Feet Up Time?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m ‘avin’ a luvverly day. Feet up – literally – with TMS on the telly; absolutely minimal chores. A few brews (big mug of Earl Grey, scandalously adulterated with this month’s accessory, ‘Oatly’, plus the regular tipple of boiling water with lemon), all this with absolutely no requirement to re-hydrate… ‘cos manifestly no action. Typically, friends, I do act.

So a lovely but unusual day; or three; so far.

Normally I really do have more in common with Alan Ball (’66) than Alan Brazil (2020) but right now I’m in *Porkerville, Loungeaboutville, even (every now and again) Getwaitedonhand&footville. It’s weird and guilt-inducing; thank god it’s going to be temporary.

(*Sorry. On the inflammatory side of unnecessary. But anyone else actually worried about Big Al’s size/complexion/volume and rather fearful proximity to Serious Health Issues? I like the man – despite not agreeing with many of his worldly opinions – and genuinely worry).

Anyway: done me tendons. Think the Doc at Withybush Hospital said tibularis posterium or near as dammit but we’re basically talking ankle. And, with apologies, because it’s likely to be the most entertaining part of this blogette, I’m afraid I’m going to describe how this entirely banal situation arose.

We have a dog, called Aino (Eye-noo), due to Finnish connections I won’t bore you with. Aino (or possibly Äino, which I kinda prefer, for its snowy exoticism), is much loved. I slept on the floor for days, alongside her, when she first waddled in to our lives as a tiny pup-let; ostensibly to ‘help her settle’ but quite possibly because she was so-o gorgeously cuddletastic I just wanted to be there. She came to work with me, when I was landscaping, pre-Cricket Wales days. Sleeping in the cab, frolicking on the lawns, entrancing most of the customers.

Aino is now ten. She’s well but starting, finally, after a wonderfully romp-full decade, to slow down. And, more pertinently to this story, she’s had a sporadically dodgy back. So, given that and the recent, increasingly rather profound challenge to our olfactory senses emerging unmistakably from the Aino zone, I lifted her into the bath. Then I swished and splashed and shampooed as she wallowed.

Then it happened. There was soapy stuff on the floor. The athlete Walton, getting into what might be the ideal position to lift – knees bent, levers sprung – was sadly unaware of said spillage. From then on, we’re talking something out of Hanna-Barbera. Mid-lift, the left ankle heads for Ireland with the right resolutely anchored in Pembs.

In truth it wasn’t one of those orgasmo-traumatic affairs. (I may have expelled something, but it was neither a howl, nor an expletive). I did note some feeling or other but it was hardly tectonic. After the cartoonised parting of the legs, I even walked behind the pooch, holding the towel over her back, to prevent the cataclysmic shake-out whilst exiting the building. I accompanied her across the road – well, hobbled, but I thought that was mostly about having bare feet – so that she could roll in the grass in the sunshine, before I returned to the sanctuary of the settee. Where I have remained, pretty much, for two (or is it three?) days.

About twenty minutes post The Incident I was wincing a little. An hour later could’t walk… at all and the family were beginning to mention the W word.

Withybush is our hospital. It ain’t perfect but it’s ours, and it’s precious. Like most outposts of the NHS it’s been under threat – more than that, been actively been undermined – for a decade or more, by both Welsh Government policy and by the clowns in Westminster. In view of the particular circumstances, I called reception to ask if there were Covid Protocols in place that I needed to know about, before coming in to A & E.

There were but in short, they worked… and I signed in and, remarkably, given that my last visit (potential hernia check) lasted five hours, saw a doctor within half an hour. Done.

He was great, the whole signing-in through a temporary wind-tunnel thing was great and the diagnosis and the genial re-hab demo’s were impressively, even charmingly comprehensive. “Tendons. Take real care with you’re re-hab: typically people (of my age, implied) can fail to return to sporting activity after this injury, because (implied) they don’t look after their recovery”. Consequently, feet up, icing, settee, etcetera.

So it is from that noble but admittedly well-worn corner of the room that I now attend – deliberately – to not very much. Except cricket, social media and lifting of generous mugs.

*And yet*. It dawns on me that it’s nearly August. And again, mysteriously, that perennial low-burning question of whether or not I might actually play, has been ‘complicated’.

