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…

 

 

And now they’re gonna believe me.

World Cup Winners. Not a phrase us sporty-peeps are all that used to. Mainly because our media and our heads are dominated by footie – by the epic failure of England. England Men. In football. In World Cups or Europeans.

But who cares about them?  Certainly I care waaaay less than I once did.  Let me dispatch that whole industry of trauma with a flourish, with some disdain, with a few bullet-points.

I care less because;

  • of politico-philosophical stuff about disassociating myself from the Posh South of England
  • because of the rank dishonesty and/or meanness of spirit/anti-sportness football wallows in
  • (but much more importantly) because other sports and other kinds of people seem better. More entertaining; more fun; more worthy(?) of our support.

Post the 2012 Olympics magnificent, generous, friendