‘Early Season’.

Extraordinary times. Driving through an apocalyptic hailstorm in LLandewi Velfrey en route to (you guessed it) some cricket coaching stuff in Carmarthen. Cursing the mysterious disappearance of my Cricket Wales bobble hat just when I needed it most: fellow coach Rhys wearing headgear that could only have been stolen from an un-horsed Cossack. Under 12 boys activated, entertained and warmed, over two goolie-shrinking hours.

Or over to Ynystawe, where the Girls’ Pathway coaches still haven’t thawed out from the previous four days of Siberian action. Misdirected by the reassuring local, out front of his house, wheelbarrowing purposefully but plainly confusing clubs. No dramas; soon find myself encouraging and offering throwdowns – because surely we’re all cold? – without wanting to disturb the quiet vibe. Needing now somehow to suppress my own energetic thrum but still remain temperate. And then forty overs umpiring. ‘Early Season’.

I love this early season. The madness, the toeness, the fingersness; the ecstatic, yellow, wintry lightness. Spectacular. Ridiculous. Impossible and re-connecting. Re-grooving. The Return of The Evening. The return of playing and missing and of wild but innocent leg-side wides: dozens of them. Junior flocks – like dumb, frozen seagulls, gathered in the ring. (Hey. Are their feet *actually frozen?*)

On the Bigger Stage it snowed, too. Yorkshire. Glam punching but then snuffed out, more in fact by that wintry quilt than by Big Bro’ Root. The forecast – chez Roots and countrywide – sunny but cold. Soon enough back to Sophia Gardens ‘gainst the Southern Softies from Hove… and what do we have? It’s sunny but cold. The pitch is a road and all is well. Glam 30-odd for 3. Then recover. Then as the shadows lengthen…

Defiant defeat?

Wow. Extraordinary. Incredible stadium, remarkable occasion, fraught and bristling with tension and the day/night excitement that still feels thrillingly new. Cricket of a blindingly compelling kind – certainly early-doors. Something about the change of format has made the drama necessarily keen, colorific, sharp. This is not to say of course that the future is orange but much of the tanginess here seems conducive to great sport: floodlights often being central – or at least atmospherically ‘supportive’.

England win the toss and inevitably choose to bat. Wags on twitter are soon suggesting this was in the expectation of killer spells from Jimmy and Broady come the evening. (Yes, this evening).

Only Crawley seemed to have a plan to thwart that admittedly perverse subterfuge. He batted like a god. It was the sort of performance that you suspect will ink him in the starting line-up for a decade. The strikingly tall youngster – well, 23? – struck the ball around the ground with ludicrous ease on a pitch that was soon to get far, far into the heads of his comrades. His innings may yet prove to have been a dream brought on by 4am starts and Covid Protocols and weird, distracting (and surely similarly untrue?) allegations around PPE contracts and Brexit traumas: certainly it was different level, if not unbelievable.

The quality of stroke-making was soft-pink purrfect; beyond purple. Having faced the first ball after returning from self-inflicted injury, Crawley steered the ball around, middling a series of drives and pushes. Neither Ishant nor Bumrah troubled him at all: he was effective and watchful against Patel and Ashwin, only being beaten by the rarish unplayable delivery – mainly from the left-armer – who found spite and alarming deviation in the dusty surface. Zak Crawley made 53 before being lbw to Patel. Everything about it – context, particularly – smacked of real quality.

Shortly before the Root dismissal (which preceded Crawley’s), I had texted my son to say that England may need a 200 from Crawley and ‘even on this surface, I’m not ruling it out’. Optimistic, for sure but did give the sense of something rather special happening. Elsewhere, earlier, both Sibley and Bairstow had made errors to goodish but not remarkable deliveries and then Root misjudged Ashwin. That pattern continued.

England the team, became frazzled, as a unit. True it was a challenging strip again and true the opposition are both probably a better line-up and certainly better equipped for this wicket but hey – this is Test Cricket. Everywhere you go the conditions are set up to exploit home advantage and/or visitor vulnerability. That’s Test Cricket. In this case India again bowled ver-ry skilfully on a dry pitch. And England fell into frazzlement.

Pope seemed lost amongst a surfeit of theories (or something), though this is not to single him out. England, the team could not seem to find either a ‘way of playing’ – I get that sometimes you can’t – or that precious gift of separating the moments so that each ball can be played on its merits.

From 73 for 2, with Root and Crawley beginning to emerge, England capitulated to 112 all out. Arguably nobody got out to an absolute jaffa; it was more of a series of misjudgments from guys who were either outright bewildered by the variety and intensity of the spin-bowling, or who could not break the hold the pitch itself had, as chief protagonist, over proceedings.

Let’s repeat: India are a strong side and this is their patch. So this was tough. But was it an underachievement, from England? Surely. I went from thinking that this was a 200 pitch (when Root got out) to wondering if India, had they batted first up, might have got 350. Pointless but true. And the thought that the home side may have a stronger advantage in the batting than in their bowling also landed – possibly weirdly, given the early rout.

So what could England have done? Gambled less, selection-wise? (Bairstow at 3, in Test Cricket, is a gamble, as was not opting for Woakes or Bess, to shore up the batting). In fact, there is an argument that opening with Crawley was a gamble, given his recent absence. Lots of eggs appeared to be being lobbed into the Jimmy/Broady/Archer basket. In terms of strategy and/or technically, that failure to separate events – and therefore let the onrushing collapse in – felt important. What we might call negative momentum or infectious failure set in, somewhat. Sometimes it takes bullish individuals or very clear-sighted individuals to burst through that. England found none, today.

Positivity gets so heavily conflated with dumb machismo that I rarely see it as a way forward. But if positivity meant advancing down the pitch to squish the turn and break up the bowler’s dominance then maybe. Throw in some movement deep, deep into the crease to play late and square and who knows? Maybe you find a way.

Every route has its risks and it’s up to the player to manage them with intelligence and skill. Crawley’s sublime ball-striking suggested it was not unthinkable to choose your moment to break out with confidence. England needed to find a way not just to score but to accept the challenge before them – even if that meant only defiant defeat. What happened felt disappointingly more like a kind of compliance.

Due Diligence.

A reminder: there’s an important difference between ‘being stranded/going nowhere’ and battling it out. And the latter is often a key, to Test Match cricket. Also it may be that Sibley was picked for exactly those qualities of durability and enduro-stoicism. (Lawrence wasn’t… but read on).

