men in blue. Congratulations.

 

The drums.

You know it’s India when you hear the drums. In this case, when you hear them in Cardiff, at 3.45p.m. for the 5.30 start, against England, in what we (Brits) might think were punishingly hot conditions. Drums and dancing outside the gates; like some wonderfully naive, inadequately-warlike festival-thing, which has started worryingly early, given the weather. I’ll have what they’re drinking.

Alan Wilkins. Out there interviewing Nasser and pumping his book, at the base of the media stairs. Accomplished and immaculately groomed – Alan, not the stairs. Although the stairs are well looked-after enough, I guess. 4.13 p.m.

4.30-odd. Activity. Everywhere. Lots of people in a Media Centre that I know through some experience is often empty; drills and footie malarkey out there on the outfield, which looks dry and quick but which is showing the drainage-patterns, slightly disconcertingly, when seen from high up in our glassy eyrie. People coming in.

Close to 5 p.m. and we learn that England have won the toss and will bowl: cue the vigorous fielding drills in front of us. Hales, notably takes a couple of really testing skiers from Farbrace right against the boundary: smart, controlled work.

I’m watching a fair amount of live cricket – mainly internationals. I’m slightly fascinated by how slowly and late the stadia tend to fill up (assuming they are going to be full). At 5.15 – just a quarter of an hour in old money before some of the world’s best batsmen face our finest, most awetastic bowlers and the seats are about a third full. Weird. There are giant flags, there are anthems… and we have a game. Willey will open to Rohit Sharma. Second ball flies through, with decent carry. Great start from the bowler, just the one conceded.

Ball is next up, from the River End, where, until a few seconds ago, smoke was rising hynotically from immediately outside the ground. Mercifully it’s gone before the batsman take issue or stance. However Rohit is caught skying a top edge after a drive for four and India are 7 for 1 as Willey begins the third.

It’s another solid over. Guessing somebody on the coaching staff is muttering (or bellowing) ‘GREAT EXECUTION!!

Dhawan trots past Ball on the way through to an easy single.  Seems about a foot between them – hilarious. Then my fielding legend Hales allows the first pull in anger past him, Sunday League style, for four and the crowd behind him reveals its vociferous Indianness.

Shortly after the diminutive Dhawan seems overwhelmed by the size of the bat – shockingly failing to carry and slide it in during a scamper for safety. Daft sod’s out. ‘Absolute village’ cries a renowned journo to my left.

It doesn’t get much better for India, as Rohit swings and misses at Plunkett – on first view missing by a mile, as the ball scoots merrily into the off stick. The visitors are suddenly 23 for 3 off 5.

The pitch is unquestionably livelier – fairer, maybe – than tracks here in Cardiff tend to be. Plunkett and Ball and Willey sending it through with some venom, meaning limited aggression, so far, from the batsmen. With India at 36 for 3 after 7, even the god Kohli is playing relatively watchfully: he and Raina have to rebuild.

I’m rather liking the non-explosive nature of all this, to be honest. After 10, India are 52 for 3, with Kohli on 14 and his partner Raina on 16. Virat, sensing the need to lift the boom quotient, smashes Rashid through midwicket before offering a cruelly hard diving catch to Roy out at long on.

Roy can only spill the ball for six. Raina responds by despatching Ball over midwicket and the momentum swing is both striking and exhilirating. The ground – now almost full – has come alive.

Raina is comprehensively beaten by Rashid’s googly and is easily stumped by Buttler. Meaning (or feeling like) Kohli might need to bat through and remind the universe of his greatness. Dhoni has joined him: half us wonder if we are dreaming; Kohli? Dhoni? Cardiff? Delirious sunshine?!? Wow.

After 14, India are 89 for 4, suggesting this is a 150/160 pitch not a 200 pitch. Let’s see. Dhoni whip-thrashes Rashid through midwicket with real violence, for four, to re-announce the urgency, here.

In the 18th, Kohli swats Willey down to fine leg, where Root takes a tough catch coolly. Good stuff from Willey – arrowing these in consistently and with good control. His four overs have cost only 18. In comes Pandya.

