Unleash for real.

Things need to be authentic. Or they do if they’re placed in front of fans and connoisseurs. People in the know judge levels of realness and commitment brutally – because they understand. They know when something is ‘wheeled out’; when it’s a token, a faff, a sop or ‘something dreamed up’ to in some way appease.

If you happen to be a governing body, with the popularity of the average Chancellor, mid second term, there will be suspicion around pretty much whatever you do. Throw in some fabulous, fanatical disproportion amongst your opposition – in this case the average County Cricket fan, obsessed perhaps with protecting the game as he or she understands it – and the last thing you can afford to do is project equivocation. Folks will know you for a fraud.

In this context, the ECB, rightly or wrongly bitterly criticised or characterised as myopic, dubiously-motivated and alienated from us Great Unwashed, need to be conscious of the dangers of rolling out allegedly earth-moving programmes, unless they are clear-eyed, legitimate, committed ventures that people buy into.

So now is a Big Moment. My understanding (as a Community Coach for Cricket Wales) is that we are moving into the #CricketUnleashed era, which includes;

a) the doubling of funding for @Chance2Shine in Oct 2017 and

b) the All Stars Cricket project, taking this traditional, middle-class summer game onto an Entirely New Level in terms of its profile in society at large, via masses of activity in the 5-8 years age-group.

c) loads more in the way of strategy for the recreational… and the professional game.

Ok.  I am personally involved in bigging up the step-change; hoping to deliver some tiddly portion of it(!)  There are naturally certain pressures towards being loyal to both Cricket Wales and the paternal behemoth, the ECB.  Let me eyeball you whilst I repeat that I’m aware of those factors but not driven by them.  I may not be the most reliable of sources on this but… bear with, bear with. Things to say and they aren’t all straight out of the corporation’s sales pitch.

My strong impression is that the ECB, having recruited Matt Dwyer, the dynamic Aussie changer-of-where-we’re-ats, have fully got the need for ambition and for transforming energy.  Have no idea how the conversations have sounded – would love to have been involved – but I believe we’ve gotten to the point where the talking is done and the action really, really starts.  Because (even?) the ECB knows that it must.

There is an acknowledgement that cricket must break through the bubble in which it exists. Rather than just welcoming in (or allowing in?) the current maximum of 30% of the universe that *might possibly* experience cricket, these new measures seek to emphatically burst through to children (and then therefore ideally their families) previously simply beyond our reach. The central ambition of All Stars Cricket is to place the game in playgrounds and clubs and conversations on a different level.  Meaning simply making the game more popular – facilitating that through resources, imagination and a hopefully irresistible bundle of energy.

I get that there may be fears and suspicions around this heady populism. Might it be the natural bedfellow or precursor to gaudy, dumbed-down cricket experiences?  I’m thinking no.  I’m thinking it’s just a way to get folks – more children, new children, actually – hooked into the game. What happens beyond that regarding formats/culture etc etc is powerfully important but maybe powerfully irrelevant to this capturing new kids (#AllStarsCricket) moment.

A brief conclusion.  Reckon this site has proved I am up for debating competitive tests, Day/Night Tests/the meaning of all of this/everything. Hope you can trust me to avoid complete capitulation to the corporate message – despite my obvious allegiances. Really want you to hear again that I am pumped and re-energised, because I think the Cricket Unleashed thing is for real.  But we’ll see.  It’ll have to be.

Ready or not.

I’m both well-placed and dangerously poised on the @Chance2Shine @ECB story. Being a part of the Cricket Wales Community Team – being one of the coaches who actually go do stuff.

My interest is (as Blackadder might say) more vested than a very vested thing. My job as a Community Coach may be more secure as a result of the hike in investment. My hours may go up. But best not say too much, eh? Best not pre-empt anything or count too many chance2shiny eggs?

If you missed it/them, here are some factoids. The ECB, that fascinatingly soft target/that suddenly inspired and dynamic force for good/that bunch of Old Farts (delete according to prejudice or experience) has stumped up a significantly bigger wedge of moolah for schools cricket. More specifically, it has committed to a doubling of the funds invested in Chance2Shine, whose principal mission is to get professional cricket coaches into state schools.

I’m not party to the detail on this; for example I simply do not know, at this point, how much dosh Cricket Wales might get (if any) or how much of that money will go into an increase in coaching. Could be that the CEO of Cricket Wales doesn’t yet know this – partly because this additional money doesn’t come in until October 2017 and partly because (I imagine) high-level discussions around percentages of this and that are still going on. However (and despite acknowledging it’s kindof eeeeeasy and maybe tempting to be cynical about cycles or changing notions of what’s mega, or essential, or how the brand must be) I’m buzzing.

