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.

Small Country.

You may not know John Derrick but you will know John Derrick. Ours is the one who played for Glamorgan and Aberdare and who coached well, most of us in Wales, either as players or coaches ourselves, or both.

All of which sounds pretty bland. Like he’s just some ordinary bloke – which of course he is. But 500 people gathered at the SSE Swalec Stadium last night to honour and support this fella, suggesting there may be more, more of a story here. There is.

John has been poorly – frankly rather alarmingly so – having recently undergoing chemotherapy following an op to remove a brain tumour (I think).

(The truth is that those of us that love him to bits but don’t want to intrude too heavily into deeply private matters have inevitably ‘just heard’ a few things and not wanted to push too hard for details we fear may be distressing for family members to hear or describe. I think – it’s my understanding that – we can fairly describe John’s status as recovering… between bouts of chemo and awaiting an important review in the New Year.)

But back to the Swalec and last night. 500 people, many thousands of pounds raised to support JD and his family through tough times. Important but maybe (with all due respect) less important than the feeling.

Proper writers and proper writing swerves the sentimental but forgive me if I dip below the accepted standards in my scuttling after truths on this. A) I generally do and b) this really is about love, not money.

JD – as he is almost universally known – is a fabulous bear of a bloke. He is a smiler, a banterer, a real authority but no demagogue. If I say he is no orator, this too is a deep compliment, John being neither a maker of speeches nor a poseur or player-to-the-crowds. John is a player and a coach; he says stuff – good stuff – and folks listen.

Given the nature of JD’s  work, at Glamorgan Cricket, developing and overseeing Wales’s prime talent, it’s maybe important that the man has credibility in spadeloads. John is a Level 4 coach and as well as being massively skilled and experienced in cricket theory, he can demonstrate with the best of them.

One of the seminal moments of my own coaching development (hah! Such as it is!) came through watching John bat. During one of several JD-led workshops that I have attended, he creamed an endless serious of beautiful cover and off drives to the walls of a leisure centre in deepest Pembs. It was ridiculous; it was remarkable; it was educational. Something profound about stillness landed – stillness of the heart at the centre of some poetic whirl. John edited down the coaching of this phenomenon to a nonchalant point at his supremely immobilised bonce accompanied by a single, key-but-understated word. ‘Head’.

So yeh, John is one of those guys who can do it. You’d follow him – you’d want to. He has that rare gift of being great company – blokey, funny, slightly mischievous – and reflective, authoritative. (Often the former qualities get in the way of those latter ones, right?)

Built strongly, with powerful limbs and an arse the size Divine Comedy’s small country – that’s JD. Talented, yes; likeable immediately, loved and respected once known.

Last night they/we crowded in to show we rate him. The great and good and the brilliant – that third category including former Eng player and selector Geoff Miller, who ‘spoke’ magnificently and hilariously but was also visibly touched and proud to be able to support.

Phil Steele and Robert Croft also made notable, generous contributions to the evening’s entertainment. Jokes and stories were shared, stuff was sold or auctioned. All the accoutrements of a do of this nature were in place … plus that something else I hope you, at your club, maybe, or in your own way, have experienced. Goodwill of the very highest order.

I was there. In the building – table 16 – of about 50-odd. All of us feeling something poignant and wonderful and important. Something (with all due respect) more profound and nourishing than the significant pile of moolah we raised. Something well-earned and personal, something ab-so-lutely centred… around our own outstanding bloke. John Derrick.

 

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?

 

 

Proper good.

Back recently from a ‘tour’ to sunny Aberystwyth, triumphantly brimful of something we might hashtag under #positivity. Not the faux variety, which accompanies so much sport, unconvincingly driving up its libido whilst reducing its intelligence. No. The positivity arising from proper good.

Much of this was due to the sheer level of enjoyment my junior charges experienced. The rest was about… well, about Dylan.

I can use his name because although what follows is both personal and in a rather dangerous way revealing, this lad (this family) have a huge amount to be proud of. Plus, following conversations with Dylan’s mum, it’s perfectly clear that she is absolutely signed up to my inclination to walk the streets with a luminous billboard saying ‘Case For Sport proven. Whoooppeee!!’

The John family and most of the folks involved on our county team’s opening-season journey know that something wonderful has happened or begun to happen. The world has gotten better. A statement has been made. Doors which have typically clunked have swung open… a tad. Without I hope getting too mushy too early, we’re all touched and actually rather privileged to have been involved.

Okay, for better or worse, it feels like Dylan needs to be described, here. He is big, he is boisterous, he has Special Needs. Those are the obvious – and obviously inadequate – labels.

As a medium-sensitive and streetwise kindofaguy, I reckon to have some understanding of Dylan’s issues; but for brevity maybe I should package those wider, cod-psychological musings into the following phrase and leave it at that.

I am pret-ty certain Dylan ain’t an Evil Little Monster. He is more likely a lad who doesn’t either understand what barriers mean OR (maybe more painfully?) what people mean when they describe his transgressions back to him and expect him to a) get that… and then b) behave.

Beyond this actually rather critical stuff around understandings or otherwise, Dylan has a medical condition which is characterised by lapses into what I, as an amateur, might call lower states of consciousness. They aren’t either true faints or true blackouts but maybe they do symbolise Dylan’s vulnerable place in the universe. These episodes are controlled by medication and (no surprises?) happen more regularly when he is stressed or challenged.

Hold on. Roll that back. Vulnerable? At somewhere near twice the body mass of most of his peers? With a rough-tough, edgy, unpredictable presence about him?