Did I mention it’s a lovely evening?

Jordan bowls a couple of beautiful yorkers but Pandya eventually absolutely launches one back, straight, for a much-needed maximum. Ball will bowl the final over with England a) pleased to have bowled first and b) surely ahead of the game, unless… unless.

Dhoni plays mainly tennis shots but grabs a lump of runs as his side get to 148 for 5 at the close. Perfect.

Yadav to Roy. Second ball contemptuously dismissed to the midwicket boundary: 14 from the over. *Statement*.

First thought was the bowler didn’t look as sharp as ours – Ball and Willey and Plunkett all got more lift. Second thought, dead right to go after this aggressively.

Kumar, from the River End, is less accommodating to the batsmen. Without alarm though, England are 16 for 0 off two.

And then Yadav bowls Roy. Looked quicker, was killer length. Root comes in – interestingly.

Buttler plays a beaut of a forward defensive – barely pushing – which rolls out for four between the bowler and long off. Might be the shot of the night, for all its ease. Proper Cricket, with just the occasional biff, should see England home, you would think?

Oof. Kohli puts down Buttler, who drove straight at him. The Indian skip had to jump but is rightly furious he spilled it: village… or rather *hu-man*.

Absurdly, Buttler absolutely repeats the shot, this time with a different result. Kohli catches and runs thirty yards in a spunky, crowd-conscious fury. Amaazingly, the Indian support lap it up, noisily. Hales joins Root and lifts Pandya for an encouraging four to get England to 42 for 2 off 6. The crowd, as they say, are ‘in’.

Some variety now, from Chahal. He bowls Root, swooshing rather crassly across towards square leg: game on.

Here’s a thing. There’s barely been a stroke of violence, from England and nobody’s connected with a reverse sweep or other new-fangled wotsit. In other words, the batsmen are having to earn their living – which is great, no? England on 55 for 3 after 10.

K Yadav starts with an absolute pie, which Hales misses out on – probably not believing his luck. Then the left arm legspinner asks a few questions. There are two big appeals in the over, the second being reviewed.

Eventually it’s confirmed as not out, the ball striking the pad outside the line and missing. We’re really not seeing huge turn but the batsmen are both scratching around – until Hales nails Chahal for six over cow corner. England’s number ten backs this up with a lovely, cheeky kiss down to third man for four more. Nice. 72 for 3 off 11.

Morgan joins the party with his first strike over the top, easing it to the river; four more. Hales trumps that with a monster drive out of the ground and into that same river. He goes to 32.

Arguably the Moment of the Game as Dhawan catches Morgan. In the deep, shuffling and adjusting, before genuinely leaping and contorting to clasp the ball tight; triumphantly tight. Half the stadium rises – and I don’t think they were all supporting the team in blue. Fabulous.

On the downside for India, this brings in Bairstow.

The quality of the evening has transformed, as it does. Most of the outfield is now in deep shadow, with the players balcony looking (yaknow) British and the stand opposite positively Mediterranean.

England need 46 from 30 balls so this is still beautifully poised. And the crowd are still in. Boundaries must be struck.

Pandya charges in again from the River End and surprises Bairstow with a sharp lifter.  Then another – short but perfectly legit. Later in the over it’s noticeable that Kohli is having words woth the ump again and the fella looks a tad mizz; in fact they both do. The body language speaks of strongish irritation.

Bairstow stems the chat by sweeping Yadav beautifully and easily for six to square leg, taking England to 117. Then he does it again, this time over Kohli at midwicket. Huge – maybe match-defining? (I think) England need 23 from 3 overs.

But Bairstow goes, swinging straight to deep fine leg. Wow. This is gonna be close. England 126 for 5, after 17.1. Again the Indian support owns the stadium.

Hales needs the strike but Willey scuffs it for one. The target is 20 from 2 overs. Suddenly steepish. Willey tries to get off strike with a tipitandrun… but fails. Important. Hales now, under real pressure, must go big.

Yadav bowls three superb yorkers (or more!) and the game feels done. Except no. Hales squeezes another one out to the mid-off boundary. Morgan’s Suddenly Beatable Posse will need 12 off the last!

