Another Year in the Life of…

Here’s the thing. In Fishguard; just finished the Christmas shopping blitz alarmingly early, by my appalling standards, largely courtesy of the town’s delightful independent bookshop. Feeling tad smug; almost triumphal, even.

(Allow me to get my retaliatory confession in early, here. Abso-lutely cough to being shockingly blokey about adventures in Retail Land. Love the family ecstatically but even this fails to de-glaze the eyes during the *buying things* process. Can only manage it in bursts).

Sometimes, however, the twitchtastic ‘yes, yes, that’s definitely it’ instinct operates on a level that really might be described as inspired. Like today. Like when I bought the flag of the European Union (£1.99) and the monkey-shaped tea strainer (4 quid) and then all those books to erm complement the previous, eye-poppingly eclectic purchases.

The Shopping. All done! And capped off with some deeply groovy dinosaur wrapping paper that will further convince the family that the descent into shambolic eccentricity continues worryingly unabated. Haha – all done!

So what better time than to retreat into the Gourmet Pig (ambient hipstertastic deli but don’t let that put you off) and flick through the diary to rustle up a few highlights? Whilst the dander is more up than Solskjaer’s: when we need some Good News, to counter the divisive disasterfest that is Brexit And All That. Let’s de-politicise the universe for a moment and remind ourselves, shall we, of the power of sport?

January. 2018. Kindof off-season for us Community Coaches but not entirely for my good self, on account of the social media role(s). So two blogs, early doors; one shamelessly backing the All Stars project, the second a weird indulgence around how you can’t own the sportsplace without being Ricky, not Rick, or Rooty, not Joe. (Go figure or go read: 40 posts during the year!)

Also some training, at what was still then the Swalec (I think), now appropriately restored as Sophia Gardens. And what we call a ‘CDO meet’, which means a conflab with my esteemed handlers, to talk about what the year is gonna look like – the actual work and the actual imperatives.

By all means picture us poring over the strategic overview in some intimidatingly businesslike office-block: in fact we met at Morriston’s caff in Carmarthen. I hasten to add that this didn’t stop us thrashing out a pret-ty comprehensive Cunning Plan; something our funders and seniors would have emphatically rubber-stamped – with or without the brown sauce.

Jan 11th and 12th the Community Team underwent further training, in Cardiff. (If this was the Create Development training, it was excellent: challenging, stimulating and a laugh – but authentic. Shout out to their guys; if you have a group of coaches you want to nudge forward or ask good questions of, seek them out).

Saturday the 13th I have a note that Barnet Newman failed twice to get his teacher’s certificate, on the grounds that he couldn’t draw stuff. This relates both to a blog I was writing about governing for culture, sport and health, and also flags up the fact that the universe can be dumb as hell… but you have to keep on, yes? Jan 15th I re-booted the Cricket Wales facebook effort.

29th I started my year of coaching by leading a session for mighty Sport Pembrokeshire; an interesting one as it gathered in children of various ages who had the ‘home educated’ label in common. Enjoyable. Predictably great, lively kids: plus helpful prep for me, as two days later I am in to the day-job with a wallop.

I start in schools ‘proper’ Wednesday Jan 31st. By this I mean in my Cricket Wales Community Coach role, supporting and supported by the fabulous Chance to Shine, bringing a considerable dollop of cricket-based games and curriculum-linked nuggets to bunches of kids over a number of weeks. Meaningful lumps of sporty-but-also-holistically-enriching development, in other words: and yes I do mean that – all of it.

Five sessions in the day, for groups of about 25-30 children, aged 5/6/7. Quite intense, despite the breaks.

Intense but rewarding. Hope this doesn’t feel indiscreet if I whisper behind my hand that this school (Pembroke Dock Community School) is something else, in a good way. Visibly, demonstrably, powerfully connected to both sport and artsy stuff as means to enliven and (that word again) enrich. This school leads the way in many respects, not least because *they* genuinely place the movement of the body and (actually) the spirit slap-bang central to the whole educational experience.

*They, obviously, being the Headmistress, Mrs Thomas and her staff. Bravo!

So what a place to start! In the deep dark winter! Weeks of back-to-back, rip-roaring, darkness-defying games. Remember being medium-shattered but inwardly grinning; school-fit; ready.

February. What we call Views training – Views being the on-line system for recording our work. Genning-up on the hows and whys of inputting data onto the site that tracks and accounts for what we do. Because quite reasonably, people are wanting to know what we’re at; how many hours are coached, who to, when?

Being from the Stiff Little Fingers school of computer (il)literacy, I have to work reasonably hard at this – get my diligent head on. It’s a chore but no complaints: no accounting, no job.

The schools work is coming at me, now. Saundersfoot, Sageston, Stepaside. Southish Pembs. Fascinatingly different but all smallish village schools. Fantastic welcome and support from staff, some of whom I know. Gratifyingly, over time, that essential and confirmatory buy-in from teachers won over by the level of engagement or sometimes sheer joy from the kids. The moments where teachers get it… are important.

Milford Juniors, as one roster of schools rolls into the next. Assemblies where I maybe have to follow the vicar, carefully transitioning from Easter to All Stars messaging, without offending or failing to ‘signpost’ children over to their local clubs.

(It’s true: we do have to execute the salespitch side of this, by presenting something All Starstastic in front of the school/staff/the extended community. On reflection, I followed two gentlemen of the cloth onto the stage during last season. Mercifully, I remain un-struck-down).

Johnston and then ‘Lady Taverners’ – meaning delivery to and supervision of Secondary School girls, who (here in Pembs) are all over the idea of practicing a bit then playing matches against other schools. Been running for years, this, at U13 and U15 level, with great support from our colleagues at Sport Pembrokeshire. It is sociable and often extra-curricular but also competitive – appropriately competitive, I would say.

Gelliswick. A new school and new to me. The Head is a friend (and former Scotland international cricketer!) so feeling good about my first visit. Weather against us and main hall unavailable so we have up to five sessions every Tuesday in a tight space. Sponge balls and multiple, diverse relays and a whole load of adlibbed ‘storytelling’ – for wee children, largely. A healthy challenge for the coach, this one.

Narberth. Suddenly a boomtown, with more galleries and foody cafés than (I dunno) Islington. The Guardianistas may be here but the school feels reassuringly untroubled by the changes all around. Lots of welsh spoken; playgrounds that feel timelessly boisterous, or quiet, or windy, or raw in another, unstable March. There most of the day, so confess did occasionally indulge in the local food emporia. Occasionally.

We’re into what we call Roadshows, now. One-off visits where we may do a session or two but will certainly look to present a snappy and engaging something-or-other before a biggish lump of children in the (All Stars) target group of 5-8 year-olds. So again being more salesperson than coach, in truth. (Prefer the other stuff, to be honest but again no complaints – it’s part of what we do). So do it well and gather some kids for the local clubs.

Have a series of Roadshows plus a final round of new schools to hit, now, as we approach the key period – before the All Stars kick-off in early May. Fenton, Neyland, Cleddau Reach, Lamphey, Penrhyn, Golden Grove. Easter, rather unhelpfully, interveneth.

Then, renewed, the final charge. Croesgoch and Ysgol Bro Dewi for my own pet All Stars project at Llanrhian CC. Soo-perb support from staff and a fair bit of decent weather just when we need it. I follow the sign-ups on the ECB system. 7, 8, 10, more.

We get to 26 All Stars, for Llanrhian. A truly exceptional number given the fabulorural nature of the schools and the club. Unthinkable without tremendous backing in every way from the schools’ staff, who have actively joined in with sessions – despite their own Welsh-language ethos and my poor, poor Welsh – and their consistent support for the notion of activity beyond school. 

Over the proverbial parrot to report that I’m going back in, in 2019, to flush out a new group of All Stars; a thought that amongst others, has kept me going through the floods and the potentially crushing gloom.

We get through to mission end. Then many of us Community Coaches lead All Stars in clubs – meaning eight weekly sessions or more.

At Llanrhian only the very first session had to retreat indoors, to the local leisure centre. Went okaaay but thank god for the glorious weather which followed. We were out on the most absurdly wunnerful Proper Rural Cricket Ground imaginable. For eight more idyllic weeks.

