Game of Throws.

Most of you will know that I’m a Community Coach, for Cricket Wales. This means, amongst other things, that I go into schools – I typically describe myself as “the daft bugger who throws things around, with kids, in schools”.

It’s sometimes challenging but mostly so magbloodynificent I need to ramp the language over the scoreboard to describe it. Today is one of those flowtastically energising days. Sorry.

I’ve been into a Primary School, on our Chance to Shine mission, which is so multi-faceted (in a good way) I’m going to invent some swift bullet-points, to give the sense of covering it all briefly.

Frankly don’t care if this sounds like a salespitch: what happened today was mercifully and definitively beyond mere capitalism, dear friends. Here’s some edited highlights from the err, manifesto.

We Community Coaches, we Chance to Shiners aim to;

  • offer a load of sporty fun.
  • Build co-ordination around cricket-based games.
  • Build confidence through and confidence in movement.
  • Offer new stuff – skills, ‘drills’, ways in to catching, throwing, striking etc.
  • Stimulate listening skills, teamwork &/or individual application to challenges: build numeracy (yes I do mean that!) and communication skills – oracy.
  • Get familiar, or more familiar with a bat, a ball, or different bats, different balls.
  • Specifically follow, more or less, a curriculum which Chance to Shine has assembled, drawing on masses of expertise and research… and stuff.
  • In the abstract we aim (I certainly aim) to make kids laugh a bit, whilst charging round the place with purpose. Structured bursting and giggling and launching and swiping and mostly achieving something, which may or may not be measurable but may well be actually rather profound.

Hence my sickening upbeat-ness. Cos we did all that this morning. Two brilliant sessions with children from Year 2 then Year 3. Brilliant? Them – them! – not me. They lit up the place.

In my post-euphoric foolishness, I’m wondering if there might be some merit in describing what we did. So here goes.

Last week with these children, we followed the Chance to Shine model for batting games, via Striking Star and Super Skills Circuit – you can find these here and I do recommend them.

https://www.chancetoshine.org/teaching-resources

Having done the ‘get familiar with the bats’ thing, it made sense to do something different, today. So out with hoops and spots and balls, for games again developed from that C2S curriculum.

We were inside, in an average-sized school hall. I drew out a Throwing Line, with red cones, then placed three yellow hoops and a spot, about four or five metres out, parallel to the Throwing Line, spaced evenly apart. Three or four metres beyond, two blue hoops and two blue spots, again making a line, across the hall. Finally, the distant targets – four red hoops.

I welcomed the children in, in English and inadequate Welsh, as per. Then, after asking them again how they turned their ears on and warning them in the nicest possible way that the games would change, briefly described (rather than demonstrated) what we would do. We would throw underarm at the yellow targets.

What would we throw? Cricket ball-sized sponge balls and two or three significantly bigger but still unthreatening, lightweight ‘footballs’, plus a softly-spiky pink plastic ball: all of which I said I’d like to see shared around.

The children had a couple of goes before I tried that “Ok people, imagine if I was an alien and I’d just landed on Planet Har’ford; how would you explain how this underarm throw works(?)” routine. “What’s moving?”

I might now be modelling the throw but not saying anything. Instead I ask the ‘coaches’ (kids) to talk me through “pushing my palm, stepping forward, aiming with my hand-that-isn’t-throwing”. It’s a listening event and describing event, for the children; hopefully more than a demonstration.

We move on, as soon as; we want to be throwing, more, further, harder!

I ask how many points we should give ourselves for hitting the nearest (yellow) hoops ”first bounce – on the full?” Somebody confidently shouts “Ten!” Ten it is.

”So how many for the blue?”

(Somebody else). “Thir-teee!”

”And what about the red?!?”

”FIFF-TEEEE!!!”

Suddenly we have a Proper Game. In which “for a bitta fun” we can keep score if we want.

I offer them more choices; they can now throw under or overarm and they can aim at any hoop or spot. (Incidentally, if it felt necessary, I would offer the discussion about whether a blue hoop is worth more or less points than a blue spot – which is smaller. Feels unnecessary, here. Note too, that we haven’t discussed throwing overarm yet; let them launch a few first).

Surprise surprise, everybody lashes it out there in the general direction of the distant red hoops. It’s wonderful, stretchy-wild and energetic. They love it.

Before the next round of throws – just to focus the concentration a tad – I bring in A Rule. “You have to name the colour before you throw”. We go on. It’s still fairly chaotic… but great.

Next up we revisit the scoring. “Which are the easiest targets to hit? Why? So if we really were counting our score, what colour do we think might be the one where we are most likely to get some points? Or… if we are enjoying throwing harder, further (at the red, maybe) what can we do, to give ourselves every chance of hitting?”