Buzzing because it does feel like there’s a will to really change something. Because (again, accepting that I am neither independent nor proportionate on any of this) I know what we’re offering kids in schools is pret-ty damn good on a zillion levels. It’s loaded with giggles; it’s profoundly developmental; it’s a gateway. All that but maybe more importantly now, it may well be there, for most children.

Cricket in the playground, in the hall, in yer face. Daft, friendly, skilled and yes, often inspiritational people building cricket games, with you, Danny… and Sarah… and everybody! Cricket exposed – #unleashed on all of you – ready or not.

Great and possibly revealing that we may have an Aussie to thank for this, the ECB having poached the bloke who led Cricket Australia’s own transformation. Encouragingly, despite his radical ideas around shamelessly large-ing up the presence, the boomtastic child-relevance of sleepy ole cricket, blow me if the ECB haven’t actually listened to the man. And then they’ve backed him.

Consequently Matt Dwyer, new ECB Director of Participation and Growth finds himself driving something real and weighty and meaningful – and maybe even thrilling- rather than faffing about in some simulator. It appears there is actually a thing, quite possibly a revolutionary thing. Let’s hope.

There are arguments about what cricket needs to do, of course. Whether upping the profile in Primary Schools and supporting and readying clubs for an influx of bouncy kids is really the Golden Bullet. Whether recognition of stars and role-models is gonna happen without free-to-air telly. Whether the ECB should be quadrupling this money to truly transform levels of closeness to the game and its elite protagonists. There are arguments.

But – as with Climate Change – there is a consensus which recognises a need for action. Unlike that other seminal issue for the day, our Powers That Be appear to have processed the understanding that there is a need to act into (yaknow) taking action… which is almost shocking.

Maybe some of the suspicion around the ECB/Chance2Shine plans is a function of deep, existential surprise – or maybe some residual entanglement with the necessary but debilitatingly polarising T20 debate? Could simply be that folks just can’t get their heads around the fact that the ECB may be on an inspirational charge here, boldly re-inventing themselves, as well as our sport. This is not, traditionally, what old white blokes in blazers do.

Apparently one of the game-changers was the revelation, via research, that many more children knew who John Cena was (WWE wrestler, c’mon, catch up!) than knew the Test skipper of England cricket.

I can see this might or arguably should resonate powerfully with those looking to critically assess the state of the game, so will only mention in passing that Alistair Cook’s almost complete absence of charisma might be a factor in this. I accept the view that cricket needs to get brutally frank with itself but tentatively maybe dangle out the concern that research may be flawed, or open to interpretation, or a weirdly self-validating end in itself, on occasion. Whatever, the case for cricket being a minor sport in the minds of young british children, is proven: meaning action.

I hope there is close to a doubling in the number of sessions us coaches get to hold in Primary Schools. I hope this is the crux of it – increased cash, increased cricket. I have no doubt at all that masses of kapow and run in the playground will result in masses of converts to the game.

The target group appears to be five to eight year-old boys and girls, presumably to migrate them, eyes sparkling and hearts a-thrum, to either festival activity or lovely, lively, rewarding action at a local club. The headline intention is (amongst other things) to ‘win the battle of the playgrounds’.

This is bold. This is so bold it’s kinda controversial. Adversarial. The ECB implying (saying?) it’s gunning for other sport’s territory. The ECB frothing rather dangerously and magnificently with belief. The ECB strutting.

I’m nearly too old to be pumped – but I’m pumped for this. The idea that cricket can play a central part in the consciousness of the next generation. That brilliant cricket coaches – of whom I know many – can influence profoundly not just the recreational lives but also (honestly) the levels of engagement and achievement of hundreds of thousands of young people at their place of learning.

Madly ambitious? ‘ Course. But if a further shedload of us are unleashed into schools you better look out.

People, I’m pro-sport rather than tribal-adversarial. I know rugby or football or tennis guys or gals can do important, inspiring work the way that we cricketpeeps can.

Forgive me though, if I’m not hoopla-ing their thing right now. This is cricket’s moment. We deserve it; we’ve been equipping ourselves for years to deliver something liberating, challenging, growing, exciting. It’s outright fabulous that thanks to the ECB – and to Chance2Shine – we might now really get to hit out. Freely.

Remember that?

 

 

#3millionstories

I’ve been a sportsman all my life – a sportsman, not a salesman. So it doesn’t come naturally for me to Big Up what I do for a living, which is coach cricket (to children, mainly, for Cricket Wales). But I’m about to make an exception.

