Cows and buzzards and crows.

It’s hard to judge the impact of things, eh? Because we don’t know what people are thinking and in any case surely market research is heavily flawed, or skewed? Questions too obvious, contexts too directed, intelligence too dubious. Figures – even figures – are arbitrary.

Cricket is being measured and moaned about again: it always was and is and maybe the attention is good – or at least potentially good. The Profile is all. The Argument validates Life Itself.

I love that people care so much about cricket – about anything. They dwell on it, or in it, bawling or beaming or nagging away. The mad-wonderful truth could be, can be that cricket is the matrix within which they express their extraordinary brilliance or passion or flair or psychosis. Measure the massiveness of that.

So, I acknowledge figures more than I trust them. I believe in the truth of the madness. And yet.

We Community Coaches, in Wales and elsewhere have been working mainly recently on the huge All Stars Cricket project. I say huge because from the inside it feels big – and yet I’m not aware of as much hoopla around it this year as last. (Has the level of investment in media-stuff dipped? I don’t know).

In 2017 All Stars felt incontrovertibly a once-in-a-lifetime size commitment, a genuine game-changer’ in terms of investment and impact. 2018 feels maybe less extravagantly present but actually I’m clear it’s acting powerfully and it’s not just the figures that bear this out: it’s the experience.

I’m shockingly biased and shockingly pro-cricket but please hear me out; I’m in there, I know something of this. All Stars is a grower, on me, and in terms of its force.

I led the delivery of the (parallel) Chance to Shine cricket curriculum in Pembrokeshire schools in the winter and early spring, and now act as an Activator (meaning I run the All Stars sessions) at a local village club.

Village? Na, on reflection it’s a magical, seemingly movable speck on the rural landscape (for no-one can find it) nestling against a farm, overlooked only by cows and buzzards and crows. It’s idyllic on heartwarming drugs. It’s Llanrhian. Thursday nights the place is wild.

Wales-wide, there are more than 3,200 children signed up to All Stars, this year. (They tell me this is a thousand more than last year). At Llanrhian we have 26, which between you and me, is almost too many.

This signing-up thing is significant in several respects. Children pay £40, for an 8-week, informal course-with-benefits. They get clobber – bat, ball, t-shirt, etc, etc – but they as a family are kindof invited to commit. Commit the money, the time… and then maybe commit to joining in a little, at the sessions.

The design and the marketing raison-d’etre here speaks of gathering families in – ideally ‘new’, non-cricketing families – to a fun-but-guided sporty, family experience. The aspiration is towards not just providing good healthy fun but also the possibility for really rich shared time.

Some parents will instinctively get this; that this rather profound benefit may be there. Others will be too shy or too deep into the i-phone to notice. Fair enough. The All Stars sessions will be frothing over with good energy into which the parents can dip, or contribute, if they so choose.

I have some fantastically bright and busy and yes ‘boisterous’ kids in my group. The quality of listening is mixed, so I’ve already press-ganged in some support. It’s also – two sessions in – feeling part of the process that some parents (maybe surprised at the drift amongst some of their children?) are starting to wander in to games, to join in, in a way that they sense is helpful.

Hope this doesn’t sound like I’m either abrogating my responsibilities as coach, or endangering relationships, here: I remain aware of the issues around both safeguarding and control. It’s just that careful encouragment of positive interactive activity (which turns into family or truly social activity) really might be the icing on this Starry cake. I’m certainly hoping so… and working towards that. Watchfully.

Look, if, despite the cost and investment in time, a thousand more children have been signed up this year in Wales, and if what they tell me is true regarding 71% of All Stars children last year coming from new, uncricketing families, then I think we can put big ticks in the plus column. The data is positive – and there’s plenty more where that came from.

But we need more than that. We need recounted experiences, facts about feelings.

One example. I can tell you, I have seen that many children were, until All Stars or Chance to Shine lessons in schools, relatively or entirely unfamiliar with the feeling of bat in hand. Patently and understandably, this, in my experience, is the case. That’s changing or changed, because All Stars/Chance to Shine interventions have been huge. More children are getting to know the game.

Secondly, the glee factor – remember that? Kids are going ballistic in a wonderfully liberated way, at our All Stars sessions. It’s noisy and daft and over-the-top because the Stars are absolutely loving it. We’re setting them loose more than we’re directing them. I had one lad last week turn up with his broken arm in plaster: Dad said ‘there was no way he was going to miss it!’ Marley grinned and grabbed a ball.

Just this week we (Cricket Wales) Cricket People are trumpeting #4millionNotOut to celebrate that number of children receiving Chance to Shine cricket in some form. A big PR thing has gone off on our patch – da iawn, Milly-May, in Port Talbot! – so we’re full of ourselves, over that one. Doesn’t matter if this figure is less than football or rugby, or more than tennis or netball. Four million cricketing events. Plus the weight of All Stars on top; recently, now, next few weeks, all over – this matters.