Also note: lodged this baby at 11.15 am, our time. But things move fast, eh?

England are getting battered, in the second Test, at Chennai. All out for less than 140. After Burns’ error – plainly Ishant set him up skillfully but for him not to see off the decent but hardly world-beating delivery that then arrowed predictably inwards, was an ordinary bit of batting – Sibley and Lawrence applied themselves with some rigour. As per what it says on their tin: “bat long”. The Burns wicket looked a combination of nerves, early-doors wooden-ness and technical issues around his extraordinary set-up and bat-swing but I’ll let better minds than mine un-pick all that and move forward.

Some commentators have said that Lawrence was stuck from the outset: I disagree. He played diligently and with care for an hour or so – as did Sibley – looking relatively untroubled. I’m not even convinced that for much of the morning period he found it difficult to score. He just felt that was secondary. Only towards the end of his occupation did it feel that the alleged imperative to tick over got to him – and he looked more susceptible to angst. The moment of his dismissal was then a classic case of bowler-induced mind-boggling, as Ashwin stepped away to up the drama for a final ball before lunch that would claim the young England man’s wicket.

Even that cruel and untimely blow does not mean Lawrence’s first innings knock was without consequence or value, despite his dismissal being for just 9 runs. Any allegation that he ‘ate up 20 balls’ before scoring is a nonsense: part of the job was manifestly to consume deliveries, ease the pain and soften the ball. Any notion that what his captain chose to do was essentially wiser or better is spurious… or at least open to intelligent debate. (Root came out sweeping – sweeping Ashwin, hard and early. Fair enough. Legitimate; bold; a gamble. It didn’t work but you can see why he thought the game demanded a response. And I get there’s an argument that Root went ‘positively’ precisely because the scoring rate was low).

There was bound to be, on this pitch, against this attack, something a sense of vigil about England’s response to the intimidating effort from Rohit Sharma, Rahane and Pant – all of whom got past fifty on the surface. Lawrence and Sibley together looked to begin that vigil, knowing they were on the back foot, with conditions and now crowd conspiring against them. Sibley appears to be born for this potentially crushing scenario: he has the physical and psychological attributes of a low-octane bear. His talent is for appearing unperturbed; munching through time and task.

You can’t help but feel that Lawrence’s job had inevitably been made harder by the third ball exit of Burns. It is likely that this pointed him towards a slightly more conservative approach, even allowing for any possible psychological conditioning around mindset, and/or the independence of all things. I thought Sibley and Lawrence did okay, in the (let’s be honest) inevitably challengingly fraught period after the departure of Burns. Sure it might have been better if they rotated the strike/scored more. Sure this meant that pressure wasn’t released. But they prepare for precisely these moments; they are experts, or developing expertise, in hardcore sport. What we saw from them at the height of this grilling was as encouraging as it was disappointing, in my view.

Foakes finished up highest scorer. After his predictable excellence behind the sticks, does this reinforce any case for selecting him regularly or permanently, in the Test side? Quite possibly. Does this means that Buttler gets dropped? Not necessarily. There are options.

The fitness of Stokes might be influential. If Stokes can play a full part in the bowling unit then things may be less complex – or controversial. He continues at five, with Pope staying in there at six and Foakes batting seven. If Moeen stays pickable (and I hope he does) then there is ample batting (and spin, for most situations, with Ali and Root) plus three specialist bowler slots. It’s not like-for-like – Buttler is arguably unique – but you are effectively just changing keepers. So minimal disruption. England get a better wicketkeeper and possibly a more durable, though less mercurial bat.

Despite Buttler’s obvious brilliance, I might ‘drop him’ into a purely white-ball role. He plays everything, short-format-wise and maybe succeeds Morgan as skipper. He wouldn’t want to drop out of Test contention and he wouldn’t. You review: you look at form, experience and suitability for particular series. Currently I’d say keep it simple, get Foakes in the team. If Pope doesn’t come through then maybe Buttler bats six.

Great teams have fantastic subs, or twelfth men or women. We are already seeing that this England Squad is exactly that, rotating to maintain balance, quality and wellbeing in the age of Shedloads of Action and (incidentally) a plague. Oh – and remember currently the fella Crawley is out: he’s looked a million dollars, on times. Something always has to give.

Here’s what we should have done…

Hmm. If I cruise through my diary for the year soon to be known as Two Thousand and *insert expletive* Twenty, what will it tell me? Given my creeping facility to fail to remember, will it direct and prompt towards some kind of legitimate reflection? Or will I need wikibloodypedia to cross-check why everything stopped at a particular date?

Tell you what. Let’s have an ungentlemanly agreement that particular dates didn’t matter: that the unkempt ‘schedule’ of events – so redolent, don’t you think, of a certain foppish barnet? – is only to be referred to where it suits our – or my – pleasure. Because blanks may be good, and factoids slippery.

JAN: Normally a quiet month, in any case. Do sometimes support the very wonderful Lady Taverners, by hosting or umpiring and chirpily chivvying along some Secondary School Girls’ Cricket Action. Great, when it happens, that lovely mixture of spookily competitive teens who ‘play’ – their word – and their more or less committed peers.

In recent years I’ve typically volunteered myself to be the Guy Who Goes Outside (On The Tennis Courts). This is madness, in January, but the gals love it and we just can’t accommodate all those who want to play inside what we call The Dome – the inflatable sports hall-thing at the local high school.

This year, my diary tells me, I had a hernia op on Jan 13th, so I missed out in any case. (The op I actually rather enjoyed – weird, I know – because it went well and – weirder still – I wanted to savour that whole drift into unconsciousness, post receiving the knockout gas. I remember trying to count into and be aware of those seconds before disappearing into slumberville. Was it going to be disorienting and bumpy, or smooth? Could I hold off the anaesthetic and dance round some faerie landscape? Would I turn out to be Ben Stokes… and is everything else a travesty?)

Turns out I remember nothing of the actual moment of disappearing. Ho-hum. Enjoyed the bantz with the staff beforehand – and grateful to them for their professionalism and good humour. Within a very few weeks they would be gearing up to grit out dark times: I was incredibly fortunate to get that operation before Normal Service was lost to all of us.

