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?

 

 

 

Resting, before acting.

I’m not much of an actor but I have been resting; between performances, or bundles of performances.

Pretentious? Moi? Well, that’s kindof what our sessions in schools are; more-or-less theatrical projections or expressions of strategy, policy, faith in our sport. And I have been waiting for the next launch, the next tour of our Community Cricket show to begin, so it’s felt like a rather welcome lay-off as well as a time to gather, before going again.

As I guess there must be for the average thesp, so there’s a weirdly seductive tension around my own downtime. Part of this arises from the fever going on in the background, as a discreet fury of discussion over strategy rises or rages to its conclusions. It feels as threatening as it does exciting. It feels big.

I mean of course the ECB/Chance to Shine/All Stars/Player Pathway stuff that has occupied the lives of most Cricket Development people over the last two years or more. The Seminally (Semenally?) Sexy Questions about how cricket needs to be, to be bubble-burstingly present for the next generation.

Hard to imagine? The sweeptastic revolutions on the pitch being mirrored by off-the-fullest-run-imaginable stylee pow-wows for admin staff and cricket people at all levels?

It’s been happening. It’s been spicy – and probably, I’m guessing still is – but given the preciousness of the raw material and the (honestly!) radical nature of some of the ECB proposals, no surprises that opinions might veer towards the antagonistic.

I’m at arms length from most of this, admittedly, being Coach rather than Development Officer. But I’m close enough to know that massive calls are being or have been made on everything from player pathways to All Stars to Coach Education. Big Stuff around the recreational game. Big Stuff around re-inforcing the rationale and execution of All Stars. Big Investments in change; a) because the belief is change is right and b) because the confident expectation is that there will be money. All this llus arguably Even Bigger Stuff in relation to the professional game, which I will all but ignore, here.

Year 2 All Stars is almost upon us. If you’re not clear what this is or means, here’s a view, or review, of some of the whats and whys.

All Stars Cricket is the ECB headline project for young children, begun this year, enacted through clubs. For 5-8 year-olds, very much aimed at boys and girls, very often via their mums, after shedloads of research showed this was the way to attract new families into the cricket universe.

All Stars is bold and welcoming and new: it represents a break away and forward (arguably – your choice) because Matt Dwyer, the Australian guru/driver/leader-in-possession of The Rationale has a) done this successfully before (in Aus) and b) believes only this level of ambition and dynamism can keep pace with or make sense with the kaleidoscope of change around the pro game. All Stars is defiantly in your face: not just an extraordinary investment but also a considered (and therefore philosophical) commitment to breaking out from the narrow heartland of the status quo towards something simply but strikingly more popular.

I have no doubt that there are one or two key words in that last paragraph that put the beejeeebers up some good cricket folks. But there’s no going back on this. All Stars is populist, yet the powers that be (or enough of them to back it, ultimately) plainly view it as essential to delivering new blood, new impetus. Resources are flowing that way again.

However, Roadshows to support the project and answer questions were delayed: I can’t honestly tell you whether this was due to alarm bells ringing or logistical stuff re kit or accessories or what. I can tell you that in a striking departure for us Community Coaches, our work in schools (as of any minute now) will be aimed primarily at a kind of parallel All Stars course, heavily linked to the general Primary curriculum and that we will be coaching the younger age-groups – Years 1 &  2. This is significant.

In previous years, the objective was more about enthusing 7-11 year-olds for the game and ‘signposting’ them into clubs ready to receive and support a new Under 11 side. The switch of focus to All Stars at 5-8 was initially to gather a new audience earlier, compete earlier with other sports and plant the cricket flag more visibly into school playgrounds: Dwyer (not entirely wisely, in my view) openly talks about ‘winning the battle of the playgrounds’.

All Stars has always been more sophisticated than might appear at first glance – probably as a result of the huge lump of research that preceded it. Year 2 will build on this by being ver-ry savvy in relation to what Dwyer & co. have understood to be the aspirations of the broader curriculum. In other words, the crossovers between mere cricket and all manner of learning skills (over and above the obvious developments in physical literacy) are being strongly emphasised.

Cynics might fear this is driven by box-ticking rather than the joy or brilliance or undeniable value of ‘games’ in itself: it certainly appears to cosy up to contemporary notions of what’s good educationally, as opposed to what makes wonderful and enriching sport. The All Stars proponents – and I am largely though not uncritically in this camp – would say that the project can deliver Big on the physical and the educational side.

You may not believe me when I tell you that I/we Community Coaches probably do need a rest between tours: I think we do. I know I’m pouring most of the bestest, truest, most generous-personal energy I can muster into trying to light up kids (mainly) through cricket-based games. Honestly, at the end – not during, not for me anyway – you do find the battery has run a tad flat.

Right now, then, I’m waiting, before doing some re-training or further training specific to the All Stars delivery. Then I’m on it.