Traditionally, the issue has resolved itself (in the negative) by the combined weight of family responsibilities and volume of coaching. But over the last couple of years I’ve subconsciously or otherwise move a tad closer, theoretically, to playing, by relinquishing Regional Coaching. Last year, I shifted up into Actively Considering Playing Mode, but carried a hernia through the (coaching) season – so no chance. In 2020 I felt similarly disposed to turning out before the tendon-squishing. But hey; are we seeing a pattern, here?

I am. And sadly there is one, obvious, oven-ready conclusion. I’m past it.

Not going to put a figure on it but I’m oldish… but genuinely reasonably fit. I’m no freak – other than in terms of energy – but I still feel I can (for example) field like most thirty-year-olds. Not flawlessly, not exceptionally, but with a goodish level of athleticism and a daft level of commitment. Because I can… and I bloody love it.

I’ve never been much of a bat (although can bluff a bit, if the bowling ain’t too sharp) but have always loved bowling. I still love the feel of a new ball in my hand and still, laughably, embarrassingly, picture myself getting that cherry, first up and being a Real Threat to the Opposition – any opposition – even though this is plainly delusional. (If I do play, I do run in pathetically hard – not that you’d notice – because it feels right and offers a kind of six-times-an-over fitness test, which I love).

I’ve played almost no cricket for decades. After being told by my PE teacher that I should play county cricket, as a teen (because of that bowling), work, football then family life got almost entirely in the way of cricket. So it never really happened, as a player. Friendlies, festivals or pub cricket, sometimes with years in between.

I hugely enjoyed a handful of occasional games for Haverfordwest 4ths a few years back, having coached juniors at the club for several years but was neither available nor good enough to go much higher than that, by then. Didn’t matter that other things took precedence; I was just tremendously grateful to play those few games – genuinely. There are some fabulous cricket people at the club and alongside Llanrhian CC, where I have been privileged to spend a good deal of time over the last few years, either volunteering or with my Cricket Wales hat on, H’west remains a contender for a Possible Return.

But that injury/those injuries: the time necessary to recover fully, now. The risk that a rash decision might even conceivably impact more widely on my quality of life, which is all about romping the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and coaching kids with ridiculous, infectious energy. Would be crazy to rush anything, in a shortened season, eh?

So o-kaaay. No rushing back. Feet up, both metaphorically and in reality. Drink some tea, listen to TMS, get fed and watered a little.

Two things have struck me. Firstly that it really is important to play whilst you can. Secondly, that all that stuff you hear from other people about knowing when to quit is pret-ty unhelpful: because it’s personal, all this, the circumstances are yours alone. What I do may well be linked to whether my son – who is now loving his cricket but working away – plays as an occasional extra at Llanrhian. If he does, I’d be substantially more likely to gear up for a gig as The Bloke They Call When They’re Crazy-Short. But can I control any of that? Nope.

Re-hab, then and patience. Be at ease with this. It may be out of my hands.

I feel spookily calm about the possibilities here, despite all the sentiment swirling around. Being unable to know what will happen isn’t ‘killing me’ – no, not at all. It doesn’t stop me, in fact, from being clear on something critical: that I absolutely do want to make playing possible again. So I’ll get fit to walk, then fit to run, and take it from there.

The Boy Who ‘Couldn’t Catch’.

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

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

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

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

That high? (Giggles).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then I’m gone, to bawl

Wadda catch, Sara! 

or

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

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

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

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

It’s huge.

New Year. Darkness, with a soundtrack of ghoulish gales. Red wine territory, or maybe Guinness – Guinness in a low-slung, fire-lit pub. Waiting and (I think subconsciously) gathering.

At home: flick through the blogs. Another year of wild fauvism, with the usual daft daubing about the Miracle of Sport or the colour of a Cricket Moment… or rain. Or stuff even more indulgent than that.

Maybe another post about work might be appropriate?

For those just joining, work is Cricket Wales, is mainly a gift, a privilege; coaching kids. As Community Cricket Coach for Pembrokeshire – yup PEMBROKESHIRE, as if the blessings weren’t sufficient before that geographical cherry-on-top! – in dreamy West Wales.

Currently, I’m waiting on a wee bit more training before delivering Chance2Shine/All Stars Cricket sessions into schools. Then full-on to the summer. You’re welcome.