FEB: 18th and I go to The Sloop, the seaside hostelry in North Pembs that somehow ticks the strikingly efficient pub-grub tourist-eatery box and the locals’ local. Both sleepy and rammed with local sportsmen, fishermen, occasional rock/film stars, The Sloop manages to host a Welsh-speakers corner and all you buggers from Guildford.

Anyway, I was there for the AGM of the Mighty Cows – Llanrhian CC. Again felt like a privilege to be able to piggyback (via my volunteering and Proper Cricket Wales Work) the outstanding, generous work of the Cow Stalwarts. My contribution here was to try to politely bully the club into getting folks on the upcoming Foundation One Coaching courses: like most clubs in the universe, they need to train up more players or members to bring on the next generation. Think my intervention may have spurred some profitable action on this, but Covid has certainly blurred the timeline.

Diary also notes ‘Chance to Shine blog’, for 21st. Just had a look. Think this is an error… the post is about India v Aus women, opener for the T2O World Cup. Can’t trust anyone or anything, eh?

Then WOW. Tuesday 25th Feb and I’m into Lamphey Community Primary. A delightful dinky-wee school in a small village in South Pembs. The Head is a personal friend and a spectacular advocate for sport. Their hall is a tiddler but we start what proves to be a series of animated weekly sessions in there – the weather not playing ball.

I’m with Years 2/3/4. We conjure up (between us) some proper energy and enthusiasm, despite the folded dining tables and encroaching benches. No scope even for tennis ball-based games; no matter – the spongeball shuttles, swerves and shuffles are smiley enough. Am ultimately proud of the feisty level of activity we achieve: from memory only on a couple of days could we break out into the yard. Given the daft time of year and all, this was an energising start to the 2020’s school delivery.

Two days later and I’m into Caer Elen, the Welsh language primary in Haverfordwest. My children went to the school’s predecessor – Glan Cleddau – where I somehow became a Parent Governor, so I have a particular connection. I know and rate plenty of the teachers; my son grew up surfing with the secretary’s. Such is life in small communities, eh? I give it plenty and the weeks are fabulous and productive… until.

MARCH: There is now a spectre looming. The memo’s suggest I am calling schools (or still contemplating that) to try to set up sessions. 4th March I start up in Pembroke Dock Community School. I have gushed elsewhere about this establishment so will encapsulate: should get the Chance To Shine ‘School of the Year’ every year. I get three weekly visits in before the broiling beast does for us. Thurs 19th March the diary barks out CANCELLED CORONAVIRUS over the theoretical week four, at Caer Elen.

APRIL: Who knows? Should be on a charge towards All Stars, club activity with sun on our grateful backs. But nope. Extraordinary to flick through the days and weeks and see those schools, sessions, commitments that could not be fulfilled. Not even sure if I can unravel the written word: did we really lose the whole bloody lot? Cilgerran, Croesgoch, Fenton, Prendergast, Sageston – all skittled? And all the ‘Progress Sessions’ – i.e. pre-All Stars club support missions – emphatically yorked? Christonnnabike!

MAY: Diary entry feels especially poignant: ‘Under Nines Festival @ Haverfordwest’. Should’ve been a gateway for tinyish peeps; their critical first experience of matches. (In truth, although these are organised games between groups, the vibe is beautifully unthreatening. P.A.R.T.I.C.I.P.A.T.I.O.N. is absolutely key and these are generally tremendously positive, well-judged occasions. Gutting to lose them: there are none, throughout the summer).

I *should be* hosting inspiring assemblies and burning through blisteringly entertaining Road Shows: can’t. No Waldo Williams, no Narberth. I justify my (part-furloughed) existence with social media stuff and joining Whatsapp groups or Zoom calls to demystify ‘updates.’ The whole process of accurately informing our Cricket Wales Community Where We’re At begins. Half-term comes and goes – doesn’t matter.

JUNE: More voids where schools and festivals should be. There must surely be some recreational cricket(?) – acksherly I’m not sure – there’s nothing in my bible, so who can tell? No sign either of the pro’ cricket I should be planning to traduce via my blogs. Blimey. Think I even have a few days off CW media duties; this really is unheard of.

Brief re-wind because somewhere stuff is happening. March: Aus women have steamrollered India, in a bumper home win, at the T20 World Cup. I wrote about it. April: I interview Andrew Salter . May: I fall into Youtube. June: I really start to confuse the years – both in my diary and in what I may loosely refer to as Real Life. July: Shouldn’t I be planning trips? Why is there nothing? I have some recollection of fiddling around the ECB Media Accreditation page but at what point does the inevitable shrinking-down to A-list bubbles occur?

I know I have no chance of gaining access to international or indeed any other high-profile fixtures, now. I have no illusions about my relative centrality to cricket reportage. I’m a very fortunate hanger-on, tolerated by good folks at the ECB who suddenly need to reduce the media clan attending fixtures. So I’m gone, and no issues. Can’t get live access to Western Storm, either – had targeted that, a little. (Again, no issues – just very much hope to be back when things open out again).

End of AUG: HOW DID WE GET HERE?!? I follow Storm v Vipers livestream and then things funnel back to Zoom calls and more, careful de-ciphering of government/Welsh Government/Sport Wales advice on what’s do-able and how. I must also be booting down the motorway because…

SEPT: Speed Awareness Course, 14th – online. Then GOR BLIMEY: September 15th 2020… and I’M BACK IN!! Pembroke Dock Community School. The first of six, weekly visits. Now spending the whole day at schools, so as to reduce travel and therefore risks to everybody. Have a ver-ry clear memory of my first session back. It was so brilliant and crisp and rallying that I wrote about it: expect to post into Chance to Shine’s Case Studies once Pembs Sport have used it.

Life gets temporarily busy. After that full day of coaching I have a Cricket Wales Comms Zoom. 17th and I’m in Golden Grove, where the unthinkable happens – we get away with five consecutive weeks of activity outside, only dodging apocalyptic hailstorms twice, from memory. Stunningly engaging cricket-based games, both on grass(!) and the playground. Intense, given six sessions in the day, but massively gratifying. Looking back, feels like something rather profound was achieved, and defied.

I’m test-driving some learning and intuitions around offering children space to engineer their own games. This following chatter amongst Chance to Shiners and Create Development gurus. And specifically after a chinwag with another Head, who reminded me that whilst kids are being heavily stifled re physical play, (because Covid, because schools can’t condone traditional grappling) so “Guys ‘n Gals Like Me” become important as stimulators of appropriate activity, owned and developed by the children. In other words, maybe it’s become part of our job (in the Covid era) to prompt schoolchildren towards inventing or extending games themselves. I try to build my sessions towards this aspiration, by asking (them) “how do we make this work?” and “how do we make this fun?”