In fact I may start with some work with Secondary School Girls, as we’ve run a really successful Lady Taverners competition here in Pembs, for some years. If logistics allow – and there can be issues around travelling for matches or clashes with other sports – all eight of our Secondary Schools try to enter teams. I try to get round the schools to lead some sessions and encourage, as well as attending the matches themselves.

Always sounds a bit corny when some bloke says something like ‘I really do want to make girls feel like they can and should be playing cricket’ but… that’s the way I feel. Indoor, festival-type cricket can be a great way in.

Two new teams were set up last season in the Pembs Ladies League. Having led pre-2017 season training sessions, I was struck by the proper keenness and quality and pride (actually) amongst the cricketing women. I am really hopeful and optimistic that more girls will step up as the opportunities feel more real – and as the role-models become yet more visible. In all the turmoil and change, the profound development of women and girls’ cricket will surely be a constant; undeniable and undeniably good?

Over to you, Sarah Taylor, Nat Sciver…

 

 

Unleash for real.

Things need to be authentic. Or they do if they’re placed in front of fans and connoisseurs. People in the know judge levels of realness and commitment brutally – because they understand. They know when something is ‘wheeled out’; when it’s a token, a faff, a sop or ‘something dreamed up’ to in some way appease.

If you happen to be a governing body, with the popularity of the average Chancellor, mid second term, there will be suspicion around pretty much whatever you do. Throw in some fabulous, fanatical disproportion amongst your opposition – in this case the average County Cricket fan, obsessed perhaps with protecting the game as he or she understands it – and the last thing you can afford to do is project equivocation. Folks will know you for a fraud.

In this context, the ECB, rightly or wrongly bitterly criticised or characterised as myopic, dubiously-motivated and alienated from us Great Unwashed, need to be conscious of the dangers of rolling out allegedly earth-moving programmes, unless they are clear-eyed, legitimate, committed ventures that people buy into.

So now is a Big Moment. My understanding (as a Community Coach for Cricket Wales) is that we are moving into the #CricketUnleashed era, which includes;

a) the doubling of funding for @Chance2Shine in Oct 2017 and

b) the All Stars Cricket project, taking this traditional, middle-class summer game onto an Entirely New Level in terms of its profile in society at large, via masses of activity in the 5-8 years age-group.

c) loads more in the way of strategy for the recreational… and the professional game.

Ok.  I am personally involved in bigging up the step-change; hoping to deliver some tiddly portion of it(!)  There are naturally certain pressures towards being loyal to both Cricket Wales and the paternal behemoth, the ECB.  Let me eyeball you whilst I repeat that I’m aware of those factors but not driven by them.  I may not be the most reliable of sources on this but… bear with, bear with. Things to say and they aren’t all straight out of the corporation’s sales pitch.

My strong impression is that the ECB, having recruited Matt Dwyer, the dynamic Aussie changer-of-where-we’re-ats, have fully got the need for ambition and for transforming energy.  Have no idea how the conversations have sounded – would love to have been involved – but I believe we’ve gotten to the point where the talking is done and the action really, really starts.  Because (even?) the ECB knows that it must.

There is an acknowledgement that cricket must break through the bubble in which it exists. Rather than just welcoming in (or allowing in?) the current maximum of 30% of the universe that *might possibly* experience cricket, these new measures seek to emphatically burst through to children (and then therefore ideally their families) previously simply beyond our reach. The central ambition of All Stars Cricket is to place the game in playgrounds and clubs and conversations on a different level.  Meaning simply making the game more popular – facilitating that through resources, imagination and a hopefully irresistible bundle of energy.

I get that there may be fears and suspicions around this heady populism. Might it be the natural bedfellow or precursor to gaudy, dumbed-down cricket experiences?  I’m thinking no.  I’m thinking it’s just a way to get folks – more children, new children, actually – hooked into the game. What happens beyond that regarding formats/culture etc etc is powerfully important but maybe powerfully irrelevant to this capturing new kids (#AllStarsCricket) moment.

A brief conclusion.  Reckon this site has proved I am up for debating competitive tests, Day/Night Tests/the meaning of all of this/everything. Hope you can trust me to avoid complete capitulation to the corporate message – despite my obvious allegiances. Really want you to hear again that I am pumped and re-energised, because I think the Cricket Unleashed thing is for real.  But we’ll see.  It’ll have to be.

Ready or not.

I’m both well-placed and dangerously poised on the @Chance2Shine @ECB story. Being a part of the Cricket Wales Community Team – being one of the coaches who actually go do stuff.

My interest is (as Blackadder might say) more vested than a very vested thing. My job as a Community Coach may be more secure as a result of the hike in investment. My hours may go up. But best not say too much, eh? Best not pre-empt anything or count too many chance2shiny eggs?

If you missed it/them, here are some factoids. The ECB, that fascinatingly soft target/that suddenly inspired and dynamic force for good/that bunch of Old Farts (delete according to prejudice or experience) has stumped up a significantly bigger wedge of moolah for schools cricket. More specifically, it has committed to a doubling of the funds invested in Chance2Shine, whose principal mission is to get professional cricket coaches into state schools.

