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.

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?