Fundamentals.

Barney Ronay divides opinion, I believe. Some imagine him a flashy ‘one trick pony’, kicking up his metrosexual hooves as he gallops from hipster-caff to Sarf Landun bookshop, brewing arresting one-liners before unleashing them on the Great (and hopefully Grateful) Unwashed: us. (The fact that the fella supports Surrey plainly weighs against him, here).

But no. For speaking entirely frankly (and never having met the geezer), I hold the contrary view. He is brill – genuinely brilliant, entertainingly, insightfully, lasertastically so – and you are either a Dead Soul or a miserable barsted not to see it.

The man is after really capturing things (as opposed to just recording), through that coruscating wit of his. This is bold, this is generous, this is life-enhancing: it is also borne of the truly creative mind – and bollocks to you if you think that means it’s in any way bad, sad or twisted.

He is also, despite the Surrey thing – lols – a genuine cricket man, with both a personal and family interest in the game. So… why the rant? Read his column, which, incidentally is ‘straight’ and therefore won’t offend those who struggle with the sparkly bits; poor loves.

https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/sep/20/surrey-cricket-production-line-county-cricket?

If you haven’t quite been arsed to read the column… you’re ver-ry naughty but here’s a precis, of sorts. Surrey are brill because they had integrity and because they train hard and well and some of this is to do with respecting traditional skills: like being able (in the traditional sense) to bat.

Which brings me to my point; which is about coaching.

I have not taken issue with the drift (is that pejorative? Okay, then shift) in ECB Coaching Principles, towards principles, as opposed to what we might call grooving or rehearsing of skills. And yes, I’m talking batting here, mainly.

The emergence, 3 or 4 years ago of Core Principles as helpful, generous, non-prescriptive, appropriate points of discussion or offering from coaches to players, in the ECB Coaching system seemed healthy, to many of us community or club coaches, at the time.

I personally, as a professional coach in the sense of working full-time in cricket – albeit typically with junior players – felt that given the revolutions ongoing in the game, it may no longer be appropriate to direct players. Coach them through their adventure, their learning, their search for that which works consistently for them (if they are reaching or wanting to reach that far)… but don’t insist on particular methods. So – principles around stillness or stability or swinging of the bat, maybe, but not ‘you have to hit the ball like this’.

As I’ve written previously it’s problematic, if not ludicrous, in the age of Pietersen then McCullum then Ingram or Whoever, to speak of universal, inviolable truths. People keep inventing stuff! It was in this context, I think, that the essence of ECB Coaching moved towards Core Principles – allowing for and respecting individual choice or brilliance or engineering of contemporary solutions.

The revolutions have continued, gathered force, even and the eyes of the world are huddled around us. To the extent that batters are received as being more somehow more guilty than ever of, or responsible for, triumphant inventions and/or crass and obvious crimes against batting. Things are different, things are crazy-present, things are polarised. In one format, things are stacked against the bowlers, in another – in September – it seems that no-one can bat for longer than five overs. Things are different.

And yet here’s an article from a very fine cricket writer, who has access to his County Cricket Club, who are Champions – deservedly – and traditional values and traditional disciplines and skills are being identified as key to the success. Ronay quotes Academy Director, Gareth Townsend –

“We’ve gone back to what you might call ‘teaching the fundamentals’, presenting the full face of the bat, playing straight.”

And again, more generally –

‘Going against trends, Surrey have made a conscious move to make defensive technique a priority in the development stages, believing that the other side, the ball-striking aspect of modern cricket, will happen in any case.’

This is music, of course to The Hundred Haters and indeed most County Championship Cricket supporters. The retreat into (or re-invigoration of) That Which We’ve Always Known. The sure knowledge that there is sure knowledge and that it must underpin the execution and the coaching of batting for any length of time.

And time is the thing, yes? With a world mitigating against, it figures that the patience and the grit and the eking out against the odds – against a swinging ball and a skilled practitioner at t’other end – might be qualities challenged by an oppressive, impatient universe. Might point inevitably towards 60-something all outs. But how great would it be if some of us could flick the vees at all this rushing-to-the-end? By coaching the batting-out… of time?

It could be that Surrey, of all people(!) have started something wonderfully unfashionable. They still have ‘haircuts’ but they also have professional pride, guts, and that profoundly unsexy attribute – stickability. They practice for it.