It was crazy, energy-sapping  but also mysteriously, undeniably restorative. It was, at the end, both absolutely necessary and incredibly hard… to stop.

But reel back a bit. Because May and June in the schools means Festival Time. Busy but easy, because the Primary School Festivals we run pretty much run themselves. Because the kids love it and the teachers, the teachers are magnificent.

These are day-long events which nail the sport-and-development-and-social-interaction combo beautifully year after year. (8 a side, batting pairs, two overs each pair; when fielding each player must bowl). Things move along – so if you get beat you’re onto the next one before you go dwelling on all that ‘negative stuff’. Actually, for me – honestly – there is no negative stuff.

Outstanding, well-structured game-days which build in brilliant, shared activity. Such a privilege to host. We ran about a dozen of these, in Pembrokeshire this year; almost all in bewitching, Australian weather.

And then it’s summer. Which is not the end of the year… but does mark a slowdown in the number of hours coaching. Autumn and winter,  I’m doing the year-round (social) media stuff, with occasional CDO meets and admin, and more Views training.

Eventually – but spookily swiftly – we’re planning the next mission. All Stars 3, in short. Schools delivery to Years 1-4 (mainly) in support of All Stars activity at local clubs.

In November I started approaching schools for that next round of action: some new, some delightfully, encouragingly familiar. Am booked into nine, so far, will be chasing other schools immediately after the festivities – 18 in total, more than last year.

It may sound glib but I am hugely thankful for the support that schools or individuals offer. The friends, the soul-brothers and sisters – the allies. This comradeship and understanding, unspoken or otherwise, is central to the work.

The work all of us Community Coaches do (and yes I am including our counterparts in other sports in this) really can, really does have a certain power. The movement and the sheer, infectious enjoyment makes children listen: this in itself becomes a profound opportunity – a gateway.

Some schools want me in pronto after Christmas, others will wait for warmer, brighter days. All will get a daft, ‘distinguished’ geezer proud to front up, to lead, to sell the game that I love and push towards that precious culture of daily, ‘natural’ activity.

So, a happy and healthy break to all. Then bring it on; I’m ready again.

All Stars.

Pleased to see there’s been a reasonable lump of coverage for the All Stars Project over recent weeks; it really is significant, I think. Certainly in terms of bringing the precious ‘new families’ that we’ve heard so much about, into the game. Whatever we may think of, or read into that apparently central plank of the ECB strategy, All Stars has delivered strong numbers, for our sport: in Wales, 3,505 sign-ups over 118 centres.

A twitter-friend of mine and cricket-writer (Rob Johnston) wondered whether the project might indeed be more important than The Hundred? Interesting thought.

Whether you load that thought up with political/philosophical vitriol around the depth or quality of experience and the implications for Everything Else… is up to you. I want to keep this simple – or rather to leave you with a restoratively uncluttered message – that All Stars has been, will be, is really, really good. It’s All Stars I want to talk about, in the end.

You may know that much of the thinking behind All Stars came from a) large, hairy and fearless market research b) Australia. A particular bloke name of Dwyer was drafted in to brutally challenge the status quo and deliver a new vision. (Actually the first bit of that is untrue: he did brutally challenge but that was not necessarily the brief. Interestingly, possibly fascinatingly for those suspicious of the current direction of travel, Dwyer left – I believe before his contract was up).

It’s important, at the outset, in the wider context of so much controversy and opinion, that All Stars is recognised as merely a part of the whole re-invention of the Cricket Offer: part of Cricket Unleashed, part of the warp-factor-ten departure into the unknown. Theoretically and I think in reality, AS does have stand-alone qualities – the specific age-group, the immediacy, the impact of kitted-out kids – but it would surely be unwise to imagine it travelling radically solo. It’s not.

All Stars exists in and because of the context of more opportunities for girls and women. In the context of ‘community’ activity and retention projects for those teens drifting from the game. In the context of City Cricket/The Hundred.

I’m not wading in to the relative value, wisdom or centrality of any of these other things now: most of us have lived off those arguments for the last year. Instead I’m going to try to say why All Stars is pretty ace: in a bullet-point or two.