And this is not about me. It’s about the thing we do, which is simply offering a game.
In Wales there are about a dozen of us Community Coaches going into Primary Schools to deliver cricket sessions. In our case we’re sponsored by Cricket Wales, Sport Wales and @Chance2Shine – the cricket charity. We’re trained to go in and put a smile on children’s faces, show them the game, get them moving. But there’s more.

Would you believe we’re also hoping to make children better listeners, to stimulate numeracy and develop social skills? And guess what? We think about lighting up every single child with a few words of encouragement – we get right in there amongst those bobbing and weaving faces and aim to make them feel listened to – heard.

Does it sound a bit pretentious if I say that we try to offer both a kind of release and a way in to academic work for children that we coach? That in offering opportunities to devise games we’re looking to delve into really quite complex issues around
‘What works for everybody… and maybe not just me?’

We’re trying to do all that. We’re trying to inquire into levels of understanding and generosity and difficulty. Get this: I often think half of what I do is about coaching the sharing of the bat; because everybody wants to bat, right?

This all sounds a bit ‘dry’ maybe. Like we coaches are obsessing a bit about Physical Literacy Frameworks or some or other ‘target’. We’re not. I’m pret-ty confident the kids in our sessions are too busy running or hitting or catching or building something to feel like they’re in some academic exercise. They’re not.

Instead, they’re expressing their talents. They’re having a laugh – they’re thinking. In the end, they’re unfurling their stories – some a little clunkily, some with that magical, uncomplicated joy that sport can unleash. We’re just there to help.

So because I see this stuff – these revelations – every day, I can do the sales pitch thing. I can look you or anyone in the eye and say ‘Yup, I’m happy to be making the case for cricket. Because I know people – young and older – are being transformed by it, every day.’

@Chance2Shine are Bigging Up the fact that three million children have now been through sessions with their coaches – with me and my mates. @Chance2Shine know that with every child there’s been impact; something learned or shared or maybe some giant leap forward made. Opportunities to build games, build confidence or take wickets/hit runs! They know that there really are wonderful stories here so they’ve adopted the #3millionstories hashtag, to share all this around.

I’m happy and proud to share it too.

#3millionstories.

Converting.

I’ve always been a sportsman not a salesman. But now I have to factor in stuff from outside of that previously ‘natural’ territory where I just run/ran around innocently clouting or throwing or hoofing things. Things like ‘delivery’, things like ‘migration’ now muscle into my consciousness in a way that’s both a challenge and maybe sometimes a concern.

This is because I now work (as well as volunteer) in sport – as Community Cricket Coach for Pembrokeshire. Get the sick-bowl ready people because I’m gonna have to tell you that I’m absolutely all over this work; I love what I’m doing and I’m kindof defiantly proud of the nature and the impact of what us Cricket Wales Peeps are doing at the lily-white coal-face of the game.

I know, for example, that our/your Community Cricket Coaches are right now lighting up the lives of children – today, now. They are organising/running and fronting festivals wherein children play what we call kwik or festival cricket in the most fabulous and intelligently competitive way. In my own region we’ve clicked over from delivering sensaaaaayshunnal and bright and profoundly educational sessions in schools into this, the Festival Season, where most of my ludicrously freeform Good Energy pours into Big Days Out.

Recently we had 19 schools attending the Girls’ Finals Day. Except that they weren’t attending; they were gallivanting, they were giggling, they were smashing and sprinting and munching sandwiches too fast too early before springing up to bat/bowl/field. Each one batting in every single game; each one bowling in every single game – so sharing the experience, the opportunity in a way that utterly confounds the difficulties around How This Game Works for Everybody. Playing four or five games per Big Day Out.

Likewise at the Pembroke Cluster of Schools Festival, held at Pembroke Dock Cricket Club on an immaculately bright sunny day on their immaculately sunny ground, prepared as if for a visit from royalty or from Sky Sports.

Maurice and John and Andrew having plumped the cushions to offer unknown and unseen children a wonderful, cricketacious day, perhaps in the hope that some might return and fix themselves into the fabric of the club, perhaps simply because they’re good blokes who love the idea of kids doing sporty stuff, who understand the world this way. Eight schools here, including Orielton, a tiny ‘country’ primary punching mind-bogglingly above their weight in terms of achievement on the park.

Imagine. Stackpole and Cosheston and (in huge contrast) Pembroke Dock Community School; St Marys and Golden Grove; schools so extraordinarily diverse the gathering in-ness of the occasion was an essential part of the holistic magic. On twitter later one school reported its pride at the behaviour of their team, on a day when a zillion skills including attention, focus and thoughtfulness were called for just as much as rip-roaring expression with bat or ball. It was triumphant in its insidious charm; they always are.