I have no doubt that the ECB Coaching hierarchy continually review their cultures and that they are ahead of any call to look at whether the generosity implied through Core Principles risks a slide towards sloppiness and poor technical skills. Or maybe more pointedly, towards laziness, amongst a younger generation high on The Now?

Batting long will always be an essential component of Championship or Test Cricket. It has a rare quality – impenetrable to some, quietly loved by others. I’m in that latter camp, from where I wonder perhaps, if some of that niche stuff about ‘playing straight’ might yet prove helpful to the flashing blades, in the boomathons? Congratulations to Surrey and to Mr Ronay, for digging in.

 

The Universe Podcast 1. @cricketmanwales meets Mark O’Leary… & talks MCC University Cricket.

Please note that this post is very much a companion piece to the preceding feature – On #firstclasscricketersfirstclassdegrees.

I spent some time with Mark O’Leary – Head Coach at Cardiff MCCU.

It’s not what you might call hard-hitting journalism. In fact it’s not journalism. I like the bloke; we talked.

O’Leary is something of a rising star – ECB Elite Master Level 4 Coach, workshop maestro, deviser of wittily wicked drills – who combines the cricket role with teaching on the Cardiff Met academic staff.

We talk about everything from funding, to honoured alumini, to the future for the scheme. Have a listen.

The sharp-eared may notice mention of £76,000 at the ver-ry end of the discussion. This of course related to Mr O’Leary’s fee.

 

Cows and buzzards and crows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is your banner.

The dawn of another county season does bring that slight relief; that things roll on, without *too much* change. Sure, it’s crazy and unsustainable and the apocalypse may well be coming but somehow we made it through. Unwrap your sandwich – coo, beef, there’s posh! – unfurl your paper; get the gloves and the spare jumper(s) out a-and smile.

Re Yorkshire playing 2 home games in April, two in September and one back end of August… don’t go there. Re the stampede of ‘city-based action’ about to swallow up the shires… don’t go there. Enjoy the glorious understated present in that unique, cricketty way: block the rest.

Okaaay you won’t be able to unthink the universe and probably somebody will want to talk but you could – you could – find a refuge in Row Z. You could be that island.

You don’t have to acknowledge that as with everything, there are the two choices: fight like hell or render yourself immune. In this moment (damn right) you’re entitled to enjoy the uncluttered, beautiful, peaceful, restorative now for what it is.

It is precious. It’s maybe an indulgence but hey – no guilt. Going to County Cricket (and obviously by this I mean the longer format of the game) is a kind of political defiance anyway. Being there at any stage, for a four-dayer, marks you out as a soulful sort. You are silently strident, even when choosing not to (yaknow) campaign. You – unlike most – are there. This is your banner. You – unlike most – are defying the drift to dumbness.

Good shot, son. Four.

Hmmm. Tad smug-sounding? To be clear I mean the universal drift or slump, via gaming/crap tv/the instant hit of faux, colorific joy/the short format everything for the (allegedly) submissively unintelligent. The spawn of Education-by-Numbers crunched by Estyn & Ofsted… and Mackie Effing Dee’s. Erm… is that clearer?

Did I say that out loud?!?

‘Cultural’ dumbness, then. The sort you don’t have to be smug about opposing to oppose… but you may finish up sounding that way, eh? The sort that County Cricket fans defy with every fibre, with every no-ball they note, with every paper they rustle.

Hello mate. Yeh good, ta. 

To be clear I mean precious in the joyful, innocent way and political in the philosophical sense: seeing big pictures, feeling the value of things.

Yeh – heard that. Crazy. Can’t see it, myself – let the man write.

But the world conspires against – and you know it. The ECB is broadening access, demystifying stuff. Understand that, but in the process – or possibly by design – the market (which may never have really sustained County Cricket) has shifted, is diametrically opposed, is storming away.

Just don’t know what the thinking is. That’s why I’m hiding back here – not sure I wanna talk about it!

Nothing personal! Have a good day, mate.

So, if the universe can see no further than family-friendly boomathons which leave Proper Cricket exposed – because an indulgence, because ‘a relic with no real audience’ – what’s to be done? What’s the argument?

Will join you for a pint, later. Watching and reading, first!

