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?

Proper good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, the Festival.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Year in the Life of…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Beautiful Game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good move.

Deciding what to do is often as much an art-form as an exercise in diplomacy or joined-up thinking. Sculpting from intimidating choices that which merely works may not, in the contemporary flux, be enough – in life and in sport. Good moves, on the contrary, imply some well-springing beyond mere survival, into (actually) greater health; virility; dynamism. But given that we often concede to the reality that everything seems compound or complicated, the tendency to play safe weighs heavily against the brilliant, the inspired or truly creative; so good moves are hard to find.

We cricketpeeps have our challenges. On the global scale this might mean heavyweight conversations about governance; on a national or practical or structural level maybe that heave-hoing see-saw between County Cricket and the inevitable slot for Blast-dom. How do we manage all that? Significant. Significant issues but maybe not as big as the (okaaaay, related) question of how we retain players.

The @cricketmanwales-familiar among you will know that I work in cricket at what tends to get slightly patronisingly called the ‘grassroots’ level. As a Community Coach for Cricket Wales I spend a lump of my working life enthusing small people towards the game – go read previous posts and you’ll get the drift. I can tell you that generally it’s easy enough to gather players in under the spell but there is a problem in the teenage years.

Not just for cricket. Other team games are finding a disturbing number of players – boys, possibly in particular – drift away between the ages of say 14 and 17.

We could all write a fabulously strident thesis on the reasons for the exodus (I’d love to – please send funding to the Death to Nintendo/McDonalds and The Folks Who Produce Reality TV Campaign) but that’s for another day. What I want to begin to address is what it is we might do to keep young fellas/girls playing our game, when either doubts or other opportunities or distractions enter the frame. Or at least I want say something about a particular event which felt important, recently.

There may be a prequel to this; one which features stonkingly obvious insights between the link between quality of experience for players and retention… and more subtle understandings around coaching… and relationships.

If youngish boys and girls have an inviolably wonderful time at their cricket club then clearly they are likely to stay in the game. More than that; having appreciated the quality of coaching(?) learning(?) growing(?) they benefited from, they may well later look to make a contribution – possibly an enlightened one – of their own, to their club and/or the game. Thus good-ness stimulates good moves in the future, which in turn increase the likelihood of great people staying in cricket, enriching the cricket-peep gene pool . But what does this aforementioned wonderful time look like and feel like?

It looks different but like fun. It looks like a diving catch or an all-out, lung-bursting shuttle race – finishing with another dive… and slide, onto a watered outfield. It looks like whatever sharing a joke looks like. It’s physical; it’s ‘psychological’; it’s about movement. Maybe?

Maybe it also looks like a superbly thought-out series of training sessions where a zillion skills are learned… incidentally, almost? Because the coach knows he or she doesn’t need to teach too much, just offer some games and ask some skilfull questions. Let the players find a way to play.

But this is very abstract. Let’s move on to stuff wot actually happened…

Recently, Cricket Wales ran an Under 19’s T20 competition. The idea essentially being that cricket clubs throughout the principality could enter teams in an event that not only looked and sounded like a Big Bash (or similar) but was essentially and indeed boomtastically directed by the players. They were, within reason, to shape it in the way they chose. So yes, there was coloured kit. Yes, there was some geezer wiv kickin’ toons. And yes, it was more than slightly wonderful. My lot – Pembrokeshire- missed the deadline for entering.

Actually that may not be entirely true but something, something got in the way – fortunately, not for long.

I’ve been on the fringes of this but I remember asking the question of our local fire-starter (and Chairman of Pembrokeshire Association for Cricket Coaches) Mr Jonathan Twigg
what’s happening re- the Under19 thing?

Then having a couple of brief conversations with our local Cricket Development Officer (Matt Freeman) and a longer one with Haverfordwest CC’s Junior Head Coach Simon Williams. All of which left me thinking we might be in a slightly embarrassing black hole, having neatly fulfilled metropolitan prejudices about Sleepy Ole Pembrokeshire.

HA HA! Wrong!

In fact, faster than a speeding cherry, Messrs Twigg and Williams had a) nobbled half the county and b) bundled a key clutch of the potentially (cricket-wise) underemployed youff into a seething, expectant and actively-engaged posse. Sponsorship was sorted; kit and fixtures were sorted; a Final’s Day (as well as the friendly games) was posted into the calendar. Most magnificently… things really happened.

My own club’s teens swiftly metamorphosed into Blue Lightning, players now resplendent in blue, sporty-disco shirts with name and squad number on the back. Likewise at Carew Rooks or Burton Warriors or Cleddau Crusaders – all in grooviciously contemporary clobber. Twigg and Williams and god bless ’em their equivalents elsewhere got the games on – at Haverfordwest superbly supported by Big Scrivs, the local MC/DJ/esteemed provider of music and (quite literally) fanfares.

In other words, games took place. Teen-appropriate events. Cricket events unlike anything seen before in our county. 20 overs of wallop and bantz-loaded cricket, for young people, watched by lots of other young people – and often their families – accompanied by bursts of reassuringly dated Popular Music. Wicked!

On the Finals Day at Haverfordwest Cricket Club the organisation as well as the cricket was ramped up to fever pitch. ‘Twiggo’ had established a Control Room containing more pens, forms, balloons and members of the media (thanks @FraserMercsport) than a Jeremy Corbyn rally. Umpires – proper ones – had not only been sourced but kitted out in fetching acid green by main sponsors Nat West, represented locally by long-time Narberth CC man Huw Simpkins. Ditto sponsors from Tees r us, alongside Mark White from Cricket Wales HQ. It was all alarmingly kosher.