  • The prequel. Noting that All Stars has been generally supported by 4-6 weeks cricket-based activity in local Primary Schools, aimed at enthusing kids for the game (via the outstanding Chance to Shine curriculum) before offering that link to AS in clubs. Part of the generally impressive #joinedupthinking. But back to the activity proper…
  • It’s ace value. Despite blokes like me fearing that £40 was going to feel too much for most parents down our way, AS is undeniably good value – and parents forked out. The kids get kit worth about £20 and eight typically well-run, skilfully-themed sessions (which tend to be an absolute blast, for kids and coach alike). Those people still weirdly imagining this is an earner for the ECB need to get a grip, to be honest: it’s a massive investment in change and development, not at all – certainly in the short term – an ‘earner’. Costs have been set at a minimum, I imagine: of course there are some families who will regrettably be put off by the £40… but very few… and some clubs will underwrite that, if necessary.
  • The actual sessions are ver-ry cute – in a really good way. This has not been flung together. The target age-group (5-8, boys and girls) is guided through an hour or more (generally more) of movement, games and skills; the time fizzes and charges as much as the children do. It’s infectious and purposeful and liberating in a way that the three letters F.U.N. cannot do justice to: and yet it is precisely that – naive, anarchic, noisy, edgy fun. Brilliantly so, in my experience.
  • The quality of enjoyment thing. I may be repeating myself but what I saw, as an Activator and coach, was ace to the point of affecting – and I am clear most parents felt that too.
  • The family thing – 1. Okay, so if one of the key aspirations for the whole ECB cricket-makeover is to ‘burst the bubble’ in which cricket sits, vis-a-vis who knows, plays and gets the game, then obviously All Stars sits comfortably within that. The target group is children still finding stuff. Plainly, the ECB would be grateful if some of these children – perhaps the majority – emerge from non-cricketing families. That’s happening. Because of skilful marketing, smart imagery, the ‘non-threatening’, non-technical nature of the offer. Headline figures for AS in Wales last year suggested 71% coming from a non-cricketing background… which is not far short of phenomenal. I’m hearing also – also significantly – that around 35% of our Wales 2018 All Stars are girls.
  • The family thing – 2. Activators (i.e. those who led the AS sessions) were trained to encourage parents to take part. In fact a key part of the marketing whole was this idea that families might reclaim a special hour of family time through participating (at a level they were comfortable with). This interaction with non-qualified agents – hah! Mums, dads!! – was rightly to be gently monitored by the Activator, but opened up a new dimension to the proceedings. Our sessions started with family members ‘warming up’ their All Star; often mums or dads or siblings stayed involved, offering practical help and encouragement. This cuts right across the traditional practice of Level 2 Coaches ‘running things’. I am not remotely looking to undermine that practice or the quality thereof when I say that in my experience the active support of family members was not only essential in practical terms but absolutely key to the feel and the enjoyment of our sessions. I soon gathered five or six sub-Activators who were lovely, intelligent, generous, capable people and I hope and expect that they may support the project – and what is now their club! – next year. This ‘loosening-up’ was done by design, in the knowledge that it might/should work at this age-group; it did.
  • The gentle prod thing. Did you know you can pre-register for AS 2019? You can.

 

Finally, something minor-league weird. I am still wearing a rather faded rubber bangle – the kind we were giving out in schools during the Chance to Shine sessions which preceded our signposting of kids over to All Stars Cricket. I am still wearing it… since April, maybe?

This may mean something worrying about absence of a life in my life, but maybe only if we overthink stuff, eh? I’m not wistfully stroking it or anything. It’s just still there. It says ALL STARS CRICKET and ALLSTARSCRICKET.CO.UK.

I think of our sessions at Llanrhian CC and how crazy-but-happy the kids were… and how wonderful the families were… and how blessed we all were, with that sun. So I guess that’s the explanation? If we need one?

 

 

 

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?

Rocket Science.

The snow may be piled up against the iconic Pembrokeshire hedgebanks but I’ve already done about a month’s worth of cricket sessions in our primary schools. Sure, on the one hand this feels crazy-premature – and inevitably most of the delivery has taken place indoors – but a) I/we have a lot of ground to cover and b) there’s a different time-pressure, this year.