The ECB decided that a monster wedge needed to go into junior cricket. Something transformative. A bubble had to be burst, the game had to be shared. Cricket was wonderful but was nearly out of time – or out of its time? Money to Chance to Shine was doubled, to raise the profile in Primary Schools and then something major had to be done to get new families into clubs.

All Stars is no panacea: said before that I know enough folks in cricket admin who fully accept that retention of fourteen/fifteen year-olds and of course the very shape and format of cricket itself are equally acutely important. Of course they are.

But both at the input-of-juniors level and culturally, All Stars is, in it’s gambolling, free-form, radical and hearty-risky way, opening up both the game of cricket and possibilities and understandings for coaching activity itself. This is profound. Slightly crazy, immeasurably good stuff often is, right?

The Boy Who ‘Couldn’t Catch’.

Now I have to be discreet about the following, for reasons that will become pretty swiftly clear.

Recently, I was coaching in a local Primary School – first session. As a ‘way in’ – that is to get the children moving, giggling, but listening and used to my voice – I often give them all a ball and set them off on ‘journeys’ around the space. (Mostly, the space is a playground and the journeys are a number of lengths or widths, or maybe circuits).

The ball may be different from player to player; often I encourage them to swap so as to experience a different size, shape, feeling.

I think I may have started this particular group off by asking them to make a particular number of catches, over two journeys. Before the off, I asked the children how high we should throw the ball, before launching one forty feet up.

That high? (Giggles).

Why not? Exactly! Because it would be chaos! Because we’d kill every passing seagull or hit Sara, Fred and Tomos on the head and we don’t want that, do we? (Giggles and inevitable contradictions…)

Okaaaay. Maybe we do that seagull stuff later. But first, how many catches? 

After having agreed to throw them about three metres up (max), the children set off, choosing their own kind of catch, as instructed. There are 30 children, which is a few more than the ideal number. I mingle / get in the way, because this too, can be fun and because this way I can check on things and get some encouragement into nearly everyone’s face, immediately.

There’s a boy in tears. I see him early but go past so as not to draw too much attention and then watch a little as I interact with other children – most of whom are unaware of the issue.

Ok. It’s clear the boy is tearful because he ‘can’t catch’ – because he’s frustrated but mainly because of the shame. He’s probably eight. He’s not the only one struggling but he’s the only one who can’t bear the weight of his own ‘inadequacy’. It’s actually the most heartbreaking thing I’ve seen for years, in a school situation.

(Later, whilst considering writing this, I think about how this boy might be described. Obviously I’m not going to detail anything about his appearance in a way that might identify him but there are other difficulties here. Privately, I might (we might?) describe him as ‘looking like a rather sensitive sort’. He was paleish, thinnish. Thirty years ago I/we might have said he was ‘a bit weedy-looking’).

These feel like grossly pejorative terms, now, to the extent that I may yet cut them.  If I persist it’s because I think the feeling I had after the event that this boy should never have been allowed to get to his age without being comfortable with a ball in his hands was a) kinda legitimate and b) as complicated by my own worldview as his alleged lack was (and is) by where he finds himself.

He is in a place that has denied him that particular physical experience – or the few words of encouragement or guidance that might transform that awful fear-fest into an easy, pleasurable life-skill. I think it’s fair – whilst in no way searching for scapegoats – to note the possibility that  the world has failed him.

In the here and now, though, I have to help. As discreetly as possible, right?

I could have found a bigger ball… but this didn’t feel discreet enough, given the level of sensitivity, given the ongoing tears and the boy’s pitiful explanation that he ‘just can’t do it’.

I am in emergency mode here, in a way. I cannot halt the session to offer this boy a one-to-one… and yet I must. I’m simply not having this level of hurt, over something so do-able.

So I flit to and from the individual, whilst dolloping out the encouragement to all. We have to move on and forward. The challenges actually should get incrementally  more sharp – more fun – as we proceed but clearly now I have to offer choices.

Whilst the class in general are more-or-less coping with adding claps into their catches, or bounces, or inventions of their own, I’m looking to grab a few seconds here or there with The Boy Who Can’t Catch. I do. The others are loving it, they are in their own world of adventure.

Firstly, I encourage and I sound friendly. Second, I really get him to listen. Thirdly, I put in there the idea that maybe the ball becomes the only thing in the whole wide universe for one minute… and that we just have to watch it ALL THE WAY IN.

And then I’m gone, to bawl

Wadda catch, Sara! 

or

No waaay did you just get EIGHT claps in there, dude?!? That’s unREAL!

A few discreet returns and one or two repeats later… and we have a Boy Who Can Catch. Maybe not every time – but most, or many.

