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.

The Universe Podcast 2: with Matt Thompson, Talent Programme Manager for Cricket Wales

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In the second of my amiable meanderings through what-might-turn-out-to-be the Definitive List of Movers & Shakers in Welsh Cricket, I chat to Matt Thompson, Talent Programme Manager for Cricket Wales.

Matt is a brilliant 26 year-old cricketer/lecturer/coach, with a ridiculous c.v.

Despite this, I kinda liked him. We talked the new job through – criminally unedited – plus all kinds of coach-feely other stuff.

Have a listen.

 

Cows and buzzards and crows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boy Who ‘Couldn’t Catch’.

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

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

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

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

That high? (Giggles).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I’m gone, to bawl

Wadda catch, Sara! 

or

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

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

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

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

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…

 

 

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?

JD. Thank you.

(Thinks). Wow. Now that’s class. That may be the best series of cover drives I’ve seen! Powerful, really powerful hitting… but so, so STILL!

The scene? Tenby Leisure Centre. Another dollop of coach education for a bundle of us clumsy amateurs. John Derrick, of Glamorgan – the ‘bloke who was leading the Performance Programme’ (or something) was ‘in’ – was demonstrating.

John hit the ball beautifully but boy did he hit it. Repeatedly. Hard. The strokes were controlled but not flashy, there was no sense that he was showing off – grandstanding, we later learned, just not being his thing. John was just demonstrating – like us coaches used to do in the oldish days.

It was beyond striking, in every sense.

The fact that he went on to reduce a glorious but complicated ‘technical skill’ (or the coaching thereof) to a single word has remained with me since that moment, as a kind of touchstone and a warning against my own verbosity. The execution both of the shot but also the art of coaching was about as perfectly judged and quietly impressive as anything I’ve witnessed in sport. And I’m medium ancient… and have done loads of sport.

John, bat whirling magnificently in that mighty but controlled arc, creamed the ball past cover or mid-off or wherever he wanted to cream it and said only… HEAD. It was all he needed to say.

This was probably ten years ago, or more. I’ve seen John irregularly regularly ever since – either at coach workshops or for gatherings of the Cricket Wales/Glam Cricket Massive. Can’t claim to be soulmates but we tended to have a laugh, to get on.

We’ll all have our own memories, now, poised on that spectrum from the plain daft to the ecstatically triumphant to the utterly tragic. I wasn’t there when he won trophies with Glamorgan or worked in South Africa, so mine will be mid-ranking; but important nevertheless, to me.

I sat next to JD at an alarmingly civilised Christmas Party at The Cricketers near the Swalec a year or two back. I saw him do the office thing, the strategic planning thing. But mainly we met in sports halls, or similar. In his element, in other words.

John could just do it. Play, coach, say the right thing. He was rooted and calm and he had the necessary crafts. He had energy gathered and he focused it. Once, after a particular coaching session, he made a point of eyeballing me and told me what I’d done was

brilliant – seriously.

It was a quiet couple of words. Undemonstrative. Genuine. It means even more now than it did then. Because we’ve lost him.

John’s gone, cruelly, another victim, another good ‘un ripped away too early. Some of us had been gently primed for news of this sort… but it barely helps. Time to give up on faith or retreat into something darkish and miserable? No. Absolutely no.

Back in Tenby I was struck by not just the quality of what John did, but by the simplicity, modesty, authenticity of everything around him. Folks do have an aura or feel about them: JD’s was solid, somehow – if that’s possible for an ethereal phenomenon? He gave off unquestionably good, honest, positive vibes, somehow without seeming to do that much.

Sure his presence was proper blokey – stocky, smiley, straight-talking – but he/we were all comfortable, there was easy engagement. Crucially for a coach you believed him and believed in him.

But why wouldn’t you? John Derrick was an elite level player and coach as well as an elite level bloke. His career will be charted well enough in the tributes that will pour in. John played, John coached – it’s on the record.

There’s more. The sheer volume of love and respect over-flowing from the various social media channels is testament to something beyond that list of achievements – impressive though it may be. John was special.

He was hugely loved and respected, at all levels of the game, across Wales, across the continents! John earned that love by being great company as well as a great player, Level 4 Coach, mentor. He was true. He was with you. He was genuinely, solidly, ever-reliably there.

We’re advised, these days, to seek closure in matters of trauma or difficulty – to resolve things. So let’s accept that John has left us. But is our engagement with him over? Do we need to (in any sense) leave him behind? No. Because he was fabulous… and therefore invincible… and good.