Hales puts the first in the river. 6 from 5.

A skiddy clip to fine leg is a further four. Un-be-lievable. A single leaves Willey with 1 needed off 3. Fantastic, fantastic game.

He bundles Kumar to leg… for four.

Excellent contest in a really boisterous-in-a-good-way bowl of a stadium – felt great. Congratulations to both sides and to the crowd, too, they really did contribute to the night’s entertainment. The Indian fans do take all this to another level; hope they enjoyed it.

The Learning? (Again), Sophia Gardens may not have the romance of some of the other test/international grounds but its environment does: that walk, that river, that park. The fanzone and the general ambience/hosting is top level.

Hales can (because he did) mightily execute, against the very best, under the most acute pressure. England are straining for a peak; it’s only right that even players who may actually be ( as it were) sherpas can storm to the summit. Well done him – that six in the last over was a gorgeous, stunning, redemptive moment.

Finally, the drums, the carnival, the Indians. Overwhelmingly good-natured; delightfully cricket-daft.

Great week.

Been involved in two events this last week, with a particular character – or so you might think, when I put the labels on. S.E.N and #Disability, or #insportseries.

Unravel that with me.

S.E.N, as many will know, stands for Special Educational Needs and therefore referred, in our case, to Primary School children who have a range – an extraordinary, fascinating range – of issues or needs. (Written on this before, in particular this idea that somewhere in the cloud of embarrassment, prejudice, guilt(?) and awkwardness around ‘needs’ maybe there’s a rich opportunity for us Normal Folks to challenge our own complacency or sheer ignorance; our awarenesses and comfort around Special Needs being often woefully inadequate).

Having confirmed my own frailties in those terms – I, too am relatively twitchy or clumsy in this environment – I’m going to leave it to experts in the field to unpick the differences, subtle or otherwise, between S.E.N and Disability, because a) despite some really excellent and relevant Coach Education, I am not an expert or specialist in this field and b) in reality, as coaches, we don’t typically know very much about what kinds of issues the individuals attending are going to present: we live off our wits.

Before people start kicking off about dangerously inadequate preparation, I should say that what feels like a responsible and reasonable amount of information-sharing and risk-assessment does take place. We just don’t get much detail. So us coaches do inevitably experience that ‘okaaaay, how do I need to pitch this game to this individual?’ moment as the participants arrive. It’s a brilliant, energising test for us; one that hopefully transfers into sharply-focused but engaging (and seemingly relaxed) sessions.

In absolutely glorious sunshine, at Haverfordwest CC, we Cricket Wales people, in tandem with our colleagues at Sport Pembrokeshire, hosted an event for the S.E.N. Units of the county: Primary.

We were well-staffed. We gathered in good time and set up five or six possible areas with different challenges, games or themes. We talked quite a lot about what was going to feel appropriate, how we might rotate groups through, how big those groups might be or ideally should be. We checked for flexibility within games – for the capacity to recalibrate higher or lower – for both difficulty and to accommodate talent and ambition. Then groups arrived.

I recognised a few children from previous events but generally we were into  New Territory – all of us. There was a certain delay as schools arrived separately and (given the epic sunshine) awnings or gazebos and/or similar were set up. There was too much drift so I cut through the formalities, grabbed a group of children and bundled them over to my throwing game. We were off.

I think maybe you set out on days like these, with the fear of making a calamitous and deeply patronising error; or twelve. There is certainly scope for that, right? So what you do (I do) is get the antennae up. Get looking, get listening. Talk the same way, act the same way but get the antennae up for issues of understanding and movement. Get right on all that and offer somebody something different – quietly – if that’s necessary.

We had a laugh. The kids were great; engaged, smiling, contributing to the banter, the shape of the game. ‘Course they were. There were children that could launch an overarm throw, there were those that wandered in and out of the playing area, unable to fulfil the mission but visibly enjoying some activity. Honestly, in the sunshine, they were brilliant – it was brilliant. Periodically, another group came in.