In terms of the practicalities, 3 pitches were available at Haverfordwest CC whilst a preliminary fixture was played at Hook CC a few miles down the road. 8 teams entered, including Llanelli Knights from… well, you-know-where, some 50-odd miles east, plus, remarkably, I think, 7 from Pembrokeshire. All teams were guaranteed at least two games, with a plate competition being played out (ten overs per innings) for those beaten in the first matches.

For the record, Llanelli Knights were deserved winners, beating Burton in the final: Haverfordwest won the plate. However the occasion was such a clear and overwhelming success – and spoke so loudly of frontiers being opened – that we might dare to hope that in the continuation of this one event a significant step forward might be possible in terms of retention.

Some of us are already thinking that our local County Cricket Club needs to take a long, hard, unprejudiced look at this. Because it may not just be relevant to teenagers. It strikes me that whether we like it or not, gathered-in, short-format cricket of this or a similar sort may be central to how cricket develops – and I do mean develops – all over. Our own struggling lower divisions in Pembrokeshire might be sustained in this way… and how comfortable us older folks are with that may be irrelevant. Local leagues may need to provide both longer format and T20 boomathon cricket.

Most teams brought about fifteen players to Pembrokeshire Finals Day, so that meant 120 teenage players doing what they feel comfortable with – feel good about. Panacea? Possibly not. Model? Quite possibly. Good move? Abso-lutely.

Here’s what Fraser Watson from The Western Telegraph made of that day – http://www.westerntelegraph.co.uk/sport/13715660.T20_teams_have_a_blast_at_Finals_Day/

A new season, a new challenge for @cricketmanwales.

Pembrokeshire’s very own Community Cricket Coach is known to hundreds of primary school children as The Cricket Man! (And yes, there generally is an exclamation mark in that greeting.)

Also known as Rick Walton, this particular coach has been bouncing into schools and clubs with a level of energy and enthusiasm that’s won him friends and supporters around the county.

Rick is both trained and genetically programmed to perform and/or coach sport, coming as he does from a distinguished sporting family. In a loose moment Rick might confess to a passion for both rugby and football but he is proud of and dedicated to his work for Cricket Wales. But what does he actually do?

For three years Rick (a.k.a. @cricketmanwales on twitter!) has delivered what he would like to think are dynamic and often challenging sessions of fun, cricket-based games into schools. Generally, he has worked in the primary sector but he has also been involved – for example offering Girl’s cricket sessions leading into the now widely enjoyed Lady Taverners competition – in all the secondary schools in the county.

The work has several aims, some of which may sound rather ambitious. Let’s start with the obvious;
• to enthuse children for the game – for healthy activity
• to offer a link between schools and local cricket clubs – and therefore sustain and enrich that activity.

Nobody would doubt that any sports coach is in the business of facilitating those two ideals but Rick is clear that the scope of his work – his responsibilities as well as his intentions – goes way beyond these fairly narrow sporting targets. So what about these, then, for aspirations?

• to stimulate children to think and listen and work together
• to capture their attention and make them better learners
• to support literacy and numeracy as well as ‘development’ in terms of the physical literacy framework
• to offer opportunities to devise games – and therefore develop understandings about sharing and about what works for everybody, not just ‘me’
• to light up individuals, some of whom may find academic work beyond them
• to provide both a kind of release and a way in to class work for children who have difficulty engaging.

Ask @cricketmanwales about all of the above and he would say simply that ‘daft games of cricket’ can and often manifestly do achieve all that.

Most recently Rick has been working in schools in Milford and in North Pembrokeshire. At Y Frenni in Crymych he not only led sessions indoor and out but hosted a genuine and delightful discussion about what a good game of cricket might look like. Children were asked to help sort out a hypothetical game – drawn out on a whiteboard – in order to discuss what a successful playground game might look and feel like. Their response was fabulous – intelligent, thoughtful, generous.

At Ysgol Gynradd Eglwyswrw, the Headteacher Mr Tim Davies shook Rick warmly by the hand after watching some of his first session.
“Brilliant” he said. “And I can’t believe how it was so much more than cricket!” Another teacher, on thanking Rick after he left the final session, described the impact of his work as “wonderful”.

Now because these things aren’t entirely thrown together, Rick had been signposting the children in the North of the county to Monday night ‘Cricket Hub’ activity at Crymych Leisure Centre (5-6pm, children Years 3,4,5 and 6 most welcome! Call 01437 776690.) Now established, it is hoped that these sessions will be ongoing.

Down in Milford, a similar approach was in place. Rick delivered three or four weekly sessions into Hakin, Hubberston and Milford Junior schools with a view to continuing the cricket at The Meads Leisure Centre. Subsequently 23 boys and girls aged 8-11 turned up to the first Cricket Hub night – making it a remarkable success. (Cricket Hub activity is on a Friday in Milford, from 5-6pm. Please contact The Meads – Milford Haven Leisure Centre 01437 775959 – for details or to book your child in.)

Rick’s work in Milford again demonstrated that cricket games can be hugely engaging and inspiring for children. He made a whole lot of new friends and received outstanding support from the respective Headteachers and the staff who assisted. And children really did wave excitedly every week as The Cricket Man arrived. Imagine how Rick feels when he sees that?

He tells me he feels blessed to be sharing his game. He tells me he is more convinced than ever that what his sponsors call the #powerofcricket is a very real, positive force. Now, word is he might be down Pembroke way next – there’s a potential Cricket Hub down there, alright.

So, will @cricketmanwales be visiting your school soon, I wonder?