It’s gotten tactical. They realise that. There’s that lovely sense of liberation – through the physical act of throwing – and also the whirr of cognition and ‘getting the game’.

”I’m going yellow – no, blue!”

”I’m going red. I’m still going red, because…”

It’s gotten to a point where I think there is some real value in me demonstrating an overarm throw – despite my half-decent grasp of ECBCA initiatives towards Core Principles, as opposed to old-school ‘coaching’. So I offer three suggestions; feet wide apart and in line with the target; ‘pointing’ or aiming with the non-throwing hand; throwing hand waaaaay up and back away from the face.

In my defence, as it were, I do offer this model via a story, with questions.

”Who’s got a dog, friends?

Half the class.

”Okaaay. So have I. Picture the scene, on Newgale (beach). Me and one very waggy dog and a ball. Does my dog want me to do this… (throws with hand at his ear, feebly)… or (collects ball and notably draws elbow and hand high and loooong and back, away from the head) does your dog want you to launch one?” (Launches one, to unsolicited whhooooos and whoooorrs from the kids).

”Your dog wants you to zap it. To enjoy throwing hard and far. Powerfully. Come on, let’s get wide feet, pointy hands and get that ball awaaaay from our faces. Let’s ab-so-lute-ly lash it AT THESE TARGETS!!

Typically I shift one red hoop to the furthest, furthest point and up the ante to 500 points for that one. It’s a blast – slightly wild – but my personal mission to teach the mini-universe to be able to throw, to love throwing has bounded forward… and that’s magic.

I’ve missed some details out but this is the gist of a session that I repeated, this morning. Minimal changes for Years 2 then 3. Biggish groups – 30-odd. I guarantee you that nobody felt inadequate, or left out. The level of engagement was stratospheric.

I finished both sessions with my Moving Target challenge, for a thousand points. It offers a kind of individual moment for everyone; one in which everyone Wins Big.

I walk across in front of the children, holding a hoop up at what feels like a comfortable height for their throws. One by one, they all have to throw through the hoop, as I move. Miraculously (possibly with an occasional strategic twitch from yours truly) everybody nails it! It’s crazily, dizzily, wonderfully satisfying – maybe especially for those who weren’t throwing ‘naturally?’

“A thousand points! What a way to finish!”

About fifty minutes-worth of entertaining, challenging, sometimes mind-bending Chance to Shine/CricketWales fun. With balls. And hoops. In January, in a school hall. Some educational boxes ticked but mainly, mainly a deeply pleasurable experience for all concerned; including me.

 

 

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.

All Stars.

Pleased to see there’s been a reasonable lump of coverage for the All Stars Project over recent weeks; it really is significant, I think. Certainly in terms of bringing the precious ‘new families’ that we’ve heard so much about, into the game. Whatever we may think of, or read into that apparently central plank of the ECB strategy, All Stars has delivered strong numbers, for our sport: in Wales, 3,505 sign-ups over 118 centres.

A twitter-friend of mine and cricket-writer (Rob Johnston) wondered whether the project might indeed be more important than The Hundred? Interesting thought.

Whether you load that thought up with political/philosophical vitriol around the depth or quality of experience and the implications for Everything Else… is up to you. I want to keep this simple – or rather to leave you with a restoratively uncluttered message – that All Stars has been, will be, is really, really good. It’s All Stars I want to talk about, in the end.

You may know that much of the thinking behind All Stars came from a) large, hairy and fearless market research b) Australia. A particular bloke name of Dwyer was drafted in to brutally challenge the status quo and deliver a new vision. (Actually the first bit of that is untrue: he did brutally challenge but that was not necessarily the brief. Interestingly, possibly fascinatingly for those suspicious of the current direction of travel, Dwyer left – I believe before his contract was up).

It’s important, at the outset, in the wider context of so much controversy and opinion, that All Stars is recognised as merely a part of the whole re-invention of the Cricket Offer: part of Cricket Unleashed, part of the warp-factor-ten departure into the unknown. Theoretically and I think in reality, AS does have stand-alone qualities – the specific age-group, the immediacy, the impact of kitted-out kids – but it would surely be unwise to imagine it travelling radically solo. It’s not.

All Stars exists in and because of the context of more opportunities for girls and women. In the context of ‘community’ activity and retention projects for those teens drifting from the game. In the context of City Cricket/The Hundred.

I’m not wading in to the relative value, wisdom or centrality of any of these other things now: most of us have lived off those arguments for the last year. Instead I’m going to try to say why All Stars is pretty ace: in a bullet-point or two.