In other ‘zones’ children boomed balls off teas, or caught big balls, small balls, teddies, spiky things, beanbaggy things, foamtastic things. Elsewhere they played nonstop cricket – with or without a helping hand. There were pitstops for drinks and sarnies and more bantz.

It’s going to sound weirdly self-congratulatory if I describe it as something of a triumph but (with apologies) it really was. Not my triumph but everybody’s. Everybody including the sun’s.

My abiding memory is of a fellow coach, who shall remain nameless. This particular bloke is a powerfully experienced cricket bloke and longtime coach and supporter and administrator of the game. He’s been there… but not, as he said, in ‘situations quite like this’. As we packed up and chatted, it was striking that the level of enjoyment  – their’s, his – had been something of a revelation to him.

Three days later we were again involved, supporting an event at Pembroke Leisure Centre. This was an #insportseries Disability/Community event, open to all but shared that schools/learning feature in the sense that children with carers or support staff were brought in to take part. Again the weather was spectacular – almost too hot.

My first memory of this occasion was of a single, tall, strongly-built young man appearing early on at my shoulder, being a quiet presence and me not sure, initially, whether he was (as it were) a candidate for action, or not. Fortunately, my instinct to offer a ‘quick game’ (anyway) proved helpful… and off we went, with other children soon joining.

Here’s where things became profoundly different to that Primary School event earlier in the week, in a way I happily admit, I hadn’t, in my medium-crass naivety, foreseen.

Firstly that biggish young man, then others were really good – to the extent that I could, should, did coach them as opposed to simply hosting a game. (Doh… of course they were!)

Specifically, we got into bowling… because they could really bowl. We got into high hands and following through, with me being careful and even apologetic about being boring and coachy but having no choice because the players were driving us thataway, because they were good. There was also that hike in the attention-span in the players and their capacity to make and sustain their own game. I may have underestimated that, too.

I still have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I reckon I did okay because I know these youngsters did enjoy what they/we did. On the other I have to think about where my expectations were at that first moment. I did not, in truth, as I breezed in to that event, expect to be delivering stuff that I might share with an able-bodied county-level player. I was wrong – and how great is that?

This event, like the one in Haverfordwest, was a notable success – funded and supported strongly, visible and diverse. As well as presenting a range of activities, somebody (Angela Miles?) had the nous to invite Rob Evans and Gareth Davies from the current Wales rugby squad, much to the delight of our participants and many of the on-site and suddenly inquisitive Pembroke School children. Both these guys did a fine and generous job of circulating, encouraging and just being nice to anyone in the vicinity. (Chapeau, gentlemen, enjoy Croatia!)

I wandered through to check out the whole festival, from wheelchair rugby to rifle-range. Outstanding. On a personal note it was fabulous to see such an impressive turnout of Sport Pembrokeshire staff; was proud to muck in alongside to make our own, Cricket Wales contribution. It’s been a great week.

 

A bloggist’s indulgence.

Some of you will know that I work full-time for the mighty Cricket Wales – and that I love that. I coach, I write/faff about with Soshul Meedya stuff: I love the crazy diversity of it and dizzily-happily pour myself in there.

I also do this blogging thing, absolutely as an indulgence; absolutely because it’s a cathartic soul-shifting and lifting release; absolutely because I want to make some contribution to the fabulous sporty din that all of us bawl and wallow and giggle through. It’s showing off, of course but (as a great mate and soul-brother said recently, when I wondered aloud about stopping) it’s ‘a creative outlet I need’.

I know it’s hideously arty to talk about this so I’m not going any further with any cod-therapeutic explanations. I’m sticking mainly to practical issues – the weighing and balancing, the justifying – in the hope that some folks might identify with something and (ideally) feel supported.

Maybe I should add that I am myself supported by a) the mere existence of a rich blogosphere where far nobler, more talented and more legitimate Cricket People offer up their stories b) my superiors at Cricket Wales who respect and encourage my writing and ver-ry rarely try to direct it and c) by established folks already ensconced or essential to the contemporary cricket media. These factoids are important.