In this real world, then, my annually-surging effort will be yet more closely linked to the All Stars project, as it charges in for its second season. Feels good to be storing up some hoipla to energise a zillion kids because I know I will properly use it. We surely do things differently but my way is generally to enthuse through infectiousnesss and energy: I’m getting mildly pumped even thinking about it.

Dunno about you but I’m somewhere between fascinated and mortally offended at the debate around All Stars. Faaar too many folks appear to view it as ‘another money-making scheme’ by the ECB, when this is plainly absurd. The ECB is not making money out of All Stars – how could it, when the kit and the admin/promotion costs are so massive?

On the contrary, once-in-a-generation style wedges are going out on this because the ECB now knows radical, sustained, innovative action is needed to really change where cricket’s at in terms of profile, relevance, access. Those of us who have happily assumed for thirty years that the ECB is endlessly snobby and soporific have to stir ourselves from our own idle prejudice because (get this!) a bonfire has been burning underneath the Old Farts and maan they are jumping. Having to.

Cricket Unleashed is a slogan, for sure. We’re historically within our rights to be cynical about a) this b) the cycle of ‘innovation’ bu-ut the administration leading the game has never been so D.Y.N.A.M.I.C. so the unleashed thing isn’t entirely preposterous. Honest. It’s not just another tweak – or even just another re-brand. It’s huge.

All Stars actively seeks to re-positon the game in the consciousness of the public by welcoming in thousands of new families – people who just never got cricket before – by entertaining their youngsters imaginatively, appropriately and with some style. (Actively seeks? Sorry, sounds like a brochure. I mean really really really. Like I believe it really, really does. That help?)

The idea that cricket (i.e. the ECB) accepts the need to *actually address* issues around accessibility/class/opportunity is strikingly, stormingly, break-down-the-doorsingly encouraging. Whatever the reasons, the thinking is radically healthy and it does represent the unleashing of something. Something which is meant to add a new dimension to the truly precious, traditional club & family stuff.

All Stars is MASSIVE and bright and extremely cute in almost every sense: it’s here to COMPETE, to challenge footie in the playgrounds, to capture kids from waaaaay beyond the range of our previously rather narrow range of influence. We can and should argue about the finer points of how and where and at what cost the show goes out but the fact that it’s designed to be genuinely popular, almost universally available and respected in schools is excitingly, emphatically, rightly beyond dispute.

I have two days training coming up, to fine-tune my knowledge of the All Stars curriculum and inhale expectations around delivery into schools. Having no problems either with the change of emphasis (towards a six week course for each class) or with that whole notion that the branding and jargon may change again next year – I look forward to it. I’m neither faking my commitment to the wider Cricket Wales cause nor faking my support for the intention to burst cricket’s middle-class bubble. Both feel bloody good.

All of us in cricket have strong views on everything from The Way Ahead to future of Test Cricket – of course we do. So inevitably there are moans about All Stars ‘not addressing the real issue(s)’. But by powerfully confronting the problem of too few young people getting or knowing cricket, or having it in their vocabulary of thinkable, do-able things, a key barrier is surely being tackled? And the feeling from (almost) the inside is that the barrier is really being tackled, not merely faffed about with. I’ve written before about the perils of another weedy intervention: this, my friends, is not that.

Effectively, a parallel Chance2Shine/All Stars is being taken in to the classroom, or schoolyard, before the clubs roll out their own programme (again with ECB support) in May or beyond. Obviously those of us leading sessions in schools will be signposting children to their local clubs – and not exclusively those clubs offering eight weeks of All Stars Cricket. The whole game should benefit.

The six lessons I will be delivering per year group or class will be heavily supported by online material for the schools. This is a rather skilful extension of our existing mentoring of teachers: until now this has been good but maybe too informal, maybe less impactful than it might have been. Consider how much more influential limited Cricket Wales resources (like me) might be if teachers themselves took on the role of cricket advocate, year on year? This is the very clear intention of the brilliant Chance2Shine resources being offered into schools and  it’s also indicative of the good-quality thinking and support around the whole All Stars phenomenon.

I’m pretty sure the people who have designed and built All Stars know it ain’t a panacea. I reckon they’ve noticed teenagers leaving the game and drawn games or long games being a major turn-off for many clubbies. Because this is 20018, the challenges, like the cultural context, change all the time. We need to get on top of stuff: make bold decisions.