Firstly, maybe this idea of the market as god might be unpicked, somewhat. The Market is a woefully unintelligent concept, especially if thought of as Actual Bums on Actual Seats. (That is, even if we accept that County Cricket attendances at grounds are somewhere between poor and pitiful, this does not entirely describe support for the game).

Secondly, crowds do not (either) entirely describe the value of the sport. Things aren’t always either simple or measurable.

Thirdly, how does The Market assess the link between four-day cricket and Tests? Critical? Fascinating? Irrelevant? Does it even recognise the eight zillion technical, tactical, psychological, philosophical step-changes up from one to t’other? Does The Market care?

Eighty-ninethly, surely there are multiple markets and things can be monetised in different ways? And/or parts of the game that are bouyant can support parts of the game that are not – make them better, even – so that they move towards a) being more watchable, maybe and b) being sustainable within the whole?

But… hang on. I swore blind I wasn’t gonna get into any of this! Dave… pass the sandwich. Pass the sandwich.

And County Cricket is already broadening, demystifying, shaping up! Okay, the T20 Blast is not perfect, but it’s good! It’s a strongish revenue stream and it’s county-based – and therefore important to existing supporters. I slightly fear all this spectacular dynamism – all these Spectaculars – are an over-reaction, given the progress that was being made.

Did I say that out loud again?

Here’s something: warning, it may be kinda subtle.

Many of you attending County Cricket on this opening day will not be wholly involved with the cricket… but you will be wholly involved with the experience. I wonder if Ofsted or the Ministry for Sport have an algorithm for that?

Wrong mustard, mate, for me…

Conference rise.

It was a real coup for Cricket Wales/Glamorgan Cricket to get the new ECB Head of Coach Development, John Neal, to open the first National Coaching Conference, held at The SSE Swalec Stadium on Sunday. (Good work on the nobbling-him-early-doors front, from our very own Paul Morgan.)

John is both plainly a top man and the top man in terms of his responsibilities vis a vis cricket coaching in England and Wales. He came across as exactly the sort of authoritative, centred, witty and determined individual you might really want to lead you through… whatever.

Opening up, the former WRU and RFU man did not so much speak – certainly he didn’t lecture – as conduct an exchange with us, which was (despite the fact that it had by its nature to be themed), refreshing, challenging, funny and direct. Those of you who attend vaguely corporate gatherings of this sort may shiver coldly when I tell you he played a series of short games with us but a) he did b) they were fine – they were funny, meaningful and illustrative of his points.

Understandably reluctant to lumber himself with a glib, conference-friendly soundbite, John threw away the notion that ‘this is about Making Coaching Fun’ – before making it fun. He was big on the ideas around the right reflex and how we must challenge our own ease or easing towards judgements which may be wrong; when we (ourselves) are often wrong anyway… and this is fine.

On the process of coaching, Mr Neal offered the following, in essence: that it is largely about the coach being skilled in offering good questions to stimulate self-learning in the player. I am para-phrasing, but speaking privately for some time after his initial remarks, the sense was that John is right behind the idea that

“players must problem-solve: coaching is not about answering”.

After a start that was as provocative as it was informative, the fifty coaches attending were then ushered down into the indoor school at the Swalec, where three top-level deliverers were waiting.

Cookie Patel is one of the ECB’s go-to men for leading Coach Ed. sessions. His brief on this occasion was to share some ideas and principles around fielding; from catching to sliding to stats. Inevitably, he threw in a few nuggety specifics around posture or practice – offerings, I would say, rather than instructions.

So there were observations and some demonstrations for the various disciplines, calibrated for – and then re-calibrated for – different abilities or scenarios, or just to make them more fun. Couple of half-decent fielders were tested: all done with a bit of healthy mischief and a good dollop of streetwise (but also clearly authoritative) cricket humour.

In short Cookie was engaging, sharp, likeable and packed a whole lot of learning into his sessions. There was some gawping at a screen full of prompts or stats but there was a good flow – good energy.

Sharing the space was the ECB’s Dan Garbutt, who beasted his posse of innocents with a chaotic-but-not-chaotic runaround under the theme of Game Sense. This was an inventive multi-game, loosely and briskly set up by Dan, demanding lots of input and application from the participants, in order to a) score runs through targets b) challenge the players’ wits.