  • The prequel. Noting that All Stars has been generally supported by 4-6 weeks cricket-based activity in local Primary Schools, aimed at enthusing kids for the game (via the outstanding Chance to Shine curriculum) before offering that link to AS in clubs. Part of the generally impressive #joinedupthinking. But back to the activity proper…
  • It’s ace value. Despite blokes like me fearing that £40 was going to feel too much for most parents down our way, AS is undeniably good value – and parents forked out. The kids get kit worth about £20 and eight typically well-run, skilfully-themed sessions (which tend to be an absolute blast, for kids and coach alike). Those people still weirdly imagining this is an earner for the ECB need to get a grip, to be honest: it’s a massive investment in change and development, not at all – certainly in the short term – an ‘earner’. Costs have been set at a minimum, I imagine: of course there are some families who will regrettably be put off by the £40… but very few… and some clubs will underwrite that, if necessary.
  • The actual sessions are ver-ry cute – in a really good way. This has not been flung together. The target age-group (5-8, boys and girls) is guided through an hour or more (generally more) of movement, games and skills; the time fizzes and charges as much as the children do. It’s infectious and purposeful and liberating in a way that the three letters F.U.N. cannot do justice to: and yet it is precisely that – naive, anarchic, noisy, edgy fun. Brilliantly so, in my experience.
  • The quality of enjoyment thing. I may be repeating myself but what I saw, as an Activator and coach, was ace to the point of affecting – and I am clear most parents felt that too.
  • The family thing – 1. Okay, so if one of the key aspirations for the whole ECB cricket-makeover is to ‘burst the bubble’ in which cricket sits, vis-a-vis who knows, plays and gets the game, then obviously All Stars sits comfortably within that. The target group is children still finding stuff. Plainly, the ECB would be grateful if some of these children – perhaps the majority – emerge from non-cricketing families. That’s happening. Because of skilful marketing, smart imagery, the ‘non-threatening’, non-technical nature of the offer. Headline figures for AS in Wales last year suggested 71% coming from a non-cricketing background… which is not far short of phenomenal. I’m hearing also – also significantly – that around 35% of our Wales 2018 All Stars are girls.
  • The family thing – 2. Activators (i.e. those who led the AS sessions) were trained to encourage parents to take part. In fact a key part of the marketing whole was this idea that families might reclaim a special hour of family time through participating (at a level they were comfortable with). This interaction with non-qualified agents – hah! Mums, dads!! – was rightly to be gently monitored by the Activator, but opened up a new dimension to the proceedings. Our sessions started with family members ‘warming up’ their All Star; often mums or dads or siblings stayed involved, offering practical help and encouragement. This cuts right across the traditional practice of Level 2 Coaches ‘running things’. I am not remotely looking to undermine that practice or the quality thereof when I say that in my experience the active support of family members was not only essential in practical terms but absolutely key to the feel and the enjoyment of our sessions. I soon gathered five or six sub-Activators who were lovely, intelligent, generous, capable people and I hope and expect that they may support the project – and what is now their club! – next year. This ‘loosening-up’ was done by design, in the knowledge that it might/should work at this age-group; it did.
  • The gentle prod thing. Did you know you can pre-register for AS 2019? You can.

 

Finally, something minor-league weird. I am still wearing a rather faded rubber bangle – the kind we were giving out in schools during the Chance to Shine sessions which preceded our signposting of kids over to All Stars Cricket. I am still wearing it… since April, maybe?

This may mean something worrying about absence of a life in my life, but maybe only if we overthink stuff, eh? I’m not wistfully stroking it or anything. It’s just still there. It says ALL STARS CRICKET and ALLSTARSCRICKET.CO.UK.

I think of our sessions at Llanrhian CC and how crazy-but-happy the kids were… and how wonderful the families were… and how blessed we all were, with that sun. So I guess that’s the explanation? If we need one?

 

 

 

On #firstclasscricketersfirstclassdegrees.

 

 

 

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Friends we can be pretty sure that Messrs Bayliss and Farbrace don’t order the kit, sort the stop-overs, book the buses and the umpires. They don’t frame their work around ‘equally important’ other stuff – for the players, I mean – academic stuff. Mark O’Leary does.

He does because he’s the Head Coach at the Cardiff M.C.C. University Scheme. This as many of you will know is the project that for two decades has offered both a route in to professional cricket *and* the safety net of a university education.

Initiated by the inimitable Mr G Fowler Esquire of Durham and now based around six centres across England and Wales, the scheme has played a significant role in the careers and indeed the lives of (to take current figures) some 26% of county cricketers.

But even this apparently strong result in the value-for-money department has not rendered the project immune from the administrative/cultural/fiscal or accountability-driven revolutions carving and helicopter-shotting their way through the cricket landscape.