Yes – I think so. Vulnerable. The clue is in the phrase – Special Needs.

This is not to say I don’t see how Dylan might be scary to some of his schoolmates, or relentlessly demanding of teachers or parents or anyone else charged with watching over him. I know he’s been tough to manage; that he bounces from one bollocking (which he doesn’t understand) to the next – endlessly. I found it tough to cope with him, myself, at times, when he’s got that slightly wanton, slightly worrying head on. But…

Let’s re-cap, briefly. We’ve got a lad who’s been thrown out of things for bad behaviour, for being wild and reckless and ‘likely to explode’. But he can do that See Ball, Hit Ball thing, powerfully – admittedly partly because he’s big and strong.

He comes to my Under 10s winter development sessions and it’s immediately clear that Dylan’s a Wild One and a One-off. But I kinda like his style – his childish joie-de-boom. I watch.

So this young fella hits the ball excitingly, intimidatingly hard but he is disruptive. He will complicate things. It’s not at all a given that I select him to go on for further – i.e. Regional Cricket level – sessions yet I remember very early on thinking that despite his occasionally hilarious rawness, Dylan had to play. Not because I wanted some pet project but because his batting (or rather his hitting) had crazy potential. He would be in on merit, because he’d get runs. That and yes, I did feel some responsibility and/or sympathy and/or huge opportunity much bigger than cricket was there, before us. It felt right and important to give the lad a chance.

That was all very well but from the first moment I also knew that I would have to choose a team to go on tour to Aberystwyth. Meaning 3 nights, four days away from home, with lots of patient waiting to bat or bowl and lots of Appropriate Behaviour in accommodation or dining hall. Etc etc. This would be massive.

Biggish for all the nine or ten year-olds in the group but Himalayan for Dylan. Hence further toing and froing.

He would be uncontrollable or kinda toxic. He would lose it, surely – shout or fart, not just in the shower, like the rest of us – but out there in front of the umpire or the tea lady… or he’d sling his bat at their coach or into the sunbathing mothers. Impossible to take him.

But I knew I should take him and I thought (after those entirely reasonable but also nightmarish doubts) we could make it work.

So I spoke to Ben Fields, who leads Pembrokeshire County Council Sport Development and to two Head Teachers and to my outstanding colleague and Cricket Development Officer Matt Freeman and we cooked up a plan to offer Dylan support. My comrade and manager, Rob Williams was typically up for the challenge so we just went for it – pushed for a wee bit of funding – and bingo.

The upshot was that a further responsible adult (Johnny T, a teacher from Dylan’s school) attended the Aberystwyth Festival alongside us with a brief to a) be a good bloke and b) watch over Dylan, discreetly. Both of which he did – superbly.

So, the Festival.

Helpfully, the weather was beyond glorious. We played all the scheduled cricket, we had a laugh and a surreal sing-song on the minibus. We launched ourselves into the Irish Sea, from Aber’s seafront jetty. We did the ice-cream and arcades thing. The whole gang – including parents – were magnificent and the memories really may last a lifetime.

Dylan participated fully and wholeheartedly. He was good company and only a pain in the arse when it came to muggins announcing the batting order. (I tend to name a few but try to rotate the opportunities around reasonably fairly, so am not in the habit of fixing an eleven, in case somebody bats for an age in a couple of games, thereby denying chances and necessitating changes.)

Dylan could not stop himself from asking me – in both direct and fascinatingly convoluted ways ‘who would be in after so-and-so?’ During one innings he asked maybe eight or ten times… during one innings!

He also struggles with the concept of fielding – taking the usual ten year old’s drift to new levels of estrangement. In his ideal world, Dylan would bat and bowl early, then play with anyone he can badger into bowling at him on the sidelines, before gloriously re-entering the fray. (Not that different from most club players, asitappens, but clearly something that complicates things.)

Dylan is a one-off and could not function within the same rules as everyone else. So of course we let him drift – under observation, or with encouragement to engage in something relatively calming or helpful or relevant. His contribution was hugely flawed; it bore no comparison to that of the other members of the team; but such comparisons are meaningless.

Let’s come to his achievements. (In doing so, I am conscious of the superb achievements of his fellow players and have some regrets that this is a story which bypasses them. I hope they and their parents will forgive me for that. The fabulous richness of their enjoyment was such that I’m sure that every minor man jack of them will be locked into cricket for life… and yet we are scorching on past.)

Dylan needs to feel his family are close. In several of our regional games he has quietly asked – maybe during a team-talk, maybe during the long wait to bat – if he could go and see his cousins or his mum. He needs to. For him to actually stay ‘away’ overnight, in his own room – even in the knowledge that the family have a hotel (to which he can retreat if necessary) within a handful of miles – was massive. He did that.

For Dylan to win over the fears and discomfitures of his fellow players and their families pretty completely – by being a laugh and a decent lad – was massive. He did that.

For Dylan to have come through the entire four days without creating any significant difficulty in terms of behaviour or relationships with any other party was massive – but exhausting for him. (He wobbled a little on the last, sweltering afternoon.)

At almost every moment I could feel the intensity of his energy, most of which I knew was being ferociously channelled (in his own rumbustious, amorphous way) into being good – or as good as he could be.

On the pitch, Dylan took two catches that half the team would have dropped and broke new ground with the bat. He scored 37 not out in our final game and smashed more boundaries than anyone else in our posse. He entertained us, with his beefy bludgeoning and his centrifugal anything-might-happenness. People cheered him on.