My 2018 Cricket Wales brief is shortish and sharpish in the sense that I’m almost completely committed to All Stars Cricket-related action. Sessions for 5-8 year-old children, to be completed before about 11th May, when the  clubs will begin to roll out their own programme of guided, cricket-based fun.

The gist of this is guys and gals like me will offer a bundle of weekly sessions – typically 6 per class – from a genuinely smart curriculum which runs parallel to (and I suppose leads to) the summer romp in the clubs.

You may have mixed feelings about any or all of this, including the revelation that us Community Coaches have received a whole lot of training so as to deliver something which is not only engaging and sporty-cricketty but also a great prompt towards creative, cognitive and co-operative learning and (actually) a shedload of other meaningful objectives. We may often coach by instinct and continually adapt – even in a heavily-designed situation such as this. However this particular mission has ‘we don’t throw this together, right?’ written all over it.

I wrote in early January about my confidence and indeed pride in the quality of our Community Coach work. I’ll spare you that here, if you promise to accept the following: that a lot of kids are really being enthused for cricket and a lot of teachers/headteachers are respecting the educational as well as sporting value of what we’re doing. This matters – in particular if we want to have a sustained influence in schools.

So, the Chance to Shine resources that we base our delivery around are almost inviolably excellent. The theory is that the holistic brilliance of our side of the project will translate into powerful transfer across into All Stars ‘proper’. Families do have to pay to sign their kids up to All Stars: £40. But as I wrote in ‘It’s huge’, in Jan, it’s not about the money. The ECB, Chance to Shine, the game, all of us… we need new blood and a higher, broader profile. We’re driving that objective through the schools/All Stars link.

As coaches we have pretty stiff targets (hate that word!) in terms of numbers of children entertained, given the relatively short window of opportunity and the practical difficulties (for schools) in presenting groups of both (for example) Year 1 and Year 3, one after t’other. (Often, when speaking to schools, it becomes obvious that they would love it if I delivered more sessions but they simply cannot juggle to accommodate. Frustrating – especially as I am conscious that my own ‘numbers’ may be lowish due to the relatively small size of some of the local schools).

There’s no easy way round this; true, ECB investment in Chance to Shine has doubled, but I am still flying solo re- the delivery of sessions. No complaints; the new money means that for the first time we do have other staff backing up what I do but they are doing one-off visits – All Stars Roadshows – as opposed to mirroring my weekly ‘courses’.

But enough of this strategic nonsense, what do the sessions feel and look like? I hear you ask.

They vary – a lot. Year 1 and 2 are young, (three and four, I think) so there ain’t much in the way of forward defensive. It’s often as much about storytelling as sport. Being a rocket to the moon, landing carefully. Miming the ‘spaceman’ together; climbing into a suit; plopping that helmet on with a smile, before setting out to explore the universe.

I think I told Pembroke Dock Community School that the Proper Spacemen Who Landed on the Moon celebrated by playing a game that looked… like… this. Golf! So why don’t we celebrate at some of the stars (cones) in our galaxy by playing any game we want… with a ball? Then we can go rocketing on, to the moon (yellow crescent of cones) and then home to earth (blue circle of cones). It was a story, a game that built towards catching games; it was rocket science!

Those children just wanted to have fun, to move, to feel a game and maybe a ball in that wonderfully naive, amorphous, explorative way. So that’s what we did. They almost got that we were going around a galaxy and yes, they could make rocket noises and the rocket cost a fortune so they really should rocket carefully and land beautifully and softly. 

Some things were understood, some followed. The rest was environment, goodwill, freedom to find.

Year 3, meanwhile could aim at targets ‘properly’ and have some sense of measuring and maybe tallying. I adapted Chance to Shine’s ‘Brilliant Bowler’ into a game where children bowled different sized balls on different length pitches, whilst scoring on a whiteboard at the side of the hall. (The shortest of the three pitches put the target within reach of every child; the longest was a pret-ty serious challenge. Players (teams) rotated through the tasks, to make it fair and to give them some understanding of distance, weight of shot, degree of focus etc etc).

I am pleased to note in passing that the teachers were bloody impressed at the breadth of the activity; the kids loved the tallying – which of course was literally a record of their success.