I move through a zillion swift catching challenges, every time repeating to all that we can choose to stay with our own practice if that feels good to us. Nobody takes a blind bit of notice of that offer but one individual; the rest are finding other, theoretically more ambitious avenues – getting comfortable with that next diversion.

Later in the session we are throwing. The boy has partnered-up with a girl as they throw underarm at a hoop on the floor, opposite each other, stepping back one pace if either one of them hits that target. They do hit. It is evident, in a lovely, quiet way, that both of them are enjoying this.

In the ether.

Update: questions remain, following this extraordinary, garish, polarising Trauma of the Now. The role of the much-loved Boof may be chief amongst them, even if we accept that his six, soon-to-be-iconic words (“wtf is going on?!?”) are accepted as key to his innocence in the moment of ball-tampering. 

What  I’m wondering is – given the obviousness of Warner as a long-term arse – why no sense that he, at any stage, has been reminded of his responsibilities, reined in, by his coach, fellow players… or anyone else?

Fans have hated Warner (strong word but justified in this extreme case), for aeons. His cheap, unnecessary malevolence has been plain to followers of the game around the world. So in the whorl of emotions and reactions around the powerful conclusions from Sutherland’s enquiries, perhaps it might be wise to reflect some on that ‘environment’ thing? Again, this may bring us back to Boof… and to the Cricket Australia hierarchy more widely.

 

Here’s wot I wrote as the story was breaking…

 

So the world’s exploded into a rage that we really don’t need to add into. But we will anyway… because #sandpapergate.

The thing is hatred is a strong, ugly, unhelpful emotion and it can’t be good that there’s so much of it about: and yes this applies generally but let’s stick to cricket – to the cricket ether. 

Warner. Raw truth is Warner has been hated pretty much across the globe for some years. Ye-es, there is an argument that he is feared by opposition fans because he’s a threat, a player but let’s not be so daft as to think that the hatred is arising solely or even mostly from that; it’s not. It’s stoked by the persistent, cheap, boorish-aggressive behaviour of the player – of Warner. Warner carrying the flag for a country (or maybe just a squad?) who pride themselves on being the toughest.

Davy boy is the attack-dog, the snarling soul, the little big man, leaping and punching hysterically, hatefully sending all-comers off. He is Aussie Toughness personified.

Forgive us our feebleness but some of us don’t think real toughness is the same as Davy’s loudness, as his crassness, as being most-intimidating-in-a-foul way. We reckon the essence of real toughness is often a kind of quiet.

So this Aussie notion of ‘going to war’ and getting into the heads of your opposite numbers through erm, a game of cricket feels pitifully weak, as understandings of toughness go, to us. As a concept it feels weak, indulgently, incriminatingly weak, weak intellectually, morally and in terms of modelling.

Hang on, did I say morally? Haha! Yes! Because however hilarious and pompous these, my concepts are, I’m going to plant a flag round this baybee:

there is always a moral and/or behavioural dimension to sport – particularly at the representative level. It may even define the thing… as sport.

So, no surprises that an evidently persistent – and therefore presumably coached and intentionally ‘confrontational’ approach – has blown up in the faces of the aggressors. Whether this is traceable to a sort of natural justice, righteous sports-karma or simply and only to Bancroft’s exposed intervention is for you honourable sleuths to decide: I’m less interested in the timeline of events than the haul towards progress, here.

Aus cheated and were caught. And hoisted.

Previously, South Africa and their fans have been guilty of ugliness, belligerence, foul sportsmanship. (This may have been the spark but #sandpapergate is, we all agree, inexcusable, irrespective, yes?)

Before these guys… well, again, make your own chart. Kohli may be guilty, Anderson may be guilty, Broad, Atherton, Henry VIII: the video, the betamax, the whisper, the quill records the mortal wrong. Blimey. Where do we go from here?

Maybe we gather our wits. Maybe we penalise Smith, Warner, Bancroft and (after further, prompt enquiries), their coach. Maybe then we have an intelligent review of the strengths and weaknesses of where we’re at, with a view to legislating and/or recalibrating the Preamble to the Laws? Or we scrap them and determine to be contemporary in our judgement.

Said many times I fully accept that the volume of guffawing around the Spirit of Cricket means we have to be ver-ry careful of anything that sounds or feels like historic posturing. Like it or not, the universe will not blithely accept stuff that feels preachy, sanctimonious, archaic. Even if that stuff reflects good.

The Aussies cheating should be the catalyst not for Furious of Fremantle to scream ‘but what about?… but for calm reflections on effective ways forward. In the blur around this one despicable act, there must be a way to account for or prepare a response to (for example) Warner and Rabada’s ill-discipline – to cultural over-zealousness, to the prevailing macho-mania.

It could be of course, that the necessary weaponry is in place. That umpires and match referees, never mind the ICC or individual national authorities can sort this. Let’s hope that in the inevitable charge towards Decisive Action, we don’t fall into the trap of demanding consistency, when the situations demand intelligent, individual appreciation. (I say this in the knowledge that high profile former players and pundits alike will bawl out for that comforting c-word – naively, in my view).