Crucially, he also showed us that he is trying like hell to learn proper cricketstuff; like playing with a straight bat (sometimes). Like showing a degree of circumspection previously completely unimaginable.

This latter stuff, for me, implies thought and maturation; development. Development like you wouldn’t believe! A rich universe of possibles, in fact, that the world seemed likely to deny him, because Dylan is Big and Boisterous and has weird faints and stuff – and Special Needs – and he ‘doesn’t listen!’

Except he has listened. Because the game’s gotten into him. The poor lad’s been seduced by the pure joy of hitting (and succeeding) and the camaraderie thing – being one of the gang with the gang finally becoming comfortable with that – with him!

Dylan was the lad who had lost the right to be taken anywhere, the right be really listened to. He had no hope of anything except more of the same, crushing, inevitable, well-earned ‘discipline.’ He was hoodlum-fodder: a Lost Boy. But now he’s winning.

Look we can’t say there won’t be more grief and difficulty ahead but we can say there’s something here that may offer a way out of trouble and isolation and failure to learn. Weirdly and wonderfully, that thing is cricket. A transformation, or at least the opportunity, the possibility of a staggering transformation, has begun. It’s massive.

 

A Year in the Life of…

May seem weird to some of you but most of my work for the year is done. Which is why I’m writing this from the medium-strength comfort of a leathery settee in a very pleasant caff in St Davids – @orielyparc, if you must know – where, as well as putting away a more than acceptable veggy tagine, I’m reflecting on stuff.

But hang on – how come that thing about the work?

It’s because I’m (mainly) a cricket coach and (mainly) I go into schools. And the bulk of that work builds towards festivals and they are all done.

Sure it’s true that there are other reasons, other venues for my cricketstuff; sure I will be leading a tour in August and there will be @cricketmanwales-prompted activity come September through the winter but broadly – broadly – the energy has been dolloped already.

In this sub post-coital moment, I find myself stepping outside and viewing my crazy sporty life bundle as though it’s someone else’s – or somehow dreamily extra-me? Weighing up again and maybe luxuriating in the fabulousness or fascination of much of what’s happened. It feels good. It feels like a year’s worth of work.

I suppose it began last September, with the start of the new school year. I work for Cricket Wales, meaning I have a schedule and pretty clear objectives but at this moment, sans diary, I have no real idea what I did when, or in what order things happened, so apols if this sounds unhelpfully amorphous.

Treat it as a highlights package, or another ‘5 Things I can slap down, sharpish’ – a contemporary way in to the stories. Or perhaps a remembrance of how things feel, looking back.

I know again that because this is personal there’s the possibility it’s also wildly egocentric but I’m both too old and too committed to care about how I might be judged in this. I’m well-content to look you all in the eye and say that this is about the value of the sport, endof. I am clear – defiantly and kindof proudly clear – that there has been value.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So highlights include the following; a first ever morning with allegedly challenging kids at a medium-notorious school; the impact of a few hub sessions on one single child; the festivals; being gobsmacked by a particular talent; the possibility that another individual with particular needs *just might* do that ugly duckling-to-swan thing, following brilliant support from a tranche of Sports Development folks and a Headteacher or two.

That first morning with children at a ‘school with challenges’ was and is a sensational place to start.

I’ve since been told that some sporty peeps actively swerve this establishment but I found it raw inspiring. The kids absolutely bought my daft-friendly engagement; the alleged hooligans hurling their energy into zapping, kappowing or listening out for the hikes in the challenge. If my faith in the Power of the Game ever needed re-booting, these children did that… and more.

We’d simply gotten busy together. Yep, it was mildly anarchic when 30something balls were flying about but because we kept driving forwards through the games (and because mostly they ALL had a ball!) we smashed that behaviour issue out of the park.

When the kids went back in the Headteacher came out to ask me what the hell I’d done to them, such was the mad-healthy buzz flashing through. It was a reminder that a) I’m in the right job b) making kids feel heard/encouraging them is still the greatest, most mutually-uplifting experience.

There was actually maybe a year’s worth of good done in that single morning: simply credit the game.

The second highlight I wrote about in ‘Just one experience’. Read that. Or note again my utter conviction that revelatory changes can and do happen when coaches or teachers go right past the apparent ability of a given child. When they open up possibilities by being a pal and by (sorry for the over-clunky coachification here) incrementally increasing appropriate challenges.

The child in this instance went from being a silent non-participant to having a go at almost everything – and I’m not just talking sport, here.

Where once there was no capacity to dare or risk involvement, over a few weekly sessions a whole new language of confidence emerged – all without that child being ‘singled out’ as the one who needed special attention. (My strong suspicion is this child’s relationships with sport/school/society were transformed because the encouragement was deeply subtle.) Whichever way something massive happened.

Our Cricket Wales Festivals are soo-perb days out for the kids – and for me. They are nearly all based around the kwik cricket, eight player, four batting pairs format where every player bowls a single over. They are both genuinely spiced with competitive spirit and a lovely, therapeutic escape from school.

There are flags or banners, pitches tend to be marked out ‘properly’ and we ring the boundaries with cones so it does feel like a kosher occasion. There is adrenalin. Importantly, there are  two fundamental breeds of festival, one being for the school’s best players of either sex, the other being just for girls. Proper cricket breaks out in both; crap cricket occurs in both; kids kinda grow in both.

They grow because they are stretched and possibly tested – and I use that word particularly advisedly. Festivals are dynamic and teamy and communal and individually liberating whilst they are challenging. They are places for picnics and giggles and fleeting disappointments and daft glories. Kids love them and so do I.