This game is endlessly re-calibrateable and provides the opportunity for questions around technique(s). I often ask the kids to tell me how they made their throwing (or bowling) work. Their answers – I looked/ I aimed/ I went like this – prompting brief further questions, until something simple and appropriately memorable emerges. We aren’t looking to get bogged down in anything here, eh? We just want to have an enjoyable experience and drop in a couple of friendly markers.

In a nutshell, this is how the sessions are: anarchic but friendly, guided but free. They are way more than cricket, despite the apparent lack of high elbows, levelled eyes, stilled heads. We’re playing, we’re building – towards All Stars.

Holding out for something.

Rashid. Hales. T20, *I*T20, or not? Fifty overs, forward defensive, The Olympics(!) or not? Spin bowling – or not? Everything Changes & it’s all, frankly, a worry. Or not.

I’ve been living and maybe living off the adrenalin and alround crest-of-a-wave newness of all this for what feels like years. The tumbling towards, the surge and the grasp. Sure I know and have felt the awesome weight and quality of the strategies in place but I‘m nearly ready for some quiet, some relief from the centrifugal force; from the barrage of opinions & corporate messaging; from the sense of divergence.

These cricket revolutions, eh?

Where are they taking us?

It feels clear that we may gain a new audience; this, plainly, is the thrust of the white ball/city-based/All Stars/Cricket Unleashed agenda. But what are the costs, in what I’m tempted to call ‘human terms’, arising from that? In gaining new fans, new families, do we lose diehard county cricketpeople? We would, certainly, if in five years there is no county cricket to watch.

We would, too, if the game retained its longer form but in a way traditionalists received as insulting: if it felt irrelevant in a swashbuckling matrix of colo(u)rific slashes and carves. The protestors would walk.

That, of course, is the extreme case scenario. Maybe there’s no way, despite the widespread fears, that either the County Championship or Test Cricket itself are really threatened. In extraordinary and polarising times, though, with what some feel to be ominous lumps of energy behind the gathering carnival, you can understand the angst and the vituperative urgency.

Part of me wishes we could have our infuriatingly sleepy processes back: decisions after a snooze, maybe? The relentless contortions of today’s tag mud-wrestle (and yes I am talking about the administration of cricket, here!) seeming as incongruously anarchic and therefore un-directed as they are stirring. Nobody seems to know where we’re going or how things might be resolved.

This can’t entirely be true, of course. There is strategy which will survive the clammy interference from Furious of Bodmin.

To be fair, despite the undeniable charge behind white ball action, plenty of ‘ECB Men’ do love county cricket and surely are looking towards the ideal scenario, whereby boomathons co-exist with (or effectively make viable?) the four day game. The lack of clarity is perhaps inevitable; a function of unknowable stuff resulting from accelerating change – from revolution itself.

What feels key is a) whether loyalties to county cricket will persist sufficiently or, more painfully and controversially b) whether it’s already been decided somewhere that County Cricket must be sacrificed.

I don’t think that’s happened… but I don’t know. There is after all, a pret-ty convincing case that County Cricket cannot sustain itself – crowds very often being shockingly meagre, for professional sport. (Ok, I get the argument that crowds in grounds aren’t the only measure of a game’s state of health or value but it would be borderline delusional to deny the issue here. Not enough people are watching live, at most fixtures).

The Big New Telly Deal and better attendances for short format fixtures could theoretically and surely will in practice subsidise red ball cricket. But… for ever? We can only imagine a reckoning must come – sometime.

In short we need a plan and I’m sure there is one and also not sure at all.

Will we/they conclude that County Cricket is a lovable financial nonsense which can and must be supported – by white ball cricket, if necessary – despite its own, fundamental failings? Or will Independent Directors – all the rage in administrations for the modern, accountable era – shorn of a lifelong love of cricket, bring a sharp, fatal dose of fiscal realism?

I may personally be hanging on to some quasi-religious dream, in which the holistic, historical and magnificently amorphous value of four day cricket wins out, triumphantly, against the shallow grain of the day. Certainly I’m holding out for something.

All of which brings us to Test Cricket.