This won’t be easy. We’ve heard too many braying about the stifling of characters in the game or ‘sanitising’ the great confrontations for this to be straightforward. But anyone with more than a handful of braincells must surely see that a) plain cheating is wrong and b) bitterness and x-rated conflict are not essential to the drama of great sport. Yes that sense that feelings are running high can be exhiliratingly present… but no, no, NO, this is not the object, the pretext for indulgence.

There is tellingly little sympathy around, for Smith, Warner and Bancroft. Even on their home patch, apparently. Whatever happens next – and there will be somebody, somewhere, right? – this is one of the great, self-inflicted booboos in modern sport. Outsiders view it as the biter bit, par excellence, relishing the fall of these particularly prickly protagonists.

We need to convert this relish over to energetic renewal. If Australia at large really is mortified, then the onus may be on them to start the ball rolling on the cultural education front. But when the immediate concern is for #sandpapergate, will Cricket Australia be bold or generous enough to make the link between broad (but weedy, but spiteful) confrontationalism and hollowed-out sport? I hope so.

 

Back to bed, then. For a month, maybe?

Oof. Up before the 3.20 alarm – just. Quick hot lemon and honey then just as you’re settling, Aleem interveneth.

Cruelly late – and surely influenced by an enormous appeal from Australia (the whole continent) – Dar raises that cruel finger on Woakes.

On review there is clearly no white spot… but snicko suggests a tiny feather: Woakes is gone.

It feels tough and possibly terminal; second ball – SECOND BALL! The locals are horribly rampant. When Root also edges Hazlewood behind, in his very next over, the thing feels over. Despite Moeen’s craft and Bairstow’s quality, the hope not so much gone as annihilated. At 3.38 you do, you confess, think of bed.

Both were straight balls. Woakes then Root beaten by that extra four miles an hour, only – or that and their nerves. The key to the series, right there.

Us cra-zee England fans (contemplating bed) are also thinking maybe Bairstow and Moeen could yet find their flow; battle quietly for half an hour then begin to erode that 170 lead. We know they’re both fabulous players when the juices are flowing and we like to think Smith and co may not deal all that well with purposeful counter-attack. Then Cummins comes on and beats Bairstow all ends up with an 86 mph leg-cutter.

Moeen becomes becalmed. Bairstow looks under pressure – which of course he is. Credit Australia. Cummins and Lyon come in early after Hazlewood and Starc and absolutely maintain the squeeze. Moeen’s response against the latter is to try and break out with a sweep. Clunk. He’s leg before.

So thirty-something minutes in and the match seems done. Likewise the series. Likewise the whole purpose of life.

Given the spike in enmities between the sides, this is a catastrophe unleashed for England. Another humiliation at the hands of some jeering, sneering Aussies. Bottom line is these barsteds are better; or three or four of them are.

Cummins has looked class: quick, skilled, disciplined. Starc has actually been less good than he might have been thus far – which is clearly rather concerning – but he’s winkled people out, nevertheless. Lyon has been all over us. Hazlewood bowled beautifully for that critical first period today. The upshot of the barely credible hoopla and drama of this test has been that their bowlers have smashed us more decisively and predictably than we’ve smashed them.

We’ve barely started but Overton is in; ridiculously. Cummins torments him and then hits him, hard, in the chest. Then Bancroft weakly drops one. There’s a lull but not anything to *actually encourage* the tourists. Wickets simply feel medium-likely instead of immediately inevitable, for about three overs. My god Overton and Bairstow are clearly trying but they’ve not settled; merely survived, to the 200 mark. 200 for 7.

4.52 a.m. Enter the new ball. Starc bowls full at Overton. It shapes in late, in the air – it’s too good. Full enough to be hitting… and the finger goes up. Overton has again earned some respect, for his guts and his stickability but this was a peach. 207 for 8.

Bairstow strikes one of very few confident drives down the ground: four, off Starc. The sun is shining but is it me, or does this seem principally to exaggerate the alarming lustre of that new, pink cherry? The cherry that’s suddenly hooping – comically down leg, for four byes, in the case of a rare loose one from the returning Hazlewood. People, this ball looks unplayable, immediately.

Bairstow has 27. There are 134 runs required to win. Broad faces Starc, who again goes fabulously full. Broad escapes, off the toe-end – twice! This can’t last.

Australia have been excellent, goddammit. Interestingly, too, they’ve chosen to stow away the bouncer almost completely. When Starc has Broad caught behind off a tremendously full delivery, that policy seems entirely wise, as well as creditable. Again there was a touch of swing, again it was too quick for the batsman – so why wouldn’t you bowl that way? Anderson is in for the last rites.