In one such festival I nearly got felled by the most incredible bit of fielding. The batter had clattered something out to deep midwicket, where the most athletic gather was followed by the most exciting long throw I’ve seen in years.

I can barely describe the combination of grace, power and laser-like accuracy expressed in that stunning moment. Partly because the fielder was a thirteen year-old girl (and I really have to choose my words carefully for fear of sounding frankly a bit pervy) and partly because I was and remain simply shocked at the quality of the work.

I’d not seen or met this girl before but from what I saw in the next half-hour, she’s a nailed-on international athlete, or should be. Her talent spoke of skills that were brilliant but raw – that throw being a spike of genius in an on-off matrix which bore witness (amongst other wonderful things) to a clear unfamiliarity with cricket. Making it all the more exciting!

So I ‘discovered’ somebody? No. Or yes and no. Yes this girl is absolutely dynamite; no, I don’t think she’s either playing or going to play regular cricket. I’m fine with that, too – as long as she’s expressing that brilliance somewhere.

The point of this is that festivals (that sport) can stun us, delight us, blow us away simply by providing the forum, the opportunity, the bat, the ball.

My final ‘moment’ must be wrapped in much care and discretion. All I will say is that someone young who spends most of their life on the receiving end of bollockings (because their behaviour is continually twitching back to mad-naughty) may get a chance to break out. To show the universe they have value. It’s a gamble a few of us are playing… because the kid has talent.

We all have talent. We all have stories. We most of us find a way of expressing just some of that – more or less. How great to be in the business of enabling that gift.

Contemplating my navel and my ‘bag’, I’m re-enthused and genuinely grateful. I’m so-o in on the game, so aware of its invincible goodness. One deep breath and I’ll be playing again.

 

 

 

 

Beautiful Game.

My ‘One a the Boys’ rating has always been somewhere between questionable and variable and what follows may do little to re-affirm my status as a fella you could comfortably share a pint and a kosher backslap with. Because I’m dealing in whimsy here; poetry of a sort; and the ‘b’ word comes out.

Let’s cut through that frisson sharply now and tell the story.

You know I’m a cricket coach and I go into schools and clubs to enthuse kids and generally lark about. You know I’m up for it to the point of (that word again) embarrassment – being foamaciously enthusiastic and committed as a whirlwind.

I’ve just been into schools in Fishguard and Goodwick– or as the demonstrably, audibly lovelier welsh words would have it – Abergwaun ac Wdig. Abergwaun, in February, doing cricket. It’s been fabulous.

We found an island of spectacular weather with that unsurpassably stunning winter light zapping from glorious sky to sea to river Gwaun, to asphalt or tarmac pitch. Literally brilliant – but coldish. All the more reason, then, for a certain Cricket Wales missionary to stir the enthusiasm rather than curb it. I went at it, in friendly-comedian and hopefully man-worth-listening-to mode.

Somehow, over three days, delivering sessions that were about multi-skills as much as cricket (movement between cones/hopping/catching/bouncing/listening because things change, right?) a happy and successful and invigorating and enjoyable mood was sustained. The weather was reflected. Children were challenged and entertained – they were distracted into listening.

The means for them to coach me how to throw was found, or built, from stories of disillusioned dogs (epic fail – more like a shot putt!) and ecstatic pooches chasing missiles hurled from a High Elbow and Long, Long Arm. A rare outbreak this, of Technical Stuff, in a matrix of buzz, movement, sharing bats, booming balls. The kids were in there, they were on it, they were up for it; I think maybe I barely gave them a choice.

In one school I ran three sessions in the morning. In the last of these I was joined by a (woman) teacher of some standing in the school whom I know not well, but well enough to respect as somebody who gets sport can offer. She was accompanied by another specialist teacher supporting a young boy with a particular challenge. In the sparkling sunshine, on a playground pitched quite alarmingly down from right to left as I cheerfully ‘prepped’ the session, we went to work.

First up I did do that thing where you invite the group to listen so they don’t miss any of the fun. I made it all a giggle and a deal. Then on we charged.

Through coloured ‘gates’ we had to shift – forward or back, jogging or hopping. Through four or ten or how many? Thirty?!? Then basketball/catching/clapping; always offering a calibrated challenge so that fliers could fly and fumblers find a happy way through. Then that throwing round the garden thing, with a partner and a target on the floor and (actually) the space and attention and confidence in the bank to talk technical, for just a mo’. Another step on my mission to teach half the western world (well, Pembs) that dog-launching life-skill.

Round the garden I went, with a dose of encouragement for everyone. Not just spooned to the wind blandly, but proffered into every face.

These or’nary kids really got it. They really listened, really threw with their feet, really tried to hit that target. It all flowed; my positive energy, their smiley determination. The teachers sat back contentedly, or joined in.

Timing-wise and ambience-wise a clumping of balls from tees to finish seemed absolutely appropriate. Fifteen minutes then, of building a way of sharing the bat – dumb questions from the coach finding a ‘taking it in turns’ protocol agreeable to all. It may have been the sunshine but this group shared magnificently, irresistibly proficient fielders passing the ball over to their less dynamic compadres for their turn to ‘give it some wallop.’

Not the most original way to end a session, it’s true. But in terms of learning arguably quite profound lessons on what makes games (or life?) work and combining that with a pure, liberating, hitting experience it stands as valid and valuable. And the kids loved it. Broadly, it felt great, obviously, undeniably great to all of us – one of the best I can remember – in all sorts of ways.