The ECB and their partners may (shock horror) be flawed. But I am spookily clear that the general thrust of the developments they are leading in grassroots cricket are really worth getting behind.

More kids will play. More kids will know who Joe Root and Heather Knight are.

Beyond the 5-8s in All Stars, more kids will be active, will feel they are in the game when they play their cricket, as formats change, pitches shorten, opportunities at younger age-groups widen. If we develop a fabulous Big Happy Pool of young cricketers and offer them more of what they want and value the stuff that’s great about our existing club cricket, then that’s a decent start, right?

 

Carew’s Choice. A personal view – what else?

Cresselly CC v Carew, on the last Saturday of the season – Pembs Division 1. The title at stake. Bowling points, batting points being juggled through the minds. Given Carew’s 21-point lead, what are the options? Well…

 

Everything is compound – or feels it. So we can’t come over all judgemental, or maybe even all idealistic, without expecting counterviews to arise. Make a statement and the universe will challenge it. Make a statement that you know is controversial or provocative and you better don the proverbial tin hat.

There is conviction; there is friction; there is opinion.

Sport lives off this fury – or rather it’s an essential part of the magical, infuriating sporty whole. It’s how many of us on the sidelines access the game(s), by bawling, or responding, more or less gracelessly, to the issues arising.

Pembs cricket had an issue this weekend. Or should I say – because there are fabulous and fascinating micro-issues within every game, right? – it spawned a biggie, a grotesque, attention-seeking argument worthy of discourse beyond the moment, beyond the region. That debate is welcome… and it will come.

In their final ‘critical’ game, Carew Cricket Club declared on 18 for 1, essentially to protect themselves from any possibility of failure in their quest for the First Division title. Playing nearest rivals Cresselly, away, with a 21-point lead in the table, Carew shut down the possibilities and the match.

In so far as there ever can be shockwaves in Pembrokeshire sport or Pembrokeshire life, there were shockwaves, around the local grounds (as games were barely under way) and, inevitably, via social media. The universe – our universe – was gobsmacked.

I saw this on twitter and despite being more than semi-detached from senior cricket, recognised the sonic boom-thing pretty early in its rumble. There really was a certain level of shock. Everybody knew immediately that Carew could do what they did; yet there was still a striking level of distaste around that choice, never mind discontentment.

A wholly unscientific survey of reactions from roundabout (and beyond) suggests my own reaction – part disappointment, part weird moralistic sub-anger – was fairly general. Instinctively, something about this just felt too brutal – too wrong. But maybe  we/I need to look at this, too?

I’ve seen no-one I recognise as a leading figure in Welsh Cricket come out in favour of the declaration. In fact the decision is being widely viewed as somewhere between cynical and – as others, notably Fraser Watson in The Western Telegraph, have said – cowardly. (I’m not that comfortable with that word but can understand why it was used).

On @cricketmanwales I twittered that I thought what the champions did was anti-sport and I’m happy to stick with that, despite being aware of a certain corniness and (again) that dangerous whiff of the moralistic. Clearly, Carew acted to close out any risk: but in doing so they insulted their opponents on the day, on their home ground, mid glorious finale. Arguably they also traduced something which we may or may not choose to call the spirit of the game.

I know a chunk of the cricket world and/or media has become tired or resistant or hostile to the idea of a Spirit of Cricket. I understand that. The naysayers have a point, in particular around the pomposity, the reactionary dumbness that can attach itself to the cause here: who the hell do we cricketpeeps think we are, guardians of the (non-effing) universe? (Cue the eight zillion examples where we have patently failed our own, faux-glorious, sanctimonious standards). What right, what credibility do we have, to hold forth so? Why don’t we just get real, pipe down a bit and still try to be good sports? I get all that.

And yet two things spring to mind. One is we don’t have to conflate this into The Great Debate over The Meaning or Otherwise of the Spirit of Cricket, necessarily. The other is if you ask me the straight question is it good or bad to aspire to high standards of sportsmanship at all levels then I would emphatically and without hesitation say it is good.