Starc offers Bairstow drives and briefly, he partakes. But then he plays on. England are all out for 233, meaning Australia win by 120 runs. The handshakes seem pretty good-natured.

The inquest, for England will focus on the batting, whilst acknowledging the bowling was poor in that critical first session. Anderson, so often and so rightly lauded for his prodigious, refined skills, bowled distressingly short – embarrassingly short, given his knowledge and experience – and set the tone for chronic underachievement. (Later, he did the opposite and took a deserved 5-fer but that later was what it said on the tin).

One view might be that we gifted an ordinary Australian batting line-up some respite: they gathered and Marsh was able to cash in. A sensational turnabout for the second Aus innings was always going to be against that context and those numbers… and would mean nothing should our batters fail again second time round.

The batsmen did fail. When the big moments came, Australia powered through. Hazlewood found length and bounce. Starc – I maintain, without bowling remotely to his full, frightening capacity – blew people away. Cummins was magnificent and Lyons supremely consistent. On the final day, again, Australia rose to it and England did not.

So what’s to be done? Only if Mark Wood is electrifying in the next ten days or if Stokes becomes available will there be a change amongst the bowlers. (Moeen will not be dropped, I suspect, despite his lack of a contribution so far). They have been fallible but also effective and we probably have none better.

Batting-wise I wondered aloud a fortnight or so ago about Bairstow being hoisted up to three and though that’s a big ask for the lad I return to the thought. Vince has probably carved his way out so there’s juggling to be done. Ballance may add some doughty resistance but my hunch is he’s more likely to do that at five than three. Plus he’s essentially defensive and we’re two down. Hales is a huge talent but you’d probably play him five, not three, if at all. Cook stays, obviously but gets the general bollocking about playing nothing you don’t need to play. The coach has work to do.

If Bairstow does go up the order, does Foakes play? Not necessarily, in my view. Bairstow is so bloody fit and temperamentally such a gem that I don’t think there’s a concern around his extra workload. But only the coach, seeing Foakes in the environment, seeing Bairstow’s energy (or otherwise) can judge that. (Incidentally, only the coach can bully the other possible, significant change – stick Root in at three).

If I’m calling it I put Bairstow to three and bring in Hales  – we’re going to have to attack to win matches, right? Hales can do that blazing away thing – if he can ever get in.

I don’t personally foresee a whitewash here, despite the consistent failure (do we call it capitulation?) during those key moments. The thing that might change that is if Starc gets to his absolute peak. So far Australia have been too good without Starc finding his scariest, most unplayable best. God help us if he does.

 

Resting, before acting.

I’m not much of an actor but I have been resting; between performances, or bundles of performances.

Pretentious? Moi? Well, that’s kindof what our sessions in schools are; more-or-less theatrical projections or expressions of strategy, policy, faith in our sport. And I have been waiting for the next launch, the next tour of our Community Cricket show to begin, so it’s felt like a rather welcome lay-off as well as a time to gather, before going again.

As I guess there must be for the average thesp, so there’s a weirdly seductive tension around my own downtime. Part of this arises from the fever going on in the background, as a discreet fury of discussion over strategy rises or rages to its conclusions. It feels as threatening as it does exciting. It feels big.

I mean of course the ECB/Chance to Shine/All Stars/Player Pathway stuff that has occupied the lives of most Cricket Development people over the last two years or more. The Seminally (Semenally?) Sexy Questions about how cricket needs to be, to be bubble-burstingly present for the next generation.

Hard to imagine? The sweeptastic revolutions on the pitch being mirrored by off-the-fullest-run-imaginable stylee pow-wows for admin staff and cricket people at all levels?

It’s been happening. It’s been spicy – and probably, I’m guessing still is – but given the preciousness of the raw material and the (honestly!) radical nature of some of the ECB proposals, no surprises that opinions might veer towards the antagonistic.

I’m at arms length from most of this, admittedly, being Coach rather than Development Officer. But I’m close enough to know that massive calls are being or have been made on everything from player pathways to All Stars to Coach Education. Big Stuff around the recreational game. Big Stuff around re-inforcing the rationale and execution of All Stars. Big Investments in change; a) because the belief is change is right and b) because the confident expectation is that there will be money. All this llus arguably Even Bigger Stuff in relation to the professional game, which I will all but ignore, here.

Year 2 All Stars is almost upon us. If you’re not clear what this is or means, here’s a view, or review, of some of the whats and whys.

All Stars Cricket is the ECB headline project for young children, begun this year, enacted through clubs. For 5-8 year-olds, very much aimed at boys and girls, very often via their mums, after shedloads of research showed this was the way to attract new families into the cricket universe.

All Stars is bold and welcoming and new: it represents a break away and forward (arguably – your choice) because Matt Dwyer, the Australian guru/driver/leader-in-possession of The Rationale has a) done this successfully before (in Aus) and b) believes only this level of ambition and dynamism can keep pace with or make sense with the kaleidoscope of change around the pro game. All Stars is defiantly in your face: not just an extraordinary investment but also a considered (and therefore philosophical) commitment to breaking out from the narrow heartland of the status quo towards something simply but strikingly more popular.