I closed the session by saying thankyou and asking one or two more dumb questions about what we’d accidentally found; catching-wise, throwing-wise, making games work-wise. I told the children I was dee-lighted to report that I’d be back for more… and they seemed genuinely pleased. Finally I asked them if they’d be so good as to go quietly back into school with their teachers.

At that point the senior teacher spoke. She asked the children if there was something they thought they should say to me and they responded in Welsh (largely) – diolch yn fawr iawn, Rick! Predictably enough. But the teacher went on to say that she thought the children should note how ‘beautifully’ I had spoken to them and how this had been a special – she used the word again – beautiful lesson that they should remember for a long time.

You weren’t there so I’ll just add that she was in no way either showboating or being glib. She was, to her credit, visibly touched by something and was trying to a) thank me, generously and sincerely but also b) mark that there had been something profound and lovely as well as merely successfully sporty going on. There had.

There had but I’m not after the credit: I’m after making that case for sport again. I’m touched by the boldness and generosity of the language used – specifically, of course by the use of that precious ‘b’ word, which most folks would’ve surely swerved and which I’ve never heard before in this context.

On reflection, by the way, I’m clear that what was beautiful was the children’s level of engagement. I may also contend (dangerously, because it interests me!) that the teacher’s sex may have played an important role in the discourse – Big Boys generally being too dumbed by machismo to speak so fearlessly and naturally of loveliness. But this is another subject.

I was gladdened and sure, made proud by the implications around all this. Chiefly I was clear that for whatever reason, a moment had been marked; we’d heard – the universe had heard – that encouragement, movement, co-ordination can be beautiful.

Dawning; typical of me but I think I’ve just realised why I wrote this. Could be because I do wonder if us blokes are generally so unable to say ‘b’ words (or similar) that perhaps we don’t let ourselves recognise the transforming poetry in moments like this.  Or if we do we don’t say it.  And if we don’t say it maybe it’s not evidenced in the way it might be.  And if it’s not evidenced then less kids (maybe) get fit, or open themselves up to the game. Any game.

There’s a welcome.

Last night I was buzzing. I’m going to bore you with it – the detail of some of it, too, – because (who knows?) it may be either relevant or it might, in an abstract way, ‘cheer you up’. Plus I’m still buzzing.

But what follows, with its adrenalin-fuelled odour of Mission Statement, is not supposed to be some model, some icon of good practice. It’s just another contribution to the debate. If it’s unusually detail-heavy, that’s because I’m imagining other sports-peeps with similar interests or concerns may be perusing.

Now we’re talking cricket but please don’t be put off by that. We’re also talking – really talking – #inclusion, #development, #sport, the human. Big Things; proper Guardian-reading adult hashtags; but in the context of wee humans, mainly, so don’t tell me you’re not interested. It’s for the kids.

Okay so there are Test Matches and Big Bashes and bawling crowds and trampolines and trumpets and y’know – glory. But there is also the tiddly, inconsequential stuff. Let’s call it the grassroots – even if a fair portion of the resultant grassroots action takes place on a Leisure Centre floor, or on what most of us call an ‘astro.’

Last night, in a hall that has the feel almost of an old-school gymnasium, 16 kids turned up to one of our cricket hubs. Hardly earth-shattering, so for that to mean anything I’m going to have to explain some stuff. Let’s take a deep breath together.

In the search for alternative ways to offer up cricket to children aged 6-11, we (Cricket Wales, Pembrokeshire Posse) came up with the cunning plan to deliver in a ‘non-club’ setting and then secured three Leisure Centres. But… why now, why midwinter?

Firstly it felt worthwhile to extend the profile and availability of the game locally – whilst accepting entirely the primacy of clubs. Secondly, as L C’s are often simply unavailable to us in the summer (and weather then theoretically at least supports outdoor cricket!) it made enough sense to crack on in the cold and dark. I should add that this is something of a pilot scheme but also that we believe it’s important – possibly crucial – to broaden our appeal beyond the keen, ball-tracking eyes of the gifted.

That then, is some of the why. The how was less of a novelty for us, in that I then went into local primary schools and delivered some ‘taster’ sessions and/or spoke in assemblies to try to enthuse children towards the activity. Which is kindof what I generally do.
With an unhelpful(?) break over Christmas, we really weren’t sure if we could maintain sufficient numbers to continue into the New Year. The centres have been very supportive but clearly there’s an economic reality of sorts even here, in the joyous, energising land of play.

With children going free if they already have a membership and paying two to three pounds if not, the project is vulnerable should less than about ten or a dozen children attend each one-hour hub. (Naturally we’d prefer more – 15-20 ideally.) Cricket Wales fund me and the Leisure Centres have to pay my partner-in-crime, Craig. Nobody’s making money here; it’s about opening up opportunities – to either play cricket or inhale the culture of physical activity in a particular space – or both.

Pre Santa’s delivery of new Gray Nicholls or Ni-kees, so attendances predictably had begun to dip slightly; hence we were conscious we may need to pull out all the stops to find enough bodies. We got on twitter to promote the hubs again, as well as re-sending posters into schools. My suspicion is, however, that the notices delivered via facebook – for a smallish fee, to all users in a particular post code – may have been key to refreshing and re-booting the return to action. (This was another first, for us, by the way. Forty-odd quid that I expect will make several weeks or possibly months-worth of cricket possible.)