In every issue there lie those wonderful or ugly or key micro-issues. Rivalries, needle, previous. And there are always places that we can take the argument – precedents – that might re-calibrate our truths. Carew might want to take us to some of those, or they might, as is their prerogative, brazen this one out with a non-explanation, a ‘show us the rules precluding’ kindofa shrug.

I haven’t yet heard it but I do expect to see the view that their decision was magnificently bold and de-mystifying; a view that could be both legitimate and offensive. Me? I thought was anti-sport. And I feel somehow robbed. How’s it looking from Cresselly, I wonder?

Changed my life.

I may have dreamt it – certainly as of now, I have no proof. So really I should go check, somehow. Except Tenby isn’t heavily stacked with Wisden Emporia(?) so that checking process isn’t that straightforward.

I’ve heard from medium-authoritative sources that I have a nod in this year’s Almanack; a mention.

In fact this under-characterises the moment. One of the writers/editors/compilers of that noble tome has twittered to the above effect.

Even allowing for Soshull Meedya’s capacity for fake news this surely registers as CONFIRMATION OF SOMETHING. Bugger it, I’m going to take it that way, REGISTERING MY EXCITEMENT in the only way I know how – by writing something about how this mad, deep, luscious, illusory moment feels. Sincerely – as though on drugs – as per.

But hold. Post what my yoga teacher (and wife) would sagely describe as a ‘conscious breath’ and notwithstanding the outbreak of a particularly cruel breed of dream, I feel a soundbite coming on: my life is transformed.

*That mention* is as we speak (or wash, or drive, or stare strangely obsessively into the mirror) legitimising everything, vindicating everything, making right everything, including the following;

  • all my qualities
  • all my qualifications
  • all my opinions
  • the general unattractiveness of… that face.

At a stroke all the things I ever said or will say in front of cricket people of whatever sort have a certain weight. In brief, I’m gold-plated.

So here (maybe after the conscious breath fogs the innocent glass, then passes?) are the repercussions; the unplanned, unchained, unthinkable thoughts. My ideas.

  • Enjoy.
  • Ignore.
  • Puff yer chest out, fella.
  • Shut up, you utter donkey.
  • Be really, really grateful. Fly to Australia and say thankyou to Melinda Farrell. Drive to The Midlands (I think) and give George Dobell an alarmingly familiar hug. Tweet something to @barneyronay @chrisps01 @TheMiddleStump and everybody else who’s been gracious enough to support my baby – cricketmanwales.com
  • Note to the universe that I’ve never met any of these people (and may never) so/but a) it feels good that they are palpably lovely humans and b) they’ve said nice things, which may or not be relevant to this moment.
  • Wonder who’s actually read what?
  • Kerriist!! Wonder (for a nanosecond) how embarrassing, really, some of the posts are, then swerve course to dare to contemplate whether someone might not just say

Hey @cricketmanwales not only is that bloody good but would you go to Sri Lanka/West Indies/Lords to write about it FOR US… and we’ll pay you something?

  • Wonder exactly who it is I should be offering coffees/hand relief to in order to further my prospects… and then promptly bin that notion.
  • Breathe again and know – really know – that ce sera sera and anyway my indy-looniness mitigates against most ‘opportunities’… and probably always will… and this is fine. Absolutely.
  • Sing the following into the mirror – defiantly, in the happiest of furies –

but if you can stand the test

you know your worst is better than their best!

(Human League. And me, fairly often.)

  • Wonder if this really will help with ECB Media Accreditation. Resolve to take a passport pic and get that bloody form in.
  • Return to the slight fear that I am God of the Unwise, as well as (obviously) God of the Unwise Word.
  • Then feel good. Because though of course I’ve courted retweets and bombarded the timelines of a few folks with me-ness, I know I’ve put my own voice out there. And this feels important.

Now. IS there a quality bookshop in Tenby?

 

 

Day in the life of.

So up at 6.50 to do the domestics. Wash up, in a haze, reply absently to the dog’s effusive welcome. Get daughter up. Scramble through shower/shave routine whilst porridge bubbling. Get wife up. Take dog out then eat porridge, blueberries, banana on return. Know motor’s loaded with multifarious Cricket Things so safe to exit rapidly. Forget phone. Go back.