Dan intervened only occasionally: he told me rather proudly midway through ‘I’ve offered no coaching points’, meaning this was about inventiveness – movement, adjustment, game sense – from the players. It was crazy-dynamic in a really good way: the coaches were smiling and knackered.

Screened off in a single net area (hard ball work) was Mark O’Leary, lead coach at Cardiff Met and the driving force behind the MCCU side which won out at Lords a month or two ago. Mark was and plainly is into spin.

Tall, slim and alarmingly youthful, ‘Sparky’ bustled his groups brilliantly through all things spintastic. Entry-level under-arm games; progressions towards Rashid-dom; use of visual cues and handy, wristy tips. He demystified stuff and demonstrated, simply but strikingly well, how you might extract major turn. (Certainly he did: the leggies and the extraordinarliy nonchalantly launched googlies turned about a yard – or that’s how they would surely have felt to the batsman). Impressive.

Impressive but delivered with just the right amount of direction, humour and humility. Loved that Mark unashamedly spoke of leg-spin (in particular, though obviously not exclusively) as an art and yet entirely demonstrated how accessible that magic around the art can be. The session, like the balls, fizzed.

In practical terms, Sparky used ver-ry few bits of kit. A builders line between bowler’s mark and off-stick; a washing line, effectively to draw loop and dip; some balls. The rest was ingenuity and enthusiasm – and yes, knowledge.

Those amongst my co-gluttons at Cricket Wales who failed to attend the day may be interested to hear that lunch was generous, tasty and included hot chunks of meat as well as the dainty sandwiches of yore. Well -fed, we sat again to listen to Hugh Morris.

Hugh is CEO at Glamorgan Cricket. I know now – having been in his company on several occasions – that he is also a hugely capable and honourable man, impressively focused on building a successful club, with a strong, Welsh core under-pinned by a truly effective pathway. Hugh knows there are sceptics; he himself joked about the South African rather than South Walian origins of a good deal of the current squad, but I am clear he means it when he talks about developing a county side that consistently reflects its support, its national identity, its base.

The former Glammy and England opening bat majored on the Long Term Athletic Development pathway that he believes – and again, I really think he does believe – must be central to a joined-up, fit-for-all-purposes, enabling structure. He took us through the detail, so as to make the argument unanswerable and impress upon us how necessary he believes the changes are. It was arguably dryish stuff but the gaffer was utterly, convincingly clear that the model of LTAD planning he outlined would be key to achieving the twin objectives of great, appropriate sporting provision and the development of great Welsh players.

Hugh was gracious enough to enlarge privately on the arguments – and the research around them – for some time after his presentation. Plainly, explicitly and rightly he wants Glamorgan to be geared up and ready to bid for and use the (potentially increased) ECB funds to make real his vision. It’s ambitious. It involves considerable culture-change and investment. However, Mr Morris, I can tell you, is committed.

After a few brief questions from the coaches, it was back to the action on the floor, as groups rotated through the sessions.

Dave Leighton is a shortish fella – fair cop, Dave, you made the jokes – who may well have played rugby league (as well as cricket) before his twenty-odd years service with the ECB. He now heads up National Participation in his role as Coaching Manager. Dave twinkled his way through ‘the graveyard shift’ asking questions about his chief areas of concern – ‘beyond Coach Education’ and ‘the club environment’.

Having spoken to him before he addressed the coaches, I was interested to see him in relatively discreet mode: he gave little away in respect of the transformation about to be unleashed: I respect that. However (again privately) he did share his confident expectation that resources will be ploughed into the recreational game… over and above the huge investment in All Stars Cricket. Coaching, it seems, will be recognised, valued and supported (by the ECB) in a way that marks a step-change towards the bubble-burstingly brilliant future envisaged by Matt Dwyer. I wish Mr Leighton had been as clear about that to the assembled throng as he was to me, individually.

Whatever, there’s a theme developing here, is there not?Centred on belief and expectation. Around investment which folks are pret-ty certain is a-comin’. Let’s go back to where this began – to the other Top Man, John Neal.

John was absolutely clear that he has the freedom to make changes happen; that he will do so. Given that his brief is for Coach Development he will broaden the Coach Education pathway, making it possible to improve and achieve in (probably) three newly defined areas rather than (probably) get blocked in the current, suffocatingly vertical structure. He likes the word enablement and he will enable. The money is coming and the ground has shifted and things will happen – are happening.