I feared or expected only six children might turn up for the first post-Krimble session. We had sixteen. I appreciate this may not sound like a triumph but I know just how powerfully these sessions can act on children – maybe particularly children who get left behind when the alpha males/females are choosing teams in the playground. Cue the brief appalling digression…

In ‘Just one experience’, I wrote about how impactful (even) very ‘loose’ or profoundly non-technical sessions can be. (https://cricketmanwales.com/2015/12/15/just-one-experience – Go back a coupla posts on this site – you’ll find it.) Lots of people liked it – got it – that sense of a young human lighting up, opening up, through sport. Like most coaches that’s what drives me – and if that is revealing of some intrinsic arrogance then so be it. I love to play a part in that inching or lolloping towards expression and movement. It’s massively inspiring for me to see children blown away or buzzing with what they’ve done; it’s my privilege and responsibility to offer up the game and do it well in the knowledge that this might change something.

Anyways, back to that sixteen – those sixteen kids.

They make a glorious dollop of change and inspiration possible by making this hub viable – and this was the difficult one in terms of numbers. As it happens in the last 24 hours more people have come back to me on twitter and are committing their kids. From the Sports Development Militia point of view, it’s also important that we may have found another way of reaching people.

Weirdly, this latter point – the facebook option – feels like a watershed moment, given one of the intentions was to open this up to children who might find the club environment waaay too challenging to contemplate. There’s something about the part-private, part immaculately ‘populist’ post-code slam-dunk blanket-coverage-wallop that I like and it looks to have worked, or helped.

In this particular centre last night eleven of these boys and girls were ‘new’ – meaning they didn’t attend prior to Christmas, when the project started.

New attendees are clearly the gold dust, the holy grail and the bees knees when it comes to the Key Performance Indicators that S D Militia everywhere cherish. I can see why, but as the front man in much of this, gifted the role of interacting with and hopefully encouraging children towards something I know to be fabulous and growing, I’m probably a whole lot less interested in the numbers than I’m sounding here. Yes I’m chuffed that it was sixteen not six… but I’m more bothered by how these sessions feel to the kids.

So, whilst this blog is about the circumstances around capturing these young cricketers, do not, my friends, get side-tracked into thinking that anything is remotely as important as the quality of experience in that sports hall. Migrations mean nothing if the sessions are dull or inappropriate.

A final thought. It hasn’t escaped our attention that the children who fall(?) into the ‘Na, not a natural’ category may quite possibly still offer up 40 years of wunnerful service as an administrator/scorer/groundsman at a cricket club they patently love. Possibly despite never having represented it on the pitch. This phenomenon clearly becomes more likely if they have a great experience of knockabout or festival cricket games – say using a tennis ball or windball… in a local Leisure Centre.

Broadly, the point I am making is that we cricketpeeps need to offer many things. And we’re looking to do that. The game is sensational but it can seem dauntingly technical or structured or dull, actually, from the outside, or from knee-high to a grasshopper. And we need – we really need – to welcome folks in.

Just one experience.

Disclaimer; certain things have been changed here so that (I believe) no-one could be undermined by the following story. I’d like to think that wider interests – much wider than me or mine or Cricket Wales’s – might, can and arguably should be served by recounting what follows. It’s healthy, it’s heart-warming and it really happened.

Right now we’re test-driving a project that (rather than gathering children and ‘migrating’ them into local cricket clubs) is offering them an indoor knockabout. The kids get @cricketmanwales, his partner in crime, C****, a hall, some kit and then we play stuff. Once a week, for a few weeks; out of school hours.

I don’t want to get bogged down with the whys and tactical wotnots but (because two of you may be interested) we’re doing this for the following reasons, amongst others;

• The Leisure Centres are available to us now.
• Local cricket clubs don’t have the capacity for us Cricket Wales peeps to drive yet another clutch of budding Under Nines or Elevens into their hands – or at least they’re telling us they can’t accommodate a new team – fair enough.
• Some kids just don’t or won’t feel comfortable in the club environment – maybe they aren’t ‘good enough’ (or don’t think they are) to make anybody’s team? Maybe they’re a wee bit scared that they’ll have to face a Proper Hard Cricket Ball? Maybe Mum or Dad says it’ll cost too much?
• Simply, we wanted to offer a different opportunity and, without actually targeting any particular group, without remotely abandoning the idea that clubs are rightly at the centre of what cricket is, see what a mildly alternative space and proposal might offer.

This may have the sound of a fringe project, an experiment and there’s some truth in that view of it. A little. But though I confess to indulging in occasional meetings about all this strategic stuff, rest assured, dear friends that I/we are about the cricket – the act, the action that happens when a daft bugger like me is let loose with a bunch of kids. These weeny earthlings don’t feel part of any project. They’re too busy moving, catching, stopping, starting.

We’ve called the sessions ‘cricket hubs’. We didn’t, on the poster that ultimately my daughter cobbled together, specify ‘beginners’ or anything else other than ‘Boys and Girls, 6-11’. I then did some sessions in local schools and Bigged the Thing Up in an assembly or two and then off we went… we knew not where.

At the Leisure Centres, as a familiar face to the arriving children, I ‘lead’; which is a posh way of saying it’s me that does most of the shouting. Given these young ‘uns do turn out to be anywhere from six to eleven years old and do have a fairly alarming but fascinating range of abilities, the sessions have to live off my sense of what they can do – what they can have fun with – and maybe what’s possible to learn.