Sorry if that’s all a bit niche but if it’s true that children are unable or less able to physically act, or interact, there may be important repercussions, over time. And that becomes territory for teachers and maybe particularly for Sports Development Peeps like me.

Sept 27th, had hoped to be reporting live, in my own inimitable fashion, on the Rachel Heyhoe-Flint Trophy Final. Couldn’t. Blogged, watching a stream. 28th some geezer came to sweep the chimney and nearly demolished the house. (OK, exaggerate but wow, it was like a Surrealist Performance Art-fail. Dislodged the cawl, left kit by the fire and smeared the curtains with soot. Only some of this makes the diary).

OCT: After half-term am still in schools, though inevitably it’s feeling like borrowed time. I have spent £23.97 on industrial-strength sanitiser, for the kit I take in. Am sanitising between every group – spraying balls, bats, etc and squirting alcohol-gel on my hands. Feels near bomb-proof.

Remarkabkle times, though: still musing on the level of psychological impact on four-year-old Sara and Dafydd, of their teacher presenting from behind a mask, all day, every day. (Maybe none – but fascinating?) Nevertheless, the work in schools continues to be rewarding and effective in a way I’ll never be able to reflect on the Chance to Shine monitoring system, or anywhere else. I know and the teachers know the children are loving it: good enough?

NOV: Caer Elen cancel the 2nd because we’re narrowly out of a lockdown (I think). But I can return to finish my allotted six full days of delivery. Uniformly excellent: great, engaged children – years 4 and 6 – plus outstanding, informed support from staff. The availability of an immaculate and biggish sports hall unquestionably helped: we ventilated it well, sanitised religiously so sessions were busy, enjoyable, stirring, even. Thursday 19th and St Oswald’s, quite rightly, cancel. Now begins the winter.

DEC: There are more Zooms, with various colleagues. I am drafted back into the Regional Pathway, after a sabbatical couple of years but then the winter nets become a further victim. Remain philosophical about all that was inevitably lost: know that I have given a reasonable account of myself both in schools and in terms of work delivered. Can hope to fulfil my contractual obligations and personal aspiration to enthuse the universe… but a barely credible year.

Some cricket happened but I didn’t see it in the flesh. No friendly hellos with George Dobell or Dan Norcross. No Bristol, Worcester, Cardiff, or Taunton. No Edgbaston. Instead, long quiet walks. Wet beaches. A kind of philosophical re-calibration. Books and writing. Family.

Something else.

October the something-or-other. ‘Strictly’. Some cricket club gets going, in Wales – welcome, you guys at Wild Boar Centurions! – with a first ever match, against Ammanford. Today. In mid-October. In a generally mad and frankly worrying universe, this is mad and wonderful.

There’s absolutely a post in that, it’s ‘my territory’ – the brillness and the lush defiance cricket/sport can offer – but this isn’t that post.

Instead I’ve been thinking about The Blend; the idea that sports teams are about somehow selecting the Right Mix, possibly more than anything else. Or maybe I’ve just fallen into luxuriating in cod psychology yet again, because I love all that speculative cobblers around those fabulous unknowables. (The frisson, fascination and sheer fun of picking teams, at any level, is pretty intoxicating, yes?)

Could it be that Player X, despite not being as good or effective as Player Y as an individual, will either contribute more, in the round, or facilitate success better, or more, in others, than Player Y might? And why and how might this happen? And – c’mon – how knowable is this? All that.

If we single out cricket here, the richness arguably multiplies, because it’s such an extraordinary mix of the single effort (in the radically diverse moment) and the team contribution. The game is massively ‘in your own head’ but the bantz, the sledging, the backing-up, the long wait to bat filled with platitudes or contemplation or out-of-tune humming all point to character and sensibility being bloody important. Of course wankers can be great cricketers but mostly you want, you need good people.

I think Mark Wood is almost certainly a good person. In fact, he’s the reason I’ve wandered into this. Him; the daft, horsey, singer-from-the-stands. Mark Wood the better-adjusted Gazza.

So selection (for England) and Mark Wood. Let’s draw in on that. What is his value, how does he measure up – what are the stats? And how do we quantify or appreciate his contribution to the life of the squad? (And what does that last sentence even mean?)

Stats bore me but I did look – you have to. Not just because this is the age of the stat: even if you remain the touchy-feely sort of professional coach, still following hunches and intuitions about personal qualities and/or character under fire, you pore over statistics because they can provide a key, to advantage, to revelation, to improved likelihoods.

The bowling stats on Mark Wood, for England, are maybe better than you might expect – that is if you were expecting (as I think you might) relatively high-cost wickets and relatively mixed run-rates. (ESPNcricinfo data here – https://www.espncricinfo.com/england/content/player/351588.html).

Wood is good… his performances tend to support a strong case for inclusion in all formats but naturally, in his case, concerns over sustained fitness are a significant part of his own particular selection mix. As, of course, are the alternative candidates and the necessary thinking around (‘scuse the pun) horses for courses – venues. These things always matter: stats matter. But so does personality, or lack thereof.

I’m really fascinated by this idea that fabulous, maybe funny, maybe larger-than-life but generous, as opposed to egotistical souls, can add an extra dimension – one that by its very nature can’t be measured.

Wood’s brilliance seems to me partly about singing and dancing. About being daft enough to belt out “Jerooo-sal-emm”, solo… (https://twitter.com/englandcricket/status/1279011276199469057?lang=en) whilst extravagantly waving a humble broom with a flag on it, in an empty Ageas Bowl. How many runs/wickets/lols is that worth? How do moments like that affect the quality of an experience – a tour, or a few weeks under lockdown? How does the coach decide upon the value of stuff like that?

The answer, like every answer, depends. Upon the presence or absence of that kind of inspiration, or wit, or mad, bloody generosity elsewhere in the squad. In that sense it can be quantified, arguably. Maybe the great coach, sensing a surfeit of blandness elsewhere – Root? Pope? Buttler? Name your own – intuits that the moment will come when the gamble on Wood (or whoever) comes off: when a tour is ‘made’, either in the playing sense or in terms of joy and memory, by a heroic effort – Wood can certainly do that – or by a song and dance.