Final thoughts? Sunday was a good day. For those who participated, it was a blast, a pleasure, it was challenging-but-great. It was well-supported but chiefly by exactly the sort of coaches who support stuff – who always do this stuff. Meaning a) if you are coaching in Wales and you didn’t attend, why not? b) you’d be daft to miss the next one.

There are about forty-seven cricket revolutions going on simultaneously, right now; some on the pitch, some off. The first Cricket Wales/Glamorgan Cricket National Coaching Conference evidenced, echoed and nudged forward that sense that we are entitled to come over all excited, in these extraordinary times, because pound-for-pound, it seems likely that we coaches – we cricket people – may be able to contribute more, expect more, influence more… because the investment is coming. That’s the clear implication.

So, call me an optimist… but I am optimistic. Don’t just take my word for it, mind – all of us the Swalec were buzzing.

Aimee Rees, lead for Cricket Wales Women and a hugely respected coach in her own right, put it this way;

‘today’s conference was excellent – really well organised and all of the presenters were engaging and knowledgable… The standout session for me was on spin, with Mark O’Leary from Cardiff MCCU. I am already looking forward to the next conference.’

Friends, there will be a next conference.

The Final Clonk.

Come the final clonk, was it just my thoughts that turned to Taunton? To Maynard and Trescothick and Rogers? In that shockingly brilliant, acutely personal moment of triumph for Toby Roland-Jones, forgive me but I went briefly, instinctively west.

This had nothing to do with declaration bowling. Although I recognise there will be the darkest of mutterings around the slippage from mid-afternoon phoney war towards that controversial buffet.

I could live with the idea that Yorkshire needed to leave a door swinging wide open to invite some opportunity, some *momentum* into the game. We’d all maybe prefer that spell of strategic engineering  just didn’t need to happen… but it did. And most of those bleating or tweeting about it would surely have done the same, were they in that position. Let’s move on from that.

The reason I personally thought less of Finn and co and more of Maynard’s spirited gang has something to do with abstracted, sentimental stuff. (Is that legit – legit enough to write about, by the way? And really, was it just me?)

I think, having met him, there’s something very real and likeable and tough about Maynard. He’s a bit blokey, bit beery but he’s kindof emphatically proper cricket – undeniably, somehow. My hunch is that he has something powerful and inspiring he can draw upon… and that most players receive that.

Throw in Trescothick’s delightful yeoman/stalwart/daylong-honest thing and Rodgers squat, godlike committed Aussie Senior Pro, sling in a dash of cider and how could you fail to be seduced? Maynard’s Zummerzet are scrumpaciously great plus they were the outsiders-on-a-charge. I rest my addled case.

But that’s all a bit daft. Roland-Jones won the Championship with a flamin’ hat-trick. The Beeb reckoned there were 7,000 people PLUS the members there so – no excuses – it’s goddabe all about Lords. And a truly extraordinary finish. Yorkshire, having delivered a whole load of Northern Grit did ultimately get skewered by a genuinely formidable and (let’s not forget) equally gutsy Middlesex side. Critically, the manner of all this was somewhere between fabulous and mythic.

All of us – even those absolutely behind the rush into City Cricket – can celebrate this. The Championship beating it’s heaving chest, roaring with life. Tall as Finn, hearty as Bresnan, floppy and human and frenetic as Sidebottom. Lovable and real and definitely, profoundly not dead.

Proper cricket breaking out of its own hashtag. Being a force, being defiantly, unhelpfully, pointedly and magnificently alive; not to be ignored. All of us can celebrate that, however it may colour or complicate *negotiations*. Lords was wonderful, today.

Today? When it seems years since Gubbins marched out; since Bresnan re-took that guard. Surely the ebbs and flows and dead waters of a moony calendar month have passed since start of play this morning? But no. It’s just been a gargantuan stream  of stories, unthreading, stalling, threading towards the impossible.

The end-stop, then was appropriately, outlandishly, shockingly live. Live as in noteworthy, live as in profoundly watchable, live as in some beautiful exemplar. And despite the jarring, blurring, hyperintensity of the hat-trick moment, it felt like proper cricket. Because proper cricket (though allegedly lacking the pull, the draw of other sports or formats) can be magic. Don’t forget 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.