Almost universally accepted, even now, as the *theoretical* jewel in the crown, Test Cricket may be unthinkable without County Cricket: that may be the saviour of them both.

How could players prepare for the epic grandeur of five days at Lords without four at Taunton, Old Trafford or The Oval? How does any batsman get into Test Mode, without first occupying X hours at the crease, honing (amongst a zillion other deeply specialist qualities) the patient brilliance essential for the task?

In brief, in other words, no Tests without County – and vice-versa.

This, though, despite the comfort it may bring to purists, is surely a dangerously brittle notion?

The time may come, for example, when four day cricket is cut completely and players and coaches simply have to engineer a way across that great divide between short forms and Tests. The unsympathetic or independently-minded – in or out of the game or in other sports – might argue that this is tough but do-able; just another elite-level skills challenge. If County Cricket is mad-disfunctional, it goes: players just need to flick that switch between the formats and get on with it.

There’s scope, let’s be honest, for a whole lot of hurt. Partly because people really love this game… and because not everybody (obviously) gets the finer/dafter/more ‘symphonic’/whatever they are points of attraction enough to slap a preservation order on it.

Lots about liking cricket is untranslatable, unexplainable but the deep reservoir of understanding for and loyalty to the game amongst long-term, long-form fans is a phenomenon. That feels undeniable. Mostly.

I personally know some truly outstanding and genuine people in places of real influence in the game. People who are ambitious but also deeply conscious of the uniqueness of Proper Cricket. Currently, the drive is on towards bursting the bubble, breaking the boundaries, bringing new blood into the sport. (The people I know are right behind this; they think we do need a new, ‘broader’ audience).

That drive is where it’s at at the moment. And I find little to argue with on that All Stars/Cricket Unleashed front. The ECB are going really BIG on raising the profile of the game – with youngsters, with new families. It’s the links that are understandably being made (by diehard fans) between this monumental investment and the incoming T20 that are problematic.

County Cricket People fear a betrayal, a dumbing down. I think they can tolerate All Stars (and expansion) but they fear the age of the boomathon for what it might bring to their beloved four day/five day cricket. None of us are sure; revolutions are happening – yes, plural!

While life continually throws up the most appalling examples of Morons in Power, I am hopeful. 1. County Cricket fans have and are giving a good account of themselves. 2. It’s obvious that Test Cricket is unique and powerfully influential in a way that goes right past mere fascination. It has a historic weight that must mean something. 3. There are some Good Guys at the top. 4. Change is gonna be challenging.

I am hopeful. As well as concerned.

 

It’s huge.

New Year. Darkness, with a soundtrack of ghoulish gales. Red wine territory, or maybe Guinness – Guinness in a low-slung, fire-lit pub. Waiting and (I think subconsciously) gathering.

At home: flick through the blogs. Another year of wild fauvism, with the usual daft daubing about the Miracle of Sport or the colour of a Cricket Moment… or rain. Or stuff even more indulgent than that.

Maybe another post about work might be appropriate?

For those just joining, work is Cricket Wales, is mainly a gift, a privilege; coaching kids. As Community Cricket Coach for Pembrokeshire – yup PEMBROKESHIRE, as if the blessings weren’t sufficient before that geographical cherry-on-top! – in dreamy West Wales.

Currently, I’m waiting on a wee bit more training before delivering Chance2Shine/All Stars Cricket sessions into schools. Then full-on to the summer. You’re welcome.

In this real world, then, my annually-surging effort will be yet more closely linked to the All Stars project, as it charges in for its second season. Feels good to be storing up some hoipla to energise a zillion kids because I know I will properly use it. We surely do things differently but my way is generally to enthuse through infectiousnesss and energy: I’m getting mildly pumped even thinking about it.

Dunno about you but I’m somewhere between fascinated and mortally offended at the debate around All Stars. Faaar too many folks appear to view it as ‘another money-making scheme’ by the ECB, when this is plainly absurd. The ECB is not making money out of All Stars – how could it, when the kit and the admin/promotion costs are so massive?