I’m not party to the detail on this; for example I simply do not know, at this point, how much dosh Cricket Wales might get (if any) or how much of that money will go into an increase in coaching. Could be that the CEO of Cricket Wales doesn’t yet know this – partly because this additional money doesn’t come in until October 2017 and partly because (I imagine) high-level discussions around percentages of this and that are still going on. However (and despite acknowledging it’s kindof eeeeeasy and maybe tempting to be cynical about cycles or changing notions of what’s mega, or essential, or how the brand must be) I’m buzzing.

Buzzing because it does feel like there’s a will to really change something. Because (again, accepting that I am neither independent nor proportionate on any of this) I know what we’re offering kids in schools is pret-ty damn good on a zillion levels. It’s loaded with giggles; it’s profoundly developmental; it’s a gateway. All that but maybe more importantly now, it may well be there, for most children.

Cricket in the playground, in the hall, in yer face. Daft, friendly, skilled and yes, often inspiritational people building cricket games, with you, Danny… and Sarah… and everybody! Cricket exposed – #unleashed on all of you – ready or not.

Great and possibly revealing that we may have an Aussie to thank for this, the ECB having poached the bloke who led Cricket Australia’s own transformation. Encouragingly, despite his radical ideas around shamelessly large-ing up the presence, the boomtastic child-relevance of sleepy ole cricket, blow me if the ECB haven’t actually listened to the man. And then they’ve backed him.

Consequently Matt Dwyer, new ECB Director of Participation and Growth finds himself driving something real and weighty and meaningful – and maybe even thrilling- rather than faffing about in some simulator. It appears there is actually a thing, quite possibly a revolutionary thing. Let’s hope.

There are arguments about what cricket needs to do, of course. Whether upping the profile in Primary Schools and supporting and readying clubs for an influx of bouncy kids is really the Golden Bullet. Whether recognition of stars and role-models is gonna happen without free-to-air telly. Whether the ECB should be quadrupling this money to truly transform levels of closeness to the game and its elite protagonists. There are arguments.

But – as with Climate Change – there is a consensus which recognises a need for action. Unlike that other seminal issue for the day, our Powers That Be appear to have processed the understanding that there is a need to act into (yaknow) taking action… which is almost shocking.

Maybe some of the suspicion around the ECB/Chance2Shine plans is a function of deep, existential surprise – or maybe some residual entanglement with the necessary but debilitatingly polarising T20 debate? Could simply be that folks just can’t get their heads around the fact that the ECB may be on an inspirational charge here, boldly re-inventing themselves, as well as our sport. This is not, traditionally, what old white blokes in blazers do.

Apparently one of the game-changers was the revelation, via research, that many more children knew who John Cena was (WWE wrestler, c’mon, catch up!) than knew the Test skipper of England cricket.

I can see this might or arguably should resonate powerfully with those looking to critically assess the state of the game, so will only mention in passing that Alistair Cook’s almost complete absence of charisma might be a factor in this. I accept the view that cricket needs to get brutally frank with itself but tentatively maybe dangle out the concern that research may be flawed, or open to interpretation, or a weirdly self-validating end in itself, on occasion. Whatever, the case for cricket being a minor sport in the minds of young british children, is proven: meaning action.

I hope there is close to a doubling in the number of sessions us coaches get to hold in Primary Schools. I hope this is the crux of it – increased cash, increased cricket. I have no doubt at all that masses of kapow and run in the playground will result in masses of converts to the game.

The target group appears to be five to eight year-old boys and girls, presumably to migrate them, eyes sparkling and hearts a-thrum, to either festival activity or lovely, lively, rewarding action at a local club. The headline intention is (amongst other things) to ‘win the battle of the playgrounds’.

This is bold. This is so bold it’s kinda controversial. Adversarial. The ECB implying (saying?) it’s gunning for other sport’s territory. The ECB frothing rather dangerously and magnificently with belief. The ECB strutting.

I’m nearly too old to be pumped – but I’m pumped for this. The idea that cricket can play a central part in the consciousness of the next generation. That brilliant cricket coaches – of whom I know many – can influence profoundly not just the recreational lives but also (honestly) the levels of engagement and achievement of hundreds of thousands of young people at their place of learning.

Madly ambitious? ‘ Course. But if a further shedload of us are unleashed into schools you better look out.

People, I’m pro-sport rather than tribal-adversarial. I know rugby or football or tennis guys or gals can do important, inspiring work the way that we cricketpeeps can.

Forgive me though, if I’m not hoopla-ing their thing right now. This is cricket’s moment. We deserve it; we’ve been equipping ourselves for years to deliver something liberating, challenging, growing, exciting. It’s outright fabulous that thanks to the ECB – and to Chance2Shine – we might now really get to hit out. Freely.

Remember that?