Recent features of that hypnotic but not always helpful flux include the M.C.C. pulling out after years of noble and very much-appreciated support, business (i.e. Deloitte) pulling in, and – within the last week or so – the E.C.B. confirming that they will bankroll things, post 2020.

There had for many us been a sense that after years of low-level uncertainty, a clear, bomb-proof structure needed to be in place and that if there can be such a thing, the ECB (the original funders) seemed the natural sponsor. However just how bomb-proof, how durable, how comforting on a day-to-day basis, is the future for the scheme looking?

As an outsider but interested party, I wanted to get a handle on how this felt from within: I scooted to the capital – to Cardiff.

Mark O’Leary is tall, tall and shaven-headed. If he lumbered a bit more you might place him somewhere rather worrying – like a tube-station, maybe, skulking with the rest of The Firm – but no.

He’s one of those big guys who gives off no darknesses. Refreshingly, there’s no ‘physicality’, no sense of a man asserting big-ness or power or dominance. He’s a light, open, smiley guy, welcoming me into a narrow, functional office, not some site-of-ambush.

I say this because O’Leary is a successful Head Coach, a team leader and a bloke about 6 foot five. One might expect a degree of machismo: I’m sensing none. He may not always be calm, quietish, affable and willing to listen… but he is now.

We talk and we go for a wander round the campus – Cardiff Met.

He describes the structure of the Cardiff Process and the responsibilities he has. He stresses the genuine gratitude he feels towards the now-departed M.C.C. for their central role, not just in having the vision to fund the scheme but also, more personally, the opportunity it has afforded him to develop himself over time, through experience.

O’Leary, like his counterparts at the other centres, really is everything from coach to logistics man to quality-controller of the whole cowabunga; even more so than his opposite numbers, as the Welshman also lectures on the academic curriculum.

Sure, certain specialist roles are delegated – for example to the Strength and Conditioning or Sports Psychology team – but the Head Coach is all over everything else.  He describes this epic multi-skilling modestly, in entirely philosophical fashion, free of any of the eye-rolling many of us coaches get drawn into when relating the menial stuff, the crèche-control-thing that most of us have to endure.

My guided tour is similarly conducted in an open, engagingly informative way. A friendly word to everybody; a quiet affirmation of respect for the S & C guys, ‘whom I really should meet’; a nod to the world class stat-analysis and athlete-monitoring systems, which O’Leary oversees but sidesteps any particular credit for.

We spend time in the gyms – where the 23 players do three, testing S & C sessions a week, starting at 7.30 a.m. We linger in the ungenerous office/corridor space that is the beating heart (lols) of the Strength & Conditioning Department. Peering out I imagine visiting sixth-former applicants gawping at the magnitude of both the facilities and the challenges they are applying themselves towards: ‘awesome’.

At the perimeter of the spectacular indoor tracks – yes, plural – Dai Watts (Lead) and Chris Edwards (S & C Coach) brief me, with just a touch of quiet pride, on personal training plans, scheduling etc etc.

Dai is employed by the university across a variety of sports. Dipping briefly into anorakdom, he nevertheless makes clear that a) the cricket at Cardiff Met is kosher, in terms of the integrity and commitment required for professional sport and b) that the O’Leary curriculum is fully fit for purpose in respect of the aspiration towards exceptional performance. Crucially, I also sense that these guys between them make sure that the House of Pain is also a House of Fun.

Without any whiff of sycophancy, Mr Watts plainly respects the cricket bloke: I suspect, given the S & C man’s demeanour and own, impeccably high standards of work, this is a privilege not always gifted.

A further detail from our tour. Outdoor facilities; immaculate 3G pitches, athletics field, track – all that – tick the boxes, emphatically. But look closer. Cameras.

O’Leary expands on this. The cameras are providing extraordinary levels of information for analysts, who then guide coaches and players on movement, discipline, tactics.

It escapes me at the time but on reflection this may be less relevant to the Cardiff M.C.C.U. than to their powerfully successful football and rugby equivalents: however I note it because the inference was absolutely that the cricketers benefit from precisely the same degree of support. That is, as O’Leary says, “world class”.

We retreat to The Office to chat further.

The Head Coach briefly recounts some salient, personal cricketty-info. He’s been coaching 26 years – implausibly, given I’d have stuck him in his late thirties – delivering across all age groups and abilities up to international (Wales) standard. He’s ECB Elite Master Level 4 qualified, has an MSc. in Sports Coaching and finds himself very much in demand; workshops, fielding sessions, playing for M.C.C. all this over and above the day-job.