I have no doubt that there are one or two key words in that last paragraph that put the beejeeebers up some good cricket folks. But there’s no going back on this. All Stars is populist, yet the powers that be (or enough of them to back it, ultimately) plainly view it as essential to delivering new blood, new impetus. Resources are flowing that way again.

However, Roadshows to support the project and answer questions were delayed: I can’t honestly tell you whether this was due to alarm bells ringing or logistical stuff re kit or accessories or what. I can tell you that in a striking departure for us Community Coaches, our work in schools (as of any minute now) will be aimed primarily at a kind of parallel All Stars course, heavily linked to the general Primary curriculum and that we will be coaching the younger age-groups – Years 1 &  2. This is significant.

In previous years, the objective was more about enthusing 7-11 year-olds for the game and ‘signposting’ them into clubs ready to receive and support a new Under 11 side. The switch of focus to All Stars at 5-8 was initially to gather a new audience earlier, compete earlier with other sports and plant the cricket flag more visibly into school playgrounds: Dwyer (not entirely wisely, in my view) openly talks about ‘winning the battle of the playgrounds’.

All Stars has always been more sophisticated than might appear at first glance – probably as a result of the huge lump of research that preceded it. Year 2 will build on this by being ver-ry savvy in relation to what Dwyer & co. have understood to be the aspirations of the broader curriculum. In other words, the crossovers between mere cricket and all manner of learning skills (over and above the obvious developments in physical literacy) are being strongly emphasised.

Cynics might fear this is driven by box-ticking rather than the joy or brilliance or undeniable value of ‘games’ in itself: it certainly appears to cosy up to contemporary notions of what’s good educationally, as opposed to what makes wonderful and enriching sport. The All Stars proponents – and I am largely though not uncritically in this camp – would say that the project can deliver Big on the physical and the educational side.

You may not believe me when I tell you that I/we Community Coaches probably do need a rest between tours: I think we do. I know I’m pouring most of the bestest, truest, most generous-personal energy I can muster into trying to light up kids (mainly) through cricket-based games. Honestly, at the end – not during, not for me anyway – you do find the battery has run a tad flat.

Right now, then, I’m waiting, before doing some re-training or further training specific to the All Stars delivery. Then I’m on it.

In fact I may start with some work with Secondary School Girls, as we’ve run a really successful Lady Taverners competition here in Pembs, for some years. If logistics allow – and there can be issues around travelling for matches or clashes with other sports – all eight of our Secondary Schools try to enter teams. I try to get round the schools to lead some sessions and encourage, as well as attending the matches themselves.

Always sounds a bit corny when some bloke says something like ‘I really do want to make girls feel like they can and should be playing cricket’ but… that’s the way I feel. Indoor, festival-type cricket can be a great way in.

Two new teams were set up last season in the Pembs Ladies League. Having led pre-2017 season training sessions, I was struck by the proper keenness and quality and pride (actually) amongst the cricketing women. I am really hopeful and optimistic that more girls will step up as the opportunities feel more real – and as the role-models become yet more visible. In all the turmoil and change, the profound development of women and girls’ cricket will surely be a constant; undeniable and undeniably good?

Over to you, Sarah Taylor, Nat Sciver…

 

 

Changing Rooms.

We end the year with more icons falling. Some mean more or less everything, in the moment, others slip away with minimal trauma. But the thing of The Event surely grows. Celebrity. The pull or dazzle of The Stars.

We all have our theories on this – and our judgements. One such might be that it’s inevitable and bad, that t’internet-led, halogen-quality, dumb-kaleidoscope-in-a-bad-way ‘behaviours’ have somehow infested our consciousness or swamped and smothered it into juvenile mush. We can’t think, can’t judge, can only follow or wallow.

That’s pretty much my view. Or maybe the view (as it were) from my gut.

It’s tempting to describe what we’re up to generally as both massively better-informed and largely stoopider and stoopider, right? Everybody has the capacity to know everything but somehow we got criminally dumber. How did we stumble into this full-on malaise-fest? We’ve gotten clouds when we need lasers.

If we cared to ratchet in one notch we might be forced to contemplate some yet more incriminating failure to not only assimilate readily-available knowledge, but fall utterly for sleazeball grades of prejudice around the simplest of issues; like goodness and badness, for example. Thus things become twisted, as well as or instead of being learned. We maybe got dumber and less moral, then?

This is quite a legacy for the year we’re talking here.

Going no further with this – not here or now. It’s merely the context for my own re-gathering of certainties, or maybe impulses I feel confident about. Confident enough to call them healthy – healthy and true.