There are no conclusions here, because mercifully I’m not picking the team. I love picking teams but at their glorious apex they tend to be regional juniors. So waddoo I know, eh?

I know nothing but I do suspect that stats really aren’t everything – even now. At every level, part of the art of coaching (and part of the magic of the game) revolves around reading human nature. You need batters and bowlers but you also need folks who are really something else.

Cool Catchers… plus!

Some thoughts on coaching, from a Community Cricket Coach just returned to action.
What does it feel like, ‘going back?’
What are the real differences, in the Covid Universe?
Given that (as a ver-ry fine Headteacher just suggested to me) children “really have to find or build new Covid-aware games”, what role can we coaches play in prompting thoughtfulness and creativity, as well as those movements and skills?

Not at all saying I know the way but have a pertinent question, I reckon…

#howdowemakethiswork?


Feet Up Time?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m ‘avin’ a luvverly day. Feet up – literally – with TMS on the telly; absolutely minimal chores. A few brews (big mug of Earl Grey, scandalously adulterated with this month’s accessory, ‘Oatly’, plus the regular tipple of boiling water with lemon), all this with absolutely no requirement to re-hydrate… ‘cos manifestly no action. Typically, friends, I do act.

So a lovely but unusual day; or three; so far.

Normally I really do have more in common with Alan Ball (’66) than Alan Brazil (2020) but right now I’m in *Porkerville, Loungeaboutville, even (every now and again) Getwaitedonhand&footville. It’s weird and guilt-inducing; thank god it’s going to be temporary.

(*Sorry. On the inflammatory side of unnecessary. But anyone else actually worried about Big Al’s size/complexion/volume and rather fearful proximity to Serious Health Issues? I like the man – despite not agreeing with many of his worldly opinions – and genuinely worry).

Anyway: done me tendons. Think the Doc at Withybush Hospital said tibularis posterium or near as dammit but we’re basically talking ankle. And, with apologies, because it’s likely to be the most entertaining part of this blogette, I’m afraid I’m going to describe how this entirely banal situation arose.

We have a dog, called Aino (Eye-noo), due to Finnish connections I won’t bore you with. Aino (or possibly Äino, which I kinda prefer, for its snowy exoticism), is much loved. I slept on the floor for days, alongside her, when she first waddled in to our lives as a tiny pup-let; ostensibly to ‘help her settle’ but quite possibly because she was so-o gorgeously cuddletastic I just wanted to be there. She came to work with me, when I was landscaping, pre-Cricket Wales days. Sleeping in the cab, frolicking on the lawns, entrancing most of the customers.

Aino is now ten. She’s well but starting, finally, after a wonderfully romp-full decade, to slow down. And, more pertinently to this story, she’s had a sporadically dodgy back. So, given that and the recent, increasingly rather profound challenge to our olfactory senses emerging unmistakably from the Aino zone, I lifted her into the bath. Then I swished and splashed and shampooed as she wallowed.

Then it happened. There was soapy stuff on the floor. The athlete Walton, getting into what might be the ideal position to lift – knees bent, levers sprung – was sadly unaware of said spillage. From then on, we’re talking something out of Hanna-Barbera. Mid-lift, the left ankle heads for Ireland with the right resolutely anchored in Pembs.

In truth it wasn’t one of those orgasmo-traumatic affairs. (I may have expelled something, but it was neither a howl, nor an expletive). I did note some feeling or other but it was hardly tectonic. After the cartoonised parting of the legs, I even walked behind the pooch, holding the towel over her back, to prevent the cataclysmic shake-out whilst exiting the building. I accompanied her across the road – well, hobbled, but I thought that was mostly about having bare feet – so that she could roll in the grass in the sunshine, before I returned to the sanctuary of the settee. Where I have remained, pretty much, for two (or is it three?) days.

About twenty minutes post The Incident I was wincing a little. An hour later could’t walk… at all and the family were beginning to mention the W word.

Withybush is our hospital. It ain’t perfect but it’s ours, and it’s precious. Like most outposts of the NHS it’s been under threat – more than that, been actively been undermined – for a decade or more, by both Welsh Government policy and by the clowns in Westminster. In view of the particular circumstances, I called reception to ask if there were Covid Protocols in place that I needed to know about, before coming in to A & E.

There were but in short, they worked… and I signed in and, remarkably, given that my last visit (potential hernia check) lasted five hours, saw a doctor within half an hour. Done.

He was great, the whole signing-in through a temporary wind-tunnel thing was great and the diagnosis and the genial re-hab demo’s were impressively, even charmingly comprehensive. “Tendons. Take real care with you’re re-hab: typically people (of my age, implied) can fail to return to sporting activity after this injury, because (implied) they don’t look after their recovery”. Consequently, feet up, icing, settee, etcetera.

So it is from that noble but admittedly well-worn corner of the room that I now attend – deliberately – to not very much. Except cricket, social media and lifting of generous mugs.

*And yet*. It dawns on me that it’s nearly August. And again, mysteriously, that perennial low-burning question of whether or not I might actually play, has been ‘complicated’.

Traditionally, the issue has resolved itself (in the negative) by the combined weight of family responsibilities and volume of coaching. But over the last couple of years I’ve subconsciously or otherwise move a tad closer, theoretically, to playing, by relinquishing Regional Coaching. Last year, I shifted up into Actively Considering Playing Mode, but carried a hernia through the (coaching) season – so no chance. In 2020 I felt similarly disposed to turning out before the tendon-squishing. But hey; are we seeing a pattern, here?

I am. And sadly there is one, obvious, oven-ready conclusion. I’m past it.

Not going to put a figure on it but I’m oldish… but genuinely reasonably fit. I’m no freak – other than in terms of energy – but I still feel I can (for example) field like most thirty-year-olds. Not flawlessly, not exceptionally, but with a goodish level of athleticism and a daft level of commitment. Because I can… and I bloody love it.

I’ve never been much of a bat (although can bluff a bit, if the bowling ain’t too sharp) but have always loved bowling. I still love the feel of a new ball in my hand and still, laughably, embarrassingly, picture myself getting that cherry, first up and being a Real Threat to the Opposition – any opposition – even though this is plainly delusional. (If I do play, I do run in pathetically hard – not that you’d notice – because it feels right and offers a kind of six-times-an-over fitness test, which I love).