Sparky, as he is known to friends and comrades, is perfectly content to discuss the state of the M.C.C.U. project and to reveal that over a period of time, the E.C.B’s hierarchy – in particular Mr Graveney – have been sounding out the current centres about plans for the future. (These talks have been somewhere between discreet and full-on secret).

O’Leary confirms that the E.C.B. have undertaken to take up the funding of the scheme in 2020 and that the talks have been encouraging in several ways. Firstly – dosh.

Figures have not been offered but O’Leary’s strong sense is that the E.C.B. want this to be professional and therefore to be funded adequately, at the very least. (“The aim is to develop professional cricketers”). They are consulting the Head Coaches to take a view on their individual university’s modus operandi, to keep them accountable but also very much to discuss the how and why of what works. Graveney is, to his credit, seeking guidance as well as preparing directives.

When I ask impertinently directly about money the reply is simply that Mark doesn’t know. There’s an assurance, a commitment but as yet no figures attached. O’Leary expects things to continue pretty much as they are but we talk about the possibility, raised in the media in the last few days, that other, probably additional centres may come in – that there may be a tender process.

Firstly, there is no sign of concern at this prospect; O’Leary being understandably quietly confident that the Cardiff M.C.C.U. should and indeed will thrive beyond any putative competitive scenario.

Secondly, the developments seem more about expansion than contraction, other centres being established at new venues. In our conversation the possibility is raised that funding may need to be spread more thinly over a bigger number of centres but… all hypothetical. O’Leary is planning to go on planning.

Guess what? I’m unashamedly a supporter of the scheme so offer the Cardiff man a freebie – the opportunity to make the case for his own process, his own course. Which brings us directly to the success stories, the names.

Or it would if either Mark O’Leary or myself accepted that this is just about transferring bodies into County Cricket. In a word, the Head Coach describes the rich combination of the whole Cardiff M.C.C University experience – education, discipline, bantz, performance-level sport – as “irreplaceable”.

Yes, the brief is to prepare able and talented cricketers specifically for a career in the sport but I imagine we’d all like to think (even?) the funders might get that this is bigger than cricket. (I know they do: the ECB are exploring possible community links to the scheme – prompting a diversion from yours truly, during our recorded conversation. Think Foxy Fowler; go listen).

A further brief note is in order, here. Mark O’Leary makes very clear in our podcast that there are three constituent parts to Cardiff MCCU – all of whom contribute significantly in terms of players and commitment. To give one example, Cardiff University – led by my old mucker Lee Herring won the British Universities & Colleges Cup (for cricket) last year and showed strongly in the Premier League South. The third element of the capital’s cricketing uni-scheme is the University of South Wales. I happened to visit Mark in his office at Cardiff Met. 

Heather Knight is maybe the highest profile name. World Cup Winner, world class player and captain: was at Cardiff. Jack Leach, who recently collected his first full England cap, likewise.

The trajectories, the angles vary. Jake Libby got into the scheme during his second year – it’s competitive and you have to re-compete, as it were, with every intake. Now has a three year contract at Notts.

Alex Thompson and Tom Cullen are particular sources of pride, for O’Leary, as they ‘came from nowhere’ and truly emerged during their time in Cardiff. Pro cricketers, former #crimsoncaps; i.e. part of the O’Leary Massive.

Of the current squad of 23, two are women. They work and train to the same level as the blokes, play in the university women’s team but are also involved at Western Storm (Taunton) where they get their elite cricket. It may be, incidentally, that one of the developments, come the ECB takeover, is a greater emphasis or investment in women players.

For obvious reasons there’s a strong, symbiotic relationship with Glamorgan. Many of the pictures adorning the O’Leary office feature past or present players, alumni of the scheme. Andrew Salter (formerly Cardiff Met.) has become a fixture in Robert Croft’s side; there will be more like him.Roughly a dozen of Glammy’s current first or second team squads are, or have been crimson caps.

To illustrate the diverse routes in and out we get to the example of Cameron Herring. Herring played three years of County Cricket before he entered Cardiff Met. He then brought an impressive and no doubt inspiring lump of nous and experience to the Cardiff side.

The stories go on; some tragic – Matt Hobden was a crimson cap – some hilarious and many which evidence both the completion of the Performance-Level Cricket Mission and the rich, holistic development we discuss in the podcast.

The whole points to a brilliant, well-executed programme borne aloft by the impressive and sustained commitment of students and staff alike. If the key aspiration for the man driving all this is to achieve Performance-Level Cricket Coaching, the box, for me is ticked.

However, I hear him noting that other boxes are available – are ‘irreplaceably’ a part of the Cardiff M.C.C. University package. O’Leary adds further that players may theoretically be temporarily dropped, if their academic work slips. So there is work, there is cricket work and there is camaraderie, fun: remember that?