At one particular centre a boy I’m not going to describe or name joined us. When I say joined us, he slid in with what felt like an unremarkable degree of reticence. After a welcome to all I ran a warm-up game. Amongst the giggly anarchy I saw that maybe we needed to place a few balls – asitappens, we were using anything from teddies to beach balls to foam rugby balls – into his hands rather than either let or expect fellow players to lob things at him. He was involved on the periphery, neither happy nor unhappy but with his hands unconvincingly outstretched, at risk of either failing to acquit himself or being bypassed by ‘better players’.

Don’t panic. This post isn’t going to be about the quality of my coaching. It’s about the quality of this wee lad’s experience. Sure I’ll take a modicum of credit for getting fairly early on that he wasn’t, in the dangerously contentious phrase, a ‘natural’; that the games were going to have to come to meet him. I reckon I probably also intuited something about the appropriate level of fuss he’d most effectively ‘respond to’ and just quietly kindof revisited him now and then, to show tiddly things, without focussing on this fella as the Possible Struggler in the group.

Interestingly – and unusually – the boy’s dozen compadres were mostly children who clearly found catching and co-ordinating movements generally a challenge. Maybe this helped. We played simple games – yup, including that ole chestnut hitting from tees! – which everyone could do and I hiked the technical info with certain individuals when they needed to extend. It went okay.

This went on once a week for four weeks. The boy attended every week and to my knowledge did not speak a single word to either myself or one of the other children – even when asking for a pass, a catch. He simply got marginally more proficient, more convincing at the body language, the shape of the movements, in proffering those arms. In time he tried throwing, bowling, all of it; they all did. Skills, in between or in and around what we might call small-sided games. He managed, found a way through, without either busting the proverbial gut, or getting frustrated, or making spectacular leaps forward. He was it seemed in that undemonstrative middle-ground.

The fifth week comes and the boy arrives a tad late. His mum (whom I‘ve seen, watching discreetly but never met or spoken to) does that ‘would you mind if I had a quiet word’ gesture and we step out of the hall momentarily. She says something very close to this;

Look I just wanted to thank you, really. I don’t know if you know but my son has really significant confidence issues – really significant.

I say I had an inkling but…

No they’re really debilitating. And I just wanted to thank you because he’s NEVER EVER done anything like this. He just can’t. So he never does anything.

I say something crass like ‘that’s genuinely lovely to hear, thankyou.’

No, thank YOU. It’s remarkable – are you going to be able to keep on going with this? He got up this morning and asked what day it was and when I said xxxxday he said ‘Oh great – cricket tonight! Believe me he NEVER says anything like that!! So thank you.

People, I was more than a bit choked. I managed to blurt out something about the cricket going on again after Christmas and then went back in to join C**** and the kids.

On the How Rewarding Was All That?-o-meter this ranks pretty high. Maybe because it felt both literally (eek!) awesome and a little mysterious. How could this lad’s seemingly non-animated engagement with our cricket-thing turn out so… profoundly? I’m delighted but also shocked, almost, that he’s found it so enjoyable – frankly it didn’t really seem like he was having that much fun. Whatever that unknowable process, we find ourselves reflecting on a stunning example of the fab-you-luss-ness of … what? Games? Movement? Interaction? Those few encouraging words?

Good to reflect, for one minute. Because I’m thinking this is evidence of the power of sport. This young boy has now bounded more than slid – albeit in his own, magical, ghostly-silent way – into a new, expanding universe. He is both denying six years of absence and disengagement and bulleting towards possibilities previously unthinkable. Why? Because he enjoyed the movement, the encouragement, the sporting challenge. It acted as a trigger.

We may never understand quite why this worked. It may not matter. But the fact of it matters. The quality of this boy’s experience was such that things were transformed.

This I suppose is anecdotal evidence. We can’t ‘map’ it or prove it so as to legitimise ourselves in the eyes of local authorities or funders. It’s pretty much non-measurable. But know what? To me it feels like a really great bit of work.

Sport Transcending.

 

Minor aside. I was going to write about football for bowlingatvincent.com but couldn’t summon the mood. There are subjects out there – the Chelsea Void, the ongoing van Gaal splutter-which-might-somehow-incredibly-lead-to-a-title, the wonderful Vardy nonsense – but something about the context, the deflating averageness of the Premier League undermines my conviction to really plunge into the stories. Temporary this, I hope.

Then I thought on the obvious; the Buttler Transformation. Magic but na.
Instead I’m going to recount stuff that I hope might just strike a deeper (sorry, pretentious gitdom alert), more inspirational chord with some of you. As I sit looking out over Swansea Bay in sharp sunshine it just seems right to blaze away on Bigger Themes rather than pootle around with transparently forced hypotheses around elite-level footie. And Buttler, Buttler’s been covered.
In any case, sharing something of the small fabulousness of grassy, grassrooty sport feels worthier and more pressing; so that’s where I’m going.

Friday I got up at 6.50a.m. as per and did usual the family stuff. (Dunno about you but this generally involves maybe 20 minutes of washing up whilst cobbling together medium-decent brekkie for t’other three, plus a swift jaunt to ‘look at the sea’ with pooch.)

Critically for me it also meant both trying to picture where a particular school is… and then rehearsing ideas for a first session of cricketstuff for (probably) two groups of kids (probably) aged seven to eleven. Hilarious but true it could even be that I’m visualising ‘capturing’ kids whilst stirring the porridge. In fact I’m pretty certain I am.

I’d not been into this school before. I’d spoken to the Head – whom I’d never met – and he had sounded right up for my pitch re delivering a couple of taster sessions with a view to inviting kids up to further cricket action at the local leisure centre. He’d also skilfully gently inferred that because of the ‘nature’ of his posse, it might be a challenge to actually achieve the transfer of children from (free) school knockabout to a leisure centre charging a not unreasonable £2.50 for the hour. I remember rating his honesty and generosity around this but was clear that there is real value in showing the game(s) at his place irrespective of any targets. I told him that and think this made us mates.