Cosheston. Rain. Have missed (due to general fluster) the facebook message telling me session can’t go ahead. Don’t care – or rather don’t worry. Know a) this is a fabulous, supportive wee school where the staff will be pleased to acommodate an @cricketmanwales special (The Cricket Assembly) b) that this will be fun enough and genuinely helpful re the signposting of kids to local clubs.

Former Wales international and all-round deelightful human (and Head) generously in favour of said assembly. So 9.20-odd, as the rain pours, me and years 3/4/5/6 talk sport. Had feared that as I have ‘only’ a relatively past-its-sell-by-date Chance to Shine vid (Jessie J, Domino!) it might feel bit lame. But na.

Clip myself into the audiokit-thing for the hearing-challenged (that the right phrase?) girl in the posse and off we go.

We start with an observation that maybe WHY questions are kinda tough. But… why am I here? What’s that all about?

Wonderful range of responses, from kid X telling me exactly what he thinks I want to hear to eye-moisteningly sincere stuff about inspiring children to be ‘really healthy and happy’. The usual mixture of blankness and soaring-because-childish profundity.

I am absolutely comfortable telling folks I believe in sport. Believe it’s wonderful, believe it transforms and enriches. I find the right words to make children listen to all that – that ‘message’ about activity being essential on a zillion levels. They hear lots of dull stuff about health and happiness but I want them to believe that movement/activity and for me maybe particularly TEAM SPORTS hold a special kind of magic.

Naturally, I get them to tell me why they love their horse-riding or swimming or rugby or  whatever. Then we watch a hugely upful video about the brilliance of cricket. And Jessie J does an Indian/Mexican wave. And does dive-catches and rolls about and smiles – no, beams.

Righteously, sisters, women feature in the on-white-board cricket action. So I ask the kids if  ‘it was all blokes’.

No-o!

We talk about how soo-perb Anya Shrubsole is – and stuff – how it’s not just for blokes. How there’s an argument that our best team over recent years *may not be* Chelski or Man Yoo or Swansea or Ospreys but may actually be the England & Wales Women Cricket Team. (Because yes, Ffion, when you’re unbelieeeeevably ace at cricket you will or can play for England… and Wales.)

So I talk unashamedly, proudly, psychotically honestly about sport for good, for health, for your mates, for the craic, for good. And – because it’s siling down – I do this three times, at three Primary Schools, today.

Different contact hours then. No outdoor boomathons or multiskill darts and dashes or small-sided games. So less time: instead shortish but realish corporate messaging. Meaning time to knock out a blogette and also to rest up a little and re-charge before leading the coaching at our Training Hub South tonight; this for teen girls and women, experienced players and slightly nervy beginners.

Somehow, some goodly feelings in the Pembrokeshire ether have genied-up two new womens’ teams for the county’s Ladies League. Whether we Cricket Wales peeps can take any credit for this is very much open to question. More likely the commitment and generosity of people like Mickey Marsh at Kilgetty CC and just a couple of key individuals at Lawrenny CC, plus some awareness of abstract but hopefully positive forces in the sporty consciousness – Womens World Cup/big upturn in visibilty looming – have enabled important progress.

The Tenby Training Hub has been an outstanding success, given no history of training sessions, given reasonable wariness around a) a bloke like me leading b) self-consciousness/alleged lack of cricket skills. More than 20 attended the first Thursday (7.30, Tenby Leisure Centre, Free!!) and these numbers seem likely to continue.

Thus far, ably supported by the aforementioned Mr Marsh and powerfully buoyed by the attendance of some Proper Quality Women Cricketers, our sessions have been real good fun, with a significant dollop of generous role-modelling from experienced players facilitating great learning and universally brill application. We’re running six sessions in total before the Pembrokeshire Ladies League – the only one in Wales – gets going.

In terms of what we’ve actually done – what the sessions look like – I’ll offer the following:

  • we’ve gotten folks (women, girls) moving. By daft-friendly, slightly buzztastic warm-up games. Which are about smiling because you’re moving/chasing/beginning to really get at it.
  • We’ve kept technical stuff to a relative minimum but gotten into throwing, posture, dynamism – how we need to find a way to enjoy fielding – to be in the game.
  • We’ve bowled. And tried to feel what control of that ball – that seam! – feels like. (All this with a wind-ball-like ball… but one with a decent seam, right?)
  • Session two we went batting, after an enjoyably energetic netballistic warm-up.
  • We apologetically but fairly briefly went through questions around length – short length, in fact. We marked on a pitch (for all to see and discuss) where a short, good length and full delivery might land.
  • We centred on the short ball, reasoning that pull shots would feel good, would be do-able, would introduce notions around footwork and maybe recognition of healthy instincts… like going back to make time?)
  • We got a bit concerned that things might be concept-heavy, so we smashed plenty of balls, in small groups, before re-gathering and offering a backfoot defence option.