As it happens, on the day of my visit, the universe, as so often, interveneth. Students are receiving their degree results. O’Leary politely absents himself in favour of the laptop screen, for a moment or two, as the scores come in. They’re really good.

 

 

The podcast/discussion around which this ramble is almost constructed, is on the way. Stay tuned! 

 

 

Worcester.

8.40 a.m at Temple Meads and the train is rumbling agreeably in the sunshine. Cloud, yes, but the day is erring towards generous, cricket-appropriate offerings. I have a virgin century of minutes between me and New Road, in which to enjoy what I imagine will be mostly delightful-but-posh England.

It was green and buttercup full. It was chestnut-horsey. It was Yatey and Cam, rather serenely, malvernaciously lush; I liked it. Even when it turned greyer, four foot three from Worcester.

Brisk yomp to the ground, now equipped with the information that England are batting first. Smallish crowd have bundled through that hibernation-void-thing where womens’ cricket has laid up, these last few months, to stand and cheer, as the players stride out. Amy Jones faces the first ball, from Ismail. It’s full and it beats her.

I’m just querying Jones’s deep sit into her stance when she  uncoils a dynamic drive through extra cover for the first runs; four. She follows this up with a pull through midwicket, picking up the short ball encouragingly early; four more.

Beaumont gets off the mark with a streaky single to fine leg, off Kapp. Jones – in danger already of being affectionately labelled Jones the Bat – majestically clonks Kapp for another four through off. Outstanding start from her.

*Diverts briefly*. You may know me as an alarmingly positive geezer – I think I am. However I am again disappointed by the lack of support for this game. Sounds naff but the feeling has to be that these women simply deserve better. 13 for 0 off three, Jones has twelve of them. Really like her calm.

Beaumont is quality – we’ve seen that over the last year – but she’s mistiming here. No slips already though, for Kapp and then likewise for Ismail. Interesting.

In the fifth, Ismail gets one past the previously excellent Jones: scoots through her defences, bowled. The batter will be gutted with her swiftish 19; she’d looked in and confident. Enter Taylor.

Nice variety of length from the South African quick; certainly not afraid to go very full. Incoveniences Taylor but she squeaks a single to fine leg . Big Moment as shortly afterwards, Taylor is caught in front: killer length. England are 25 for 2 in the seventh over.

The incoming Knight gets off the mark with a half-volley past extra but is then also lbw, this time off a visibly pumped Kapp. Blimey. Trouble. Maybe particularly because Beaumont has hardly put a foot right yet. Some very strong players back in the pavilion; palpable sense that Sciver has to take up residence.

Did I say, by the way, that sitting out it’s coolish? Have my All Stars jacket on – mind you, did arrive in optimistically summery shorts and polo.

Sciver gets going with a twiddle down wide of fine leg before a flukey under-edge beats the keeper. Fielding been blighted by two or three fairly crass errors, already, in fact – later it generally rallies.

Hey. Maybe they don’t need the fielders, anyway?Beaumont skittled off another inside edge by the newly arrived Khaka.

All change on the bowling front as the slightish, smallish Ntozakhe offers the first spin. Sciver and Wyatt set about rebuilding, after 11.53, in sunshine – or at least brighter conditions.

Disaster – or maybe ‘disaster?’ – as Scivers mistimes one coming across her from Khaka, spooning it to midwicket. (On reflection it may be that Sciver made it look like it was coming across her, by doing that characteristic swing-across-the-line thing. Whatever. Horrible dismissal at a cruel time). England have bombed to 61 for 5 in the 17th. We’ve all gone quiet.

Almost unbelievably, Wyatt then cracks one straight at cover; again Khaka is the bowler. This is close to embarrassing, now; embarrassingly irresponsible. Please god the current, experienced pairing will play with some circumspection for ten overs. Otherwise England may be 100 all out.

Come the end of the 19th, Khaka is 3 for 13. On the plus side, more folks have joined us in the crowd.

Kapp changes ends, for the 23rd, with the score at 67 for 6. She generates good, slingy power, hurrying and then beating Brunt off a ten pace run. Ntozakhe continues, for her seventh. The game has gone to sleep, in a good way, for England.

Ismail returns after the one over from Kapp, with Brunt and Gunn exuding or projecting calm. Brunt just about keeps the lid on her predilection towards violence, as Ntozakhe wheels away at her.

Tryon becomes the game’s fifth bowler in the 26th, bundling in, rather, to offer left arm medium pace (plus?) Our first musically-enhanced boundary for aeons comes from the other end, mind, as Brunt sweeps the spinner forward of square leg.