I’ve played almost no cricket for decades. After being told by my PE teacher that I should play county cricket, as a teen (because of that bowling), work, football then family life got almost entirely in the way of cricket. So it never really happened, as a player. Friendlies, festivals or pub cricket, sometimes with years in between.

I hugely enjoyed a handful of occasional games for Haverfordwest 4ths a few years back, having coached juniors at the club for several years but was neither available nor good enough to go much higher than that, by then. Didn’t matter that other things took precedence; I was just tremendously grateful to play those few games – genuinely. There are some fabulous cricket people at the club and alongside Llanrhian CC, where I have been privileged to spend a good deal of time over the last few years, either volunteering or with my Cricket Wales hat on, H’west remains a contender for a Possible Return.

But that injury/those injuries: the time necessary to recover fully, now. The risk that a rash decision might even conceivably impact more widely on my quality of life, which is all about romping the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and coaching kids with ridiculous, infectious energy. Would be crazy to rush anything, in a shortened season, eh?

So o-kaaay. No rushing back. Feet up, both metaphorically and in reality. Drink some tea, listen to TMS, get fed and watered a little.

Two things have struck me. Firstly that it really is important to play whilst you can. Secondly, that all that stuff you hear from other people about knowing when to quit is pret-ty unhelpful: because it’s personal, all this, the circumstances are yours alone. What I do may well be linked to whether my son – who is now loving his cricket but working away – plays as an occasional extra at Llanrhian. If he does, I’d be substantially more likely to gear up for a gig as The Bloke They Call When They’re Crazy-Short. But can I control any of that? Nope.

Re-hab, then and patience. Be at ease with this. It may be out of my hands.

I feel spookily calm about the possibilities here, despite all the sentiment swirling around. Being unable to know what will happen isn’t ‘killing me’ – no, not at all. It doesn’t stop me, in fact, from being clear on something critical: that I absolutely do want to make playing possible again. So I’ll get fit to walk, then fit to run, and take it from there.

Being Naughty.

A Tweet. Set me off. On a trail that may be irreverent and ill-judged.

Forgive me. I’m neither trying to offend nor in any sense under-estimating the importance of the #Covid19 protocols. (Friends, I’ve spent most of the last several months imparting the details of those very protocols to the good people of Wales). I get that this stuff is important: I get that it’s life and death, potentially.

And yet

Jofra’s nipping ‘off to the flat’. Indeed that whole, daft-but-also-massively-irresponsible thing. Can that not be a source of comedy, too? It was, on twitter. Is it bad that I laughed at some of that? If you think so, maybe leave me now… and all the best.

In response to a tweet from Barney Ronay, yer man @DavidJMcGaughey said… leading me to say…

All of which is silly-blokey (I get that) but got me thinking about other breakouts, or potential breakouts.

So purely for laughs, a wee list of who/how-they-might… break the shackles of responsibility of such-and-such. Because (however irresponsibly) I am clear that we like a rebel, when it comes down to it. Even if they might cost us a Test Match.

  • Beefy the obvious place to start. There’s no doubt a library full of more or less outrageously beeftastic Breakouts. (I speak as the brother of a cub reporter who was on the scene moments after Sir Ian *had a quiet word* with a young gentleman after an evening’s entertainment in Scunthorpe – this in Botham’s football-playing days. Not that this would be the most dramatic or news-worthy of his extra-curricular activities).
  • But what would be the classic Botham Breakout? And who else/how else might the Collective Bubble of Responsibility be pricked? Who are or were the scallywags – your scallywags?
  • Weirdly, my own first thought was Derek Randall, but this may have been more about my memory of his agreeably mischievous fizzog than any propensity of his for tunnel-digging. But, if pushed, I see ar Derek climbing out the hotel window with remarkable agility, scooting gleefully down a drainpipe or six, before meeting a couple of other reprobates at a rum bar in Kingstown, or supping pints of mild at a regular haunt in downtown Nottingham. He could do that and still field like a god, following morning.
  • Gatting. And maybe Gooch. Both stodgier, arguably more lugubrious sorts and obviously both generally loaded down with more responsibility than Randall. But I see them rather bullishly defying the curfew – perhaps with despairing coach or media man watching on – before they march off in search of Quality Nosh and a large glass of red. Perhaps in Australia… which would up the ‘bollocks to everything and everyone’ factor. Not mentioning South African rebel tours; unforgivable and not funny.
  • Not even sure of they were mates but somehow see Flintoff and Harmison out on the illicit razz, too. Having successfully done the weasling out, post a zillion faux-Parachute Regiment signals down the hotel corridor. Maybe Simon Jones is there, baseball cap reversed, squeezing Harmison’s buttock’s and giggling, as they slide past The Gaffer’s Room? Whichever way, this is mission on for a properly savage piss-up: probably in New Zealand, I’m thinking. (Who cares if that figures? It happened).
  • Oooh Robin Smith. Must have been guilty but probably in the Botham scenario. So likely a serial offender.
  • These are all relatively old guys, partly, of course, because I am. There is an issue, in the modern era, clearly – the volume and omnipresence of Media People both in the England Squad Support Group and in the Press Corps around it. So loads of people to potentially grass you up. I know some of the latter and I can exclusively reveal that some of them would absolutely love it if player X or Y either led or joined in with a breakout. I know I would. (Do I need to reiterate my acknowledgements that of course we’re not talking Covid-like situation, here and this is not remotely in that league of serious? No? Good. Onwards then with a couple more.
  • There surely remain Likely Lads, *even now* – witness Stokes/Hales and everything. (Broadly, I think thank god for that).
  • However booze is still central to relaxation, in a way that maybe doesn’t reflect that well on any of us. Testosterone is similarly plainly a factor un-dimmed by years of training, non-negotiable behaviours, ‘protocols’. Young men, cooped up? Horny and bit restless? No wonder nightclubs loom largish in the imagination.
  • Hmm. So in the current England squads, who are the ones, what are the odds?
  • Should I risk a Breakout Rating, based on almost nothing but headshot, body-language, levels of barking-ness?
  • Yes. Yes I should risk that. Here it is; selected individuals… because, whatever…
  • Joe Root. Has that potential to be a right Mister Clean but end of a tour, hauled out or called-out by feisty comrades? 5-10.
  • Eoin Morgan. As with Root, strong sense of responsibilities. Might go wild in or against Ireland, possibly? 6-10.
  • Jofra Archer. Guilty as charged, regrettably. Beyond that, could be a laff, you suspect, on a team rampage. 10-10.
  • Mooen Ali. Wonderful, charming, rooted bloke. Religious and humble. There have to be doubts about corruptibility quotient. 2-10
  • Jimmy Anderson. Presents often as a miserable bugger. See him staring into a glass, maybe… ver-ry late… possibly melancholically, ‘flying solo?’ Tough call this but going with 7-10 on the basis that he might throw a defiant strop somewhere along the line.
  • Jonny Bairstow. Contender. Temperamental. Red hair. Yorkie. “Don’t tell me I can’t goo sup a pint!” 8-10.
  • Stuart Broad. Coo. Relatively, a sophisticate. But also ‘opinionated’ – and likely to think he’s earned the right to a wee indiscretion. 7-10.
  • Rory Burns. Part of the New Breed? Spent half his life in the classroom with a meedya advisor? Possibly. Frankly have no idea – 5-10.
  • Currans. Sharp, determined-maybe-ruthless, professional. Have haircuts, though – so nightclubs? 7-10
  • Joe Denly. It may be over but… outstandingly solid team man. If someone else leads… 6-10.
  • Ben Foakes. Too good-looking not to want to slurp a cocktail and boooo-geeeee! 6-10.
  • Jack Leach. Sense of humour, recently a student; dark, bald, be-spectacled horse. 7-10.
  • Ollie Pope. Can he even drink yet? 4-10
  • Jason Roy. Full of himself. Might smuggle something IN, then lead a breakout. 9-10.
  • Ben Stokes. Oof. Does seem scarily mature, these days. 2-10?
  • Chris Woakes. Seems great lad. So fun. So draggable outtable? 7-10.
  • Mark Wood. Magnificently certifiable. Possibly been selected to be a one-man Social Committee. Hope he has crates of Newkie Brown secreted under the bed. 9-10.