However – did you guess? – things aren’t straightforward. Because I have a wonderful family, who are sporty but not especially crickety. Because my time is not my own. Because Pembrokeshire fab-you-luss Pembrokeshire is waaay out west and therefore often a hike away from the action. Because nobody is paying me to write.

In short, I really do have to justify any trip away to cover cricket.

This week I had hoped to (firstly, as always, without any bitterness or complaint) see out all my Cricket Wales responsibilities and maybe go to Edgbaston today and Bristol tomorrow, to do a cricketmanwales.com number on the men’s then womens’ internationals.

In fact I didn’t get accreditation for Eng v Aus (men) at Edgbaston, unsurprisingly; that fixture will be heavily attended by journo’s/writers with way more clout than myself; I have no gripes on that front. I did, however, get clearance to attend the womens’ tri-international in Bristol.

The truth of it is that significantly less frontline journo’s will attend the latter. From experience, I guess Adam Collins, Melinda Farrell, Alison Mitchell, Ebony Rainford-Brent, Isa Guha will be there but most of them will be involved in commentary and/or punditry rather than ‘simply writing’.

Don’t please abuse me if I miss somebody out, here – this is not supposed to be an exhaustive list, much less a Who’s Who. Raf Nicholson and Syd Egan will probably be there and Jamie Ramage, I reckon. But there will be less demand for seats – in the Media Centre as well as in the stands. That’s the reality.

In fact I can’t now go to Brizzle due to Cricket Wales commitments – which always come first and which I utterly respect. However, because fewer people read my posts about Eng Women than about Other Cricket Stuff, I was looking pret-ty hard at whether I could *justify* another trip, anyway, despite the fact that I really enjoy these games and actively want to support womens’ cricket – believe it or not.

There are financial implications. There are family issues around me disappearing ‘for nothing’. I was having to juggle that stuff.

As so often, I may have been unwise, in sharing this. Clearly I would be delighted if somebody – some media institution – would bung me a coupla quid to cover games that I can get to, working around my Cricket Wales schedule. (Could be this is somewhere between unlikely and im-bloody-possible. In which case there is thinking to be done). One is philosophical.

Look set aside any opinion around or even intelligent judgement of my blogs; I naturally accept that is entirely feasible that they are mindlessly anarchic piles of crap. That being said it strikes me as unfortunate that my own – admittedly crass, admittedly limited – market research delivers (arguably) a fairly stark return re- the value of Womens’ International Cricket.

I do have to think on this but my strong inclination is to continue to #showup, as much as I can… and let the therapy flow.

 

Match two; Eng v NZ.

Note: this is the second of two live posts from today’s (Saturday’s) tri-international thingamejig at Taunton.

 

In the second fixture, England opt to bat again. Gunn is replaced by Tarrant. Still a lovely day; by my hugely scientific estimation about four degrees light of balmy-hood. That courtesy of a welcome but persistent breeze.

Instant near-trauma, for England. Peterson’s first delivery and a yes-no run-out. Except that Wyatt scrambles back and, battler that she is, stills the heart, one hopes. Because this is T20, England finish up on 9 for 0 after that palpitating start. The crowd shift in their seats.

Devine is in for the second but bowls two legside wides then a sharpish lifter. Followed by a rather poorly judged bouncer that is miles out of the batter’s reach. Satterthwaite, fielding at long-on underneath the Media Centre appears strikingly – and I mean strikingly – tall. After four overs, England are 36 for 0.

Wyatt miscues a slow, slow one from Kasperek and is easily caught at mid-off. The opener departs swishing and cursing, having had a doubly infuriating day with the willow.

Ditto Taylor, who joins her in the pavilion following a cruel palm-on from the bowler. A reminder that there’s a) no god b) very little to out-gun/out-gurn that particular mode of dismissal in the whole fest-of-furies that is the sporting pantheon. Beaumont is next to grimace, as she tries to lap-something a straight one and is frankly absurdly bowled.

Knight prefers to come in and gettaholdathis, ahead of Brunt. It’s 66 for 3 come the end of the 9th.

A digression but another disconcerting error – Sciver spared via another regulation catching opportunity spurned – means we have to talk about fielding, generally. Today it’s been poor, I’m afraid. Poor enough to encourage misogynist grumbles *around about*.