Asitappens I work in sport. So the notion that we are subsiding into an entirely brain-dead, sedentary state in which we trawl in the wake of endless Lowest Common Denominators, whilst being familiar to me, is emphatically hoofed or carved or chased to the touchline. Yup there’s worrying dollops of lard-arsed acquiescence out there but there is also brilliance and sharpness and anticipation – refreshing, glorious movement.

And yes there is that twin evil(?) obesity – clearly inextricably linked to shocking diet (and yes, poverty and/or ignorance) plus lack of activity – but there is also invincible energy, around sport, around activity for pleasure.

We know in the case of children they simply don’t play in the way we did – certainly not out of school hours. We might also fear that they don’t charge about enough IN school, with time and place for Physical Education squeezed by the moronic pressures towards ‘targets’. Yet I am here to tell you, dear friends, that it is extremely likely your kids or grandkids will meet somebody inspiring and fit and playful during their time at Primary School.  They will be offered the game.

It’s clearly the business of folks like me to inspire them towards a particular sport – mine being cricket. But over a quiet pint most of us would confess to being more than happy to see children fall for the other tracksuited fella/other woman’s game.   To me there’s no contradiction in trying to be the fabbest, funniest and most inspiring sports coach Kid A will see at his or her school and being deebloodylighted when it turns out they’ve chosen regular rugby over regular cricket. Kids simply must do something.

I can, will and do make the case for team sport in particular because for me the craic and the learning are special. But this doesn’t mean I dismiss climbing, or surfing, or tennis – they’re ace too. However here’s a couple of thoughts, drawn absolutely from the most profound and wonderful experiences of my life, on why team sports.

Before we plough excitedly but sincerely on, a minor warning. Please read the next paragraph without being distracted by admittedly important and current news stories; I’m serious and it ain’t gonna work if you drift.

Dressing Rooms –Changing Rooms! – are places where real magic stirs. Of course, there have often been a zillion stages of learning or skills development before we get to playing matches but Proper Matches are it. The occasion around matches – the psychology, the camaraderie, the deep learning, the growth.

I understand the need for caution around all this Real Sport Is stuff. In fact I seem to spend half my life writing or working against what I tend to call dumb machismo. So this is not going to be some bullish cry for tribal aggression masquerading as ‘liberation’. Read on, reassured, people…

I spend most of my working life committed to non-competitive games or making games about inclusion – literally the sharing of the sport – as well as cricket skills, communication, activity, etc. So I am not some brutalist blokey-donkey equating sport with winning. But there IS another level for sport where powerfully human things get tested. Provided things are in place to make this kind of game work, it is or can be one our species’ great achievements.

In Changing Rooms I learned that the young lads I played cricket/football/rugby with were different but all brilliant. The hooligans were brilliant; the swots and the comedians were brilliant.

Those that knew or feared that they were destined for drudgery expressed their finer wits – fact! – around the game. Sure, they battled but they were also funnier than most comedians: or they were subtle or creative or electrifying on the park. A lad not blessed with academic precision counted exactly the 73 ‘fucks’ in the managers team-talk. Or Owen Roberts sent us out to ‘represent our region and our friends’ ten feet tall.

Through laughter and sometimes through grit and graft, we players came to value each other. Don’t tell me now that brickies or forklift-truck drivers are mugs: in Changing Rooms I learned otherwise. I’m rooted in this.

Though I’m hardly immune to the distractions of the twittersphere or (via my children) the instagram generation, and though I mourn the insidious omnipresence of all that is vacuous or ‘starry’ or sold to me by Keepemdown Multinational Corporation, I know some key stuff. I know sport. I know it’s profound as well as fun.

So when the universe feels overloaded with either junk or fakery; when things seem to conspire against intelligence or truth; when you want a real, genuine laugh – the kind that is undeniable and life-affirming – maybe just go play. Could even be that engaging in sport (because it typically defies prejudice?) is a progressive riposte to political and/or philosophical post-truths? Like that as a thought? Or that freeing up the spirit tends to be, or is facilitative of an act of protest?

Maybe these are my reasons. Maybe I think life is wonderful because even in our dumbness, we change – we run a bit, perhaps? – and we are brilliant.

The state of play.

Look we all know it’s ludicrous to go making comparisons. Between sports. Particularly when we go charging across the nations and the generations. But it’s also part of the fun. We’ve all (haven’t we?) illuminatingly weighed up Derek Randall and Theo Walcott, Andy Murray and Colin Montgomery, Michael Holding and Chris Ashton. Today feels like a day for a bit of all that.

Could be because rugby’s just rhino-charged back into the national consciousness – on a weekend where England play cricket in Cardiff. Plus (just to put the tin hat on the surreality of it all) Big Sam’s generally pitiful army start yet another World Cup campaign. So we’re entitled to drown in our own distracted chatter; aren’t we? Good.

Let’s start with the cricket.