Jofra was daft and unprofessional. Not at all suggesting his ‘offence’ in this moment equates to the light-hearted frolic above. He will pay a particular price, for a particular indiscretion, understand that. But are there not times when breaking out can be fair enough – can contribute to team mood… and therefore to success? I can’t help hoping so.

#Lockdown Ramble.

A ramble, a confessional, an indulgence: course. But also a laugh and a conversation-starter, or something which *might make you think*, I hope. Might even make you a) tell me which bands are keeping you going b) start yoga c) buy a guitar chord book d) stir yourself generally – even if it’s only to rant against my indulgences.

Or, who knows, it may even possibly make you nod in recognition at my experience of the ‘weird prejudices’ out there – the baggage all-around us, or inside of us? Or make you angry about that stuff.

Whatever, it’s supposed to stoke some activity. Please think about that bit, eh?

 

 

 

Now what?

Eve of Easter. Sun blazing. Barely a motor about, not that we get many but blimey this is extraordinary – idyllic actually, with all due respect to the grockles that prop up our entire county, year on year. The shingle, artfully dolloped around our tiny front garden, is baking; the dog is maybe overheating. Junior (well, six foot four) Walton’s smiliferous uni’ dance-music swells at an appropriately easy pitch for a thoughtful lounge. Proper indulgence.

Where we are (forgive us) the Covid-19 situation really does feel like a phoney war. We’re aware of both ‘some Pembrokeshire cases’ and also also of our responsibilities but frisson around exercising is at an entirely lower level than it might be around Bute Park, Cardiff – to take a random example from the known world.

Now that we’re barred from walking the coast path, we generally yomp about a mile and a quarter to a favourite beach along the road, but in doing so don’t tend to see a single vehicle and only occasionally another couple or family taking their own, equivalent quiet promenade.

Big tides so the beach is a zillion, golden, slumbering cricket-pitches at low water. We tramp like sedately ecstatic lurv-zombies the entire width, more than once, unashamedly breasting through the one hour limit our sagacious minister(s) may or may not have made available for Daily Soul-Maintenance. Done this three times this week; estimated duration six hours. Seen five people, total.

But what else? What else for you? What’s it like?

I’m working a bit, on media/social media stuff. This should constitute about a third of my weekly graft – the remainder being the Community Coach role. Doing no coaching in schools or anywhere else, for obvious reasons. So if I was so inclined, things could be pret-ty sedentary: only (and this is not a boast) I don’t do sedentary.

Have no viable garden – or at least genuinely not viable for most ball games. (This probably accounts for current, high step numbers on the roads). Am honestly outstanding at clattering my way into or through jobs, so been on that – garden, kitchen, garage – and will return. But it’s the pleasurable and the healthy stuff we need to get to yes? What do you do? What can, or do we do? I’m gonna tell you some of my restorative strategies and by all means send me yours.

Restorative bloody Strategies! Who am I kidding? Like you miserably shapeless lot, I am almost exclusively following instinct. Working pretty good, mind.

Prepare to be shamed, bored, amused or utterly gobsmacked by the torrent of indulgobollocks about to spew forth. Cos it’s all about What I Done, Lately. (*Of course I have some faint hope it may either make you laugh, or get you off yer arse, thereby neatly dodging the allegation that this is all a bit me, but hey).

Those of you who know me will maybe take the following without too much offence:  that I’m such a shamelessly persistent clown I really don’t care what you might think. This – by that I mean this blog – is about entertaining ourselves, getting stuff done, not about whether I happen to be good at something. To my mind, the ‘me’ is taken right out of this: it is, therefore, merely an offering.

Hey but let me start with something kosher – something that seems relevant, that figures.

Two or three times in the last fortnight I’ve ambled across the road into the dingletastic field opposite, armed with three coloured hoops, two newish sidearms and a bag of balls. Purpose? Being to get somewhere near competent with the slingers. Have gone up to the almost-flat-but-still-unhelpfully-tussocky heights a hundred and thirty-seven yards from the front door, paced out a pitch length and laid the hoops out. Then slung.

Awful, so far. Too many snatched, accidental bouncers: line okay but if I had been in a net with a group of juniors (let’s say), I’d be banged up unceremoniously by now, for Affray With a Sidearm. So work to do; which is fine in the current time-rich era, yes? May need to look at a couple of videos but will be back up there soonish, trying to hook into a groove: consistency is tough.