We’re a one-motor family so it was a scramble to get people to various terminals of departure before I could boot down towards the school. I arrived, very nearly a tad late, carrying big, unhelpfully decrepit bags of clobber in coolish drizzle, to be told I ‘needed to be round the corner at the Junior School’.

Given that I’m kindof Old School about being timely and gathered and stuff, this was not good. However, arriving at the destination proper turned out to be one of those rather lovely, confirmatory moments which denied any residual fluster.

The Gaffer met me and was friendly: there was clearly no rush. Within seconds two different people had offered me a brew and a ‘hand with ‘anything.’ The ambience spoke of proper welcome and the environment was visibly (whatever this means – we know what it means!) encouraging. Minor note; I’m a fella with very few prejudices but I’d walked in there wondering, just a little, about baggage in the ether – ‘reputations’.

Because of the tiddly specks outside and the availability of a spanking new and perfectly adequate hall, I bundled my kit inside. Another teacher came to say hello and offer help. Whilst we chatted it became apparent that the weather was breaking for the better and that though it might remain marginal we could go for it outside, on a new, tarmacked space. Outside is better; we engaged Plan B sharpish and I re-gathered to think about first outdoor introductory sessions for feisty kids. It’s cold. It’s grey. It’s okaaaay, actually but best get these guys at it.

So, movement and maybe teamwork and a few giggles. The setting out of a friendly, challenging-in-a-good-way matrix through which we can gambol. Pressing that ‘earthlings you’re gonna have to listen because the games are gonna change’ button. Making even these instructions engaging/dynamic/part of some irrepressible bundle. Do all that pal.

First group comes out. Mix of Year 5 and 6. I launch likeably enthusiastic geezer mode, with a deal based around F.U.N. for ‘top, top listening’.

I think they get me and we shake hands excitedly-metaphorically on a guaranteed smiles-for-listening agreement then off we go. Twenty-five boys and girls passing teddies, beach balls, (spongy) rugby balls and other assorted unthreatening globes to each other as they jog across the space and back, Emily having set the tempo by demonstrating a treble-fabulous and stylish jog immediately before the happy stampede.

It’s chaos but manageably so; it’s undeniably smiley. They do get me. Of course Jonni and Marc are hogging the rugby ball and the expressed aspiration to get everyone in the game is missed, first time out (so reinforce that). But this is great.

‘Earthlings, looking spookily good. But I told you my favourite word is TEEEEEAAAMMM so we have to get the guys who didn’t catch a ball or a teddy in the game. Let’s go again and this time we must pass within three seconds. Go!’

Some thinking going on and some great, energetic movement. Still some daft overthrows but blanket engagement and strikingly good catching – really good catching!

I’m weaving in and out to get those words of encouragement into their faces. ‘WODDA CATCH!’ ‘Ooooff –how’s your nose?!?’ ‘Great hands!’ ‘Blimey, that’s pass of the century!!’

They’re fizzing, almost uniformly – what was that cobblers about ‘challenging kids’? Somebody film this quick; show the Governors, show The Government, show our funders, show EVERYONE!! You watch this develop, now!

‘OK. Next up we can’t go cuddling that teddy; remember how many seconds before we have to pass? Three! And this time we can’t throw to the same partner all the time. This Frankie-Millie/Frankie-Millie/Frankie-Millie thing is now… a no-no. How many seconds before we pass? OK. Go!!’

We shift forwards through a one second interval; in other words catch and pass immeeeeediately. ‘How can we make that baby work, people? What can I do if I don’t have the ball? YES! Communicate! What might I do with my hands? Yes, show them! Because I’m joining in with the team.’

Enough on that warming up, switching on thing. Ball each. ‘Show me some basketball – show me some control as you go. There/back. Tell me what works, how you get some control’.

Then catches and bounces of a zillion kinds, whilst moving – must be moving to crack the cold, to crack the smiles.

I’m in the mix of strikingly co-ordinated ease and refreshingly willing flap, constantly, cos I’m charged with bringing the personality here. The game is everything but I am Agent of Boogie, encouraging fringe-players to break through into the song ’n dance of it – defying them all not to enjoy this daft, doable thing. We’re all lost in the swirl of it and it’s magbloodynificent.

Fifty minutes-worth and done. Revert to pitch about *also* coming out to play at the leisure centre, Tuesday nights. Reassure them Yes! I am here next week. ‘Course I am. They’ve been wonderful.

A break and another, similarly zaptastic group. Teacher asks if some kids from ‘the unit’ can join in – meaning children with issues I may need to consider – and I emphatically assent. Without singling them out I scatter some further encouragement as the group flies around, engaged. It’s magbloodynificent; they are.

It finishes (or actually I call it) after some booming hitting from tees. All of them brimming with their own enormous or enormously minor triumphs. They shared, they clouted, they caught, they couldn’t believe they connected. Take the me thing out of this, here was an absolute model, a goddam advert for the case for sport transcending.

Forget the Premier League. It’s been simply overrun, overshadowed, shrunk – if only for a moment. The world got better here, because these kids accepted my (Cricket Wales, asitappens) offer. They invested in it; they threw it forward and then they caught it. They listened, they were thoughtful and busy and strategic and inventive and there was barely any drift. As they go back in, a teacher is beaming back at them.