Generally, coach looked, hard, because the range of comfort and understanding and execution of shots was excitingly ‘challenging’.

Last week’s was a top session. Tonight I’m thinking let’s get forward… and let’s hit some more.

4.13 p.m. Weirdly copious lump of time to lose… in Tenby… before tonight. Maybe I should write something?

A Ready Position.

Winter nets. Arriving (as coach) in the dark and damp. Lugging those several bags of clobber from the boot to that ubiquitous over-varnished, unforgiving floor. Casting a glance for stray implements. Breathing and considering. Resolving once more to unmake that whole concept of Winter Nets.

Be honest, most nets are garbage – or if not garbage, then significant under-achievements. Folks just bowl, folks just bat. Of course that can be fine for some finding of grooves but more often – because there’s negligible focus – folks are arseing around. Even good bats swing reckless and wild; because they can; because there’s nothing on it; because ‘it’s nets’.

Your leanest, meanest fastest bowler – him with the peroxide flash – bounces and beams the club sec, for a laugh. Then he takes the innocent description ‘ag-ri-cultural’ to obscene depths when he bullies his way into bat. Things develop more as a response to the crass machismo of the universe than to the subtler promptings of the coach… who may simply not be there.

Let the coach be there. Make the coach be there.

A sports hall is a shiny-blank canvas. Could be the first thing you want think about is leaving it that way. That is, de-furl those unfurled corridors – the nets. Often, they are narrowing what you do, blinding the options. If you do use them, decide What The Point Is.

Questions you might think about include;

  • how many batsmen per net? In other words, are they running?
  • what stage of the game we at?
  • where are the fielders?
  • do we mark where the fielders are? How?
  • which bowlers are bowling at which batters. And why?
  • what are the consequences of a poor shot? Of getting out? Of insultingly obvious lapses in concentration because the batman think it’s just nets.
  • would a bowling machine be better or worse for your current exercise than a real-live bowler?
  • are a queue of bowlers waiting whilst one bowls a full over? If so, what are they doing?
  • do you have video… of anything?
  • do you have a flipchart for recording… anything? Observations/challenges/personal checklists for batters/bowlers?
  • is anyone saying anything? Meaning are there discussions on any of the above? Are players engaged with that? If not why not?
  • who’s watching, from the sidelines? Are there parents or coaches (or both) to whom you, as coach have to grandstand? Are you (as coach) telling the universe everything you know about This Particular Technical-Cricket Thing because Dave Oosit is over there and he’s Level 3?

Friendly aside; I nearly always coach with other coaches in attendance – often watching their kids in action. Some of these people almost certainly think I’m medium clueless or hopeless. I do one or two things to make this an utter non-issue.

1. Concentrate on energising and enthusing and asking good questions of my players.

2. Prepare… enough.

Few of us outside of the professional game have time to prepare properly. But I do prepare enough. I rehearse things, mumble things and make notes. If I know I am going to have to speak to a new group of parents (for example, at the outset of County Development Sessions) then I may well write a few important points or phrases down; because a) first impressions b) I want them to trust me and rate me, less out of ego than the practicalities of simply getting on c) this means I have to think about what I’m doing.

I have notebooks for this stuff. Alongside the tees and the multifarious balls and beanbags and cones and clobber.

When I arrive at Winter Nets (or anywhere else where I’m gonna be leading) I have notebooks to ask myself questions and to prompt the way. Sometimes things change – because Jonny or Sarah needs that, but often the skeleton for the session is there.

In the moments of calm before other folks arrive – because we coaches always arrive first, right? – I unpack my notebook and my thoughts. I look around the space, feel its fitness, readiness, scope. I leave the nets, to start with, and resolve not to capitulate to their charms without setting some real, meaningful points of focus. And then I am ready.

 

There’s a welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyways, back to that sixteen – those sixteen kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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