The other stuff is both daft and almost ludicrously ‘creative,’ darlings, so now strap in for the cringeathon: some surreal slings of fortune and geography bundled in here, which I hope may be diverting.

Great mates have a caravan on the sweet, relatively unobtrusive wee site down close to our beach. (‘Our Beach’ – lols!) The owners can’t use it as the site, like the county, is effectively sealed-up. They are, however, well up for me checking it over and using it discreetly as a retreat or for any legal purpose, particularly as this has involved heroic clearing-out of 14 million flies that had recklessly expired over the winter/early spring. (What is it with caravans and flies, by the way? Had to wade in to a mincemeat horror-show, which has taken several visits to clear).

Whatever. This caravan has become a haven for two alarmingly healthy pursuits but before I spill the wotsits on those, I feel the urge to say, rather intently, that I’m not looking to escape from anyone or anything (thank you ver-ry much) when I ‘nip down’ there. Relationships all good. Just living in a tiny house – as we do – it makes practical sense.

But what does? Yoga and guitar.

Eh?

Yoga I’ve been doing, clunkily and inconsistently for a couple of years but I now really get it. Guitar, well as the angriest of youffs emerging from the punk epiphany, I acquired a fairly horrible Gibson Les Paul copy and, flukily, a marvellous Ibanez acoustic, before becoming a half-decent rhythm-geetar strumster. Criminally, I stopped playing, almost completely, about twenty years ago.

Some of you will be aware that my wife is often referred to as The Finest Yoga teacher in Wales ‘cos, yes… she is. For twenty years, hugely to her credit, she restrained herself completely from bundling me towards the classes she teaches in nearby Haverfordwest, Narberth and St Davids but finally that wall of restraint (or restraining wall?) crumbled. Not sure quite how, fascinatingly, but I found myself attending sessions and did so with little enjoyment for about eighteen months. This despite being aware that yoga was blindingly obviously something that might benefit a berk like me: I’m 84% fast-twitch fibres. Mostly, life is lived in an optimistic rage. Plus, me back is stiff.

Eventually another wall (or something) broke – or, on reflection, I lump-hammered my way through it. Whether it was working with the breath, just finding myself less gutty and bloated, or something mystical about rhythms and space, couldn’t tell you. But eventually I have begun, despite the continuing lack of flow in my super-annuated, sporty-but-brittle frame, to enjoy yoga. So I’ve been doing some on my own, down the caravan.

Bethan’s classes continue, via the grace of Facebook Live but because we really do live in a tiny house, I can’t work alongside her, out of view. In time I’ll get back to going to classes but for now I stroll beatifically down the van with my iPad, from which an emailed practice can be conjured. (Did I mention, by the way, that caravans these days are more like apartments? Smart). So picture me, silently, unhindered and (ahem) unselfconscious, as I inhale, pause, move, in the medium-copious ‘living area’. Like a cross between Peter Crouch mid-robot and erm… a ballerina.

I’m going down there nearly every day, just now, to ‘do something’. Having had a hernia op’ some months ago – and therefore a yoga gap – I’m building back up towards the 75 or 90-minute sessions typical of a Bethan W class.

But my retreats to the caravan aren’t just about yoga, or even just about that yoga/guitar combo. I am kinda rehabilitating my fingers to the strings and re-engaging the muscle memory for chords: I’m also going to try to learn a few songs. And I’m also trying to write a few songs. This means, among other things, singing.

Real blokes don’t sing, do they? Or not whilst sober – not in front of people. But hang on; let’s go back a little.

Writing songs; song-writing. Shocking truth is I’ve always felt I should or could have done that… but only played at it. Intently, once or twice, but never with any discipline. There was a time when there were fantastic people around me – I make no apology for calling them soulbrothers – who might have joined with a committed rock and roll adventure: didn’t happen.

Not at all saying it’s likely to happen now. Not even remotely suggesting that what I’m doing is good. (It’s at least as likely to be raw embarrassing and I really am fine with that). I’m just saying I’m actually trying, over a period of time, to *finish* some songs – or get them to a place where they feel done.

I know plenty folks live via fixations or aspirations towards Pole Stars or Intentions but I’ve never worked like that: (you?) I lack the Ambition Gear Thing and I suspect this is something I’m perversely proud of.

Right now what feels clear and ‘important’ to me is the instinct to create something while the time and opportunity is there. Broadly, that’s it. There’s flow and energy around so I’m using it. Specifically, this means re-learning the guitar – which I know I can do – honing and crafting some ideas into song lyrics – which maybe I really can’t – and either finding my voice and performing – doubt it – or passing the songs on if there’s any real merit in them, to someone who can perform. Or… leaving them in the metaphorical cupboard, which is fine, particularly if they’re *finished*.

What’s both great and scary is I really do not know if the proto-songs are garbage. And I’m more sure than not that my singing is pret-ty embarrassing. And I’m recording, as part of the challenge! But maybe the result doesn’t matter? Maybe this is a truly developmental experience, whatever?

Yes. Emphatically yes.

The caravan and the glorious, generous, idyllic solitude makes it possible to bawl out loud, bollocks up the guitar, grimace or preen to the mirror. (I do all three). Mainly I forget the words and fear I’m sounding ‘like James Blunt’s dad’ – think it’s likely I look like him.

But none of this matters. The ludicrous nerves(!), even when flying utterly solo; the angst about how lyrics might be understood – would people get the irony, here? – all that is clearly strikingly testing, but great. Part of the newness and growth.

(Re-cap: I’m a reasonably oldish geezer who feels about 34. I get that every word of this is ridiculous – and beginning to sound like some self-help guide – but the point is I’m bloody invigorated by this challenge. Being unsure of whether you really are a complete embarrassment but ploughing on, anyway, is a manifestly edgy place to be, believe me. I recommend it).

I have four songs or song lyrics which feel close enough for rock and roll. I hope to practice versions of them all, over the next few weeks. Could well be they never get aired outside that caravan: who cares? In a month my guitar will be on the up and that will feel good. The documents that are my songs will be there, good or bad, but there.

Have tumbled into a longish read – apologies. Ditto for the extravagant indulgences. Hope that some of this resonates in some way: I think it’s about committing, about making your contribution and just not worrying about where it might sit in the hierarchy of things. There is no good or bad that can undermine the brilliance of your commitment.

So, what’s your guitar, your yoga? Get to it, c’mon. With me. We can support each other, okay?

A-one-two-three-four go!