On the contrary, once-in-a-generation style wedges are going out on this because the ECB now knows radical, sustained, innovative action is needed to really change where cricket’s at in terms of profile, relevance, access. Those of us who have happily assumed for thirty years that the ECB is endlessly snobby and soporific have to stir ourselves from our own idle prejudice because (get this!) a bonfire has been burning underneath the Old Farts and maan they are jumping. Having to.

Cricket Unleashed is a slogan, for sure. We’re historically within our rights to be cynical about a) this b) the cycle of ‘innovation’ bu-ut the administration leading the game has never been so D.Y.N.A.M.I.C. so the unleashed thing isn’t entirely preposterous. Honest. It’s not just another tweak – or even just another re-brand. It’s huge.

All Stars actively seeks to re-positon the game in the consciousness of the public by welcoming in thousands of new families – people who just never got cricket before – by entertaining their youngsters imaginatively, appropriately and with some style. (Actively seeks? Sorry, sounds like a brochure. I mean really really really. Like I believe it really, really does. That help?)

The idea that cricket (i.e. the ECB) accepts the need to *actually address* issues around accessibility/class/opportunity is strikingly, stormingly, break-down-the-doorsingly encouraging. Whatever the reasons, the thinking is radically healthy and it does represent the unleashing of something. Something which is meant to add a new dimension to the truly precious, traditional club & family stuff.

All Stars is MASSIVE and bright and extremely cute in almost every sense: it’s here to COMPETE, to challenge footie in the playgrounds, to capture kids from waaaaay beyond the range of our previously rather narrow range of influence. We can and should argue about the finer points of how and where and at what cost the show goes out but the fact that it’s designed to be genuinely popular, almost universally available and respected in schools is excitingly, emphatically, rightly beyond dispute.

I have two days training coming up, to fine-tune my knowledge of the All Stars curriculum and inhale expectations around delivery into schools. Having no problems either with the change of emphasis (towards a six week course for each class) or with that whole notion that the branding and jargon may change again next year – I look forward to it. I’m neither faking my commitment to the wider Cricket Wales cause nor faking my support for the intention to burst cricket’s middle-class bubble. Both feel bloody good.

All of us in cricket have strong views on everything from The Way Ahead to future of Test Cricket – of course we do. So inevitably there are moans about All Stars ‘not addressing the real issue(s)’. But by powerfully confronting the problem of too few young people getting or knowing cricket, or having it in their vocabulary of thinkable, do-able things, a key barrier is surely being tackled? And the feeling from (almost) the inside is that the barrier is really being tackled, not merely faffed about with. I’ve written before about the perils of another weedy intervention: this, my friends, is not that.

Effectively, a parallel Chance2Shine/All Stars is being taken in to the classroom, or schoolyard, before the clubs roll out their own programme (again with ECB support) in May or beyond. Obviously those of us leading sessions in schools will be signposting children to their local clubs – and not exclusively those clubs offering eight weeks of All Stars Cricket. The whole game should benefit.

The six lessons I will be delivering per year group or class will be heavily supported by online material for the schools. This is a rather skilful extension of our existing mentoring of teachers: until now this has been good but maybe too informal, maybe less impactful than it might have been. Consider how much more influential limited Cricket Wales resources (like me) might be if teachers themselves took on the role of cricket advocate, year on year? This is the very clear intention of the brilliant Chance2Shine resources being offered into schools and  it’s also indicative of the good-quality thinking and support around the whole All Stars phenomenon.

I’m pretty sure the people who have designed and built All Stars know it ain’t a panacea. I reckon they’ve noticed teenagers leaving the game and drawn games or long games being a major turn-off for many clubbies. Because this is 20018, the challenges, like the cultural context, change all the time. We need to get on top of stuff: make bold decisions.

The ECB and their partners may (shock horror) be flawed. But I am spookily clear that the general thrust of the developments they are leading in grassroots cricket are really worth getting behind.

More kids will play. More kids will know who Joe Root and Heather Knight are.

Beyond the 5-8s in All Stars, more kids will be active, will feel they are in the game when they play their cricket, as formats change, pitches shorten, opportunities at younger age-groups widen. If we develop a fabulous Big Happy Pool of young cricketers and offer them more of what they want and value the stuff that’s great about our existing club cricket, then that’s a decent start, right?

 

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…