At Haverfordwest CC – where the level to which the club ‘accommodates’ our Festivals is such that we should run out of knighthoods, never mind superlatives – the H’west Cluster gathered yesterday. In cool, cool sun. Fifteen schools, about 150 children, for more Mixed But Actually Simply Your Best Team-style action. (About 30 girls, I’m guessing.)

I, in welcoming the expectant throng, ban stress for five hours and ask the children how many batters/balls/overs/smiles is going to make this thing work? They emphatically assist with any concerns I may have and together we dart into the fizz and doink of the matches. We’re generous re wides and no-balls. Teachers score whilst The Coach wanders and monitors and encourages, mainly. Three groups of five teams at this one with top two proceeding to the County Finals. Lots of real cricket breaking out, with Hook Primary School notably prominent. Brilliantly so, in fact.

A taster for and of now. The summer mission to run successful days. Maybe to convert a teacher or Headteacher or two – nurdle them towards getting it. How could they not, in the presence of all this lifeskill-rich, learning-supportive activity? All evidenced (actually) by the total engagement of allegedly disaffected or disengaged children, or by the maturity and flawlessness of Bethan’s bowling action – learned at sessions in the school. Physical Literacy not so much embodied but ecstatically performed.

I make no apology for implying (or, okaaay ladling on) the notion that Festival Days are special. I have no doubt they leave a huge and almost uniformly wonderful imprint on hundreds of children… and that’s just in Pembrokeshire. Sporty children are stretched but supported by the appropriate scope and structure of the game. Competition is pitched just right. I really do pretty much outlaw stress – enforcing with targeted bantz or panfuls of encouragement.

Less confident or developing players get ‘a go’, an equal, significant go. It may be less impactful in terms of the score but nevertheless it registers on that Physical Literacy ladder and perhaps more meaningfully – within the thing that defies measurement – the confidence of the child.

Around and before these halcyon days I go into schools and deliver. I’ve written elsewhere about the essences of that work and remain clear of the value of that contact. Cricket in Wales benefits because many hundreds of children are exposed to a game they may not, in the age of Sky Sports, be familiar with and children get to play and learn with a spookily well-trained sportsgeezer. Me.

There is this year a further area of work for the Pembrokeshire exponent of the Art of Conversion. Under the outstanding and insightful guidance of Cricket Development Officer Matt Freeman I’ve linked schools sessions to setting up Cricket Hubs in three of our local Leisure Centres. So post the work in schools, children have been invited to continue cricket games with myself and colleague Ceri Brace at a facility down the road. We may be the only region adopting this pathway so let me briefly explain.

There is evidence that Yrs 3 and 4 at primary level are under-supported in terms of sports provision; often Yrs 5 and 6 (the top two years in primary, for those still thinking in old money) collar most attention and therefore funding. Given this, and the fact that we found most Pembrokeshire Cricket Clubs are at capacity, we decided to approach Leisure Centres to host winter/spring sessions for children aged around six to nine.

If some of these children subsequently wanted to migrate into a local club come summer, then hap-pee days. If not the sessions themselves would have an intrinsic value. Children do however get ‘signposted’ to clubs to enable the ideal, long-term, lifetime-in-the-sport scenario.

This pilot scheme has been successful on several levels. In Milford Haven 15-20 boys and girls have been attending weekly cricket sessions. At least one of them (I have no doubt there are more but await confirmation from other clubs) has come across to my own club where he’s developed into a keen and enthusiastic member. Intriguingly and encouragingly, this fella is not an obvious candidate; he’s grappled bravely rather than coasted towards cricketdom.

Down in Pembroke there are two lovely and contrasting stories. Two girls, one of whom I’d worked with school and the other who’s bowling was a thing of beauty (aged 8) at a recent festival. They both now attend the Leisure Centre where their apparently divergent learning curves are now soaring together towards the vertical. And they’re smiling; whilst exploring, really exploring and then de-constructing/re-constructing the possible. The word development barely does it justice.

Meanwhile Crymych CC posted a thank-you on twitter last night to some geezer calling himself @cricketmanwales following fifteen Under 11’s bouncing in to their junior practice. – good numbers for a deeply rural club.

This follows work from yours truly in Eglwyswrw and Y Frenni schools in the winter and sessions at Crymych Leisure Centre during the spring. I initiated those but Rhodri from Crymych CC took over, built numbers up, and Pied Piper-ed his posse over to the club he loves. Superb and successful model. Bringing me back to the festivals.

Tomorrow it’s Crymych. Eight Welsh-medium schools on an idyllic village ground at Glandy Cross. Weather set fine; red kites likely.