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?

 

Day in the life of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No-o!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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