As I write, England are going about their One-Day business, in pretty confident expectation of blitzing Pakistan in an entertaining but one-sided series. Blindingly obviously, there’s been another obvious lurch forward.

Bayliss and Farbraces’s posse(s) are clearly building impressively on more than one front. England have gone from being a raw embarrassment in short-format cricket to being one of the finest, most dynamic and not unimportantly one of the most watchable sides in world cricket.

Recent Tests may be less emphatic evidence of a level of development that really should have widespread and significant recognition but perhaps the uncertainties around (say) Hales and/or the number 4/5 batting slots might be considered more in the context of an encouragingly powerful blend within the squad. For me, the management team patently know what they’re doing in terms of bringing on a bunch of guys.

England and Wales cricket have genuine world stars in Root and Stokes (and in an admittedly less Boys Own kindofaway) Cook. They also have fellas like Woakes and Bairstow who, despite their obvious brilliance, are having to compete like hell for a place in the team. The ECB’s topline representatives – far from being Boring Old Fartish – are, in short, looking bloody strong, with the capacity to mature into something proper, erm aromatically tasty.

Almost finally on this, England are in danger of having players to look up to or love. Whether this be in the form of the charmingly, boyishly magnificent Root, or the horsier/left-fieldier Wood. They’re real, they’re engagingly chirpy and we all know they wannabe mates with us. Anybody playing football for England stack up against that?

Cobblers of the cheapest variety, of course. But fan-based cobblers, because yes, I am a fan, from a footballing family in the North of Ingerland, originally. And I do dare to back my right to mither or crow – or champion.

Back ‘midst the Cricket love-in, briefly, we may need to acknowledge the galvanising force of Cultural Positivity.  If this translates as both a raising of the glass to the work of the backroom staff and some appreciation that freeing the boys up is a function of mature and intelligent reflection rather than some dodgy contemporary dogma, I’ll sign up to that. England Cricket are brighter, busier, more aggressive – more positive. As is the game.

Now crossover to the footie. Wales (you may have finally-recently noticed), have their own football team.

Their stunningly successful Euro 2016 campaign was such a classic of unity and spirit (google the word hwyl, you Saes) it’s already been inwardly digested by the massively more well-endowed English FA – who have installed their own No Shit Sherlock tough-guy defender-of-the-faith, Big Sam.

This, in the context of previous dalliances with more exotic but nonetheless hopeless stewardship feels somewhere between a belated dollop of self-awareness and a concession to low expectation. England Football is (for example) gambling on freakily shot or depressingly brittle talents like Sterling, whilst Wales must now front up to the reality of being a team that should go beat people.

Both, therefore, face challenges, but surely England have the more threatening gulf to stilt-walk across?

As an active under-appreciator(!) of nearly everything the new England manager stands for, I confess to being little stirred by what happens next to Rooney, Raheem or even the genuinely fascinating Mr Stones. However, I am interested in the human: so that thing about whether they will look like they believe in Allardyce – having failed to project that for aeons under previous regimes – is the source of some fascination.

However, however. It’s one of the great vanities of world sport that England’s 60 Years of Hurt is still being by unpicked by idle scribes like myself. Enough; let’s waft on past.

Rugby. Is wonderful and confident in its own, indomitably morally-rooted fashion. Rugby people know their sport is a bastion against everything from too much time in the barbers to too much reality telly. Though plainly issues arise the great integrity of the whole remains largely un-nibbled by indulgence, arrogance or whatever phase of Pokemon wotsit we happen to be enduring. It’s about real clunking and real fronting up: it necessarily weeds out the fakers and the frauds. Rugby is essentially good: this the argument.

I buy some of that – strangely. But it doesn’t divert us from the task in hand – namely to surgically unravel the mysteries of current anglo-welsh attainment in the game, like us fans do.

Clearly it’s England who will dominate the flow, here. Since the appointment of a stiffer, brashier, ballsier, more Australian coach some months ago, the English have found or re-found a method. They now simply repel the insecurities that apparently plagued the Lancaster era. They are tough and they don’t care… they simply execute. It’s early but already Jones is in danger of deserving the fatal description ‘genius’.

Okaaay. But Wales have players that people love. Do England? Do they have a Liam Williams or a Jamie Roberts or are they simply a faceless powerhouse of a side? This may matter – like time and attention spans matter.

Maybe we finish with a points table. Maybe it looks like this;

(Out of 10.)

England football. Lovability 3 / style points 4 / current success level -26.

Wales football. L 8.5 / s p 5 / c s l 7.5.

Eng rugby. L 6.5 / s p 7 (oof, contentious!) / c s l 8.

Wales rugby. L 7 / s p 7 / c s l 6.5.

Eng and Wales cricket. L 8 / s p 9 / c s l 8.

I hereby declare (irrespective of today’s result) cricket the winner. Roooooooot!!