I’ve seen more than enough womens’ cricket in the last two years to be absolutely clear that standards across all three disciplines have zoomed forward and up… but today (fielding-wise) has been an unhelpful blip in this respect. Weird how infectious things are, at every level of sport – particularly panic. Onward.

Hahaaaa! At this moment (I promise you) Green takes a really challenging steepler from Knight! Onward with a smile.

Brunt comes in, to join Sciver, who has been okaaaay , so far, rather than stunning in making an important 39. The sense that she was a nailed-on worldie is drifting a tad, for me. We still have sun, we still have a breeze – though reduced, I think – and we still have a goodish crowd.

I’ve enjoyed watching Devine run in. She’s hurried everybody without creating the mayhem that will surely, often, be hers. Sciver gets to fifty with a firmly-struck extra-cover drive and after 16, England are 132 for 4. Feels like a competitive as opposed to intimidating score is in the offing. Then Devine, switching ends, has Brunt, playing on, for 14.

Wow. A classic straight yorker unravels Amy Jones next delivery: Shrubsole is in earlier than I guess she imagined. After 17, England are 139 for 6, needing a boomtastic finish.

Ah. Sciver finds backward square-leg to further stall any potential grandstand finale.

There are two new batters at the crease; Shrubsole and Ecclestone. Both apply themselves with some aggressive intent but (strangely, maybe, given recent performances) England have mustered a grand total of zero sixes in both innings so far, today.

We enter the final over a-and Shrubsole promptly despatches one straight, straight for a maximum, before pushing directly to cover.

Hazell is in with two balls to face. She part-slices the first one to deep extra, who should gather it but let’s it pass through for four. Innings closed at 172 for 8: first guess, 15 short.

 

Shrubsole opens as New Zealand gather for their response. Her first ball is another inswinging beauty; the second goes for six.

Devine repeats the feat against Tarrant in the second over, taking her ahead of *All of Ingerland* on sixes, as (‘tis true) England managed just the one (all day), in the final over some half an hour ago.

No room for smugness here, mind, as the New Zealand opener is promptly caught in the deep off the skiddy left-armer Tarrant. The White Ferns are 37 for 1 after a probing, appeal-heavy, confidence-building fifth over from Ecclestone. Intriguingly, Ecclestone is not to bowl the next over from that Botham Stand End.

Evening is landing gently.

Brunt is just a wee bit pleased to have the Mighty Bates, in front, next over. She fist-pumps, passionately, on her knees, lifting the crowd, roaring.

Another significant and indeed faith-restoring moment, as Knight takes a sharpish return catch, off Satterthwaite, reducing the visitors to 47 for 3, in 7.2. The squeeze is on.

New Zealand need a charge but are again knocked back as Ecclestone bowls Martin for 16. The tall, left-arm finger-spinner is enjoying this, wheeling and reaching high for purposeful, arrowing flight. Hazell – in at the other end – winkles out Green, who is caught rather tamely lofting to extra cover. That squeeze feels taughter – terminally so, at 80 for 5.

Again after a brilliant over, Ecclestone is replaced, this time by Sciver. Again it works, the wunderkind Kerr edging loopily to gully. When the young leftie returns, however, she claims two further victims – bowled then stumped, bamboozled. Importantly, you sense, in terms of her recently tested confidence, Ecclestone has been the star turn (‘scuse the pun) in this commanding performance.

With the light markedly different now, New Zealand have fallen away – or been shunted – to firstly 106 for 8, then 9. Knight’s played a blinder, instinctively chopping at any momentum in the New Zealand innings, leading and arguably designing the win.

Knight offers Tarrant the 19th, with no pressure on the bowler and every chance of a wicket (you would think). Thoughtful. Tarrant duly obliges, skittling Jensen with a scooty little number. All out 118. Good job, England.

So an enjoyable day with an encouraging denouement for an England side that might have slipped into tiredness or distraction. Instead they were on it – satisfyingly so. Folks wander off to trains and buses and cars, feeling good, I reckon.