Next over Gunn chips Tryon to backward point and England sink further. 80 for 7. England’s opening bowlers (Shrubsole has joined us) now need to bat for twenty overs, near enough, to give us a match. Ouch. Ntozakhe has walked through her potentially vulnerable ten overs of offspin for 21 runs.

Van Niekerk bowls the 34th and the changes continue as Ismail returns to partner her. But England’s miseries are compounded by a runout; Shrubsole departing for 7. (It was tightish but why the risk? We need something remarkable to happen, now, for this to be any kind of contest. Don’t we?) 97 for 8.

Ismail – fine, fine athlete – scents blood and is racing in to slap it in there. Brunt cops a bouncer.

To (theoretically) finish this sharpish, Kapp is back, too. However no immediate dramas. There is some irony in the cheers for the England 100. Feels like South Africa have been good but England somewhere between mediocre and bloody foolish.

Tryon and Khaka return, to mix this up. I wonder though, if the Ismail/Kapp combo *might actually* have closed this out but this is admittedly a hunch, given that Khaka’s figures seem to suggest she too, is a singular threat.

Marsh nearly offers another friendly leading edge to the onside field, off Tryon but it falls short. Brunt is going well, on 31, at this point.

England get to 148 in the 45th, as Brunt skilfully guides Ismail to third man. A slightly laboured ver-ry much slower ball then deceives Marsh, who is bowled for 15. Big question is… can Brunt get to a heroic 50?

150 up in the next, from Van Niekirk. Ismail returns to try to bounce out Ecclestone – nearly succeeding, as the England number 11 (/71) edges one highish behind. Fortunately Brunt gets back on strike and charges Kapp to drive straight for four and a well-appreciated fifty: she goes on to claim 13 runs from the over.

The day has brightened, or re-brightened as innings closes at a creditable 189 for 9. Brunt is undefeated on her highest score in any format – 72. Don’t expect this to be enough but given where England were… this is Bruntastic.

The break. So some other stuff…

The improved and expanded contracts for England Women announced yesterday are, of course, welcome. They represent meaningful lumps of money that may be the difference between living reasonably comfortably (as an elite athlete) and not. The notion that an increased number of our leading players will be on professional contracts is a) an important, further step forward and b) maybe more palatable than the idea that parity with The Men is some distance away.

The rather fascinating context to all this remains utterly framed by the (in this instance) magnificently prescient Australian authorities, who – despite the recent developments in England – have about four times as many women players on pro contracts as the ECB do. And be on better contracts.

In short things are better than they were but… yaknow.

The Big improved Picture suggests that we still lack a total commitment to broadening and deepening a substantial ‘viable’ pool of women professionals. This is achievable but implies funding a further hike in activity in the levels below, as well as paying more professionals a living wage – a wage commensurate to their level.

The money is surely there; the Aussies are kinda doing it; it’s right. Let’s join in.

#100ball.

Okaay. Here comes my oar on the you-know-what: briefly in.

It’s been an extraordinary week or two. The ECB, unfortunately perceived by many as the claret-swilling but typically unthreateningly soporific artists (formerly known as the BOFs), are nevertheless suddenly, undeniably lustily, charging-down-the-wickets right at all of us, brandishing another alarmingly dynamic concept. Century Cricket/#100ball/Clockwork-in-maybe-Orange. Wow.

In the maelstrom, the explosion of coverage, the possibility for uncompromised, non-tribal reaction seems an early casualty: I don’t know anybody (for example), who is simply excited by the news – it being too bombshelltastic for that. Many of us I think waited for markers from Those Who Influence, such was the level of consternation and, in fact, visceral rage.

Some however are wowing, smiley-positively but I’m not clear how deep their love is. They may be truly horny with the charged nature of the proposals but this may be different than actually really liking the thing.

It feels like most folks are still trying to process the merciless-brilliance of the plan – the essence being hard to reach. What is it, that’s being lobbed into the circle here? Feels more like a symbol than a real project; it’s that incendiary.

The idea of #100ball may supposed to be ‘about simplicity’ but in truth it’s explosive; it has consequences, the most significant of which may be the brutal estrangement of Cricket People. For the ECB to so-o utterly separate out – out and away – the traditional cricket supporter, as a bi-product of The Next Big Thing, is huge. Monumental. For this excommunication to be more or less the point of the exercise is… smoke-cannisteracious.

#100ball, or whatever we call it, is a magnificently bold concept. It’s a sexy, marketable, distinctive format. It’s transformative, accessible, it has potential in ways that longer-form cricket may not. But most obviously – and herein lies some of the brilliance and all of the received malignity – it absolutely flicks the vees at the County Championship or Long-form Posse.

The screaming subtext is that Century Cricket is not for you lot… and we know it. This is another cricket, for another crowd. That is how the proposal was swallowed (or not) by many traditional supporters – supporters that will mostly never come round to it… as a ‘matter of principle’.

The ECB know this, they’ve factored it in and they move on, in the firm expectation that Clockwork-in-Orange will be a revelation, will actually win over some folks from the shires but (mainly) will be about a Total Refresh, a new game, a new experience, a New Concept, fit for contemporary sporty-family life.

I was quite shocked. I plain resented, intially, the ruthlessness at work, here. I still can’t get entirely past this idea that the game has been deliberately separated-out… but I can see this may work, i.e. the #100ball experience – live or on the telly – might expand and reposition the game in a good and maybe necessary way, provided we can be thick-skinned enough to set aside the collateral damage.

Maybe the people who designed all this absolutely can see beyond the trauma into a brave new space. Maybe they’ve actually studied change and this has allowed them to shut out emotion, sensitivity, culture. Some would argue that’s what leaders do.

I’m still coughing up the smoke, I think. Trying to get sensible. What concerns me is the impact on the hows and ifs of red-ball cricket: the hierarchy, the scheduling, the value of. I love all that old stuff.

KP; a brief wallow.

KP. Gone. Gone to save the rhinos, with (perhaps for the first time?) a coalition of goodwill behind him. But previously…

Flamingoing god. Revolutionary genius. Caresser, counter-attacker, take-the-contest-by-the-scruff-of-the-necker… or utter, utter tosser? Mincer and moaner, delusional with with his own greatness, bigger than everything. The Maestro Who Would Not Listen. KP.

This wee column ain’t gonna change how you feel about Pietersen. You sorted that yonks ago. When you saw him unpick Ingerland’s chief oppo’s or re-calibrate the do-able as a mid-order bat. You either surfed that bore with him, or did the uncomfortably surly thing – turned away, to enjoy stuff later, when the blokes you felt you could really back jumped in. Or maybe found a mid-position, where you were pleased by victories but neutral about KP’s role – however central?

With the South African’s brilliance there was that tidal surge of baggage. For the bristling xenophobes, that stuff about origins and authentic britness, or otherwise; perenially relevant of course to half the flipping squad but particularly so to Pietersen because of his extravagant profile and that feeling that he might turn Afrikaaner at any point. The non-relationship with the ECB and their coach(es?) seemed unhappily in thrall to this feeble idealogical wrestle.

More legitimately, for many, the *relationships issues*. Our Kev as a prima donna of the highest order, who (though we fully accept might have/should have been managed better) refused the throw-downs, denied or actively undermined the Team Culture. (It may be a complete irrelevance but I think I just dreamt about Pietersen on an All Blacks training camp. He was being drowned, so it appeared, in a cattle-trough, for flagrant contravention of the No Dickheads rule).

KP was either a) years ahead (again) because he knew what he needed to practice b) a mardy, irrespectful git or c) poorly managed. Or something else. Certainly it was messy and both sides of the KP / ECB/Moores/Flowers/Strauss/whoever divide may need to (in the contemporary committee-speak) ‘reflect on their behaviours’. Nobody comes out of this well, I think.

I’m bit lost and a bit anxious almost. Many of the voices I know and/or respect are pretty much besotted with KP. I’m really not. I can’t quite get past the refusing to join with the team thing – not entirely.

If I felt that brash young bloke with the partly-blue barnet really was a deeply rebellious, big-hearted genius I’d be more in his camp. But too much ‘happened’: whatever KP Legacy there is feels surely so much about poisons arising around his selfishness, his arrogance, that a durable argument can not be made based on the player’s ‘fierce, individual commitment?’

For me, that barnet seemed more a signal of something rather dumb, rather naff: something estranged from real, legitimate, subversive-in-a-good-wayness. KP the private school prat. KP who maybe thought Nik Kershaw was punk and that Celine Dion is the Queen of Soul.

What I mean by this is that for me, Pietersen was a tremendous cricket player but a vain, cardboard cut-out of a bloke. And in my view of him, this counts.

I’m not so naive I fail to recognise the rivalries and personality clashes within every team ever: of course I see that. Sport is often about egos and how they are revealed, managed, sacrificed, expressed. The KP story is something of a classic and an epic, in this wonderfully cod-psychological regard. Hence my wallowing. Briefly

It’s surely telling and probably boring that much of the actual cricket is squeezed out, here. Thank god, elsewhere there will be zillions of folks writing or reminiscing about KP’s batting, over this, his retirement weekend. I only saw him live three or four times. I missed the truly great moments: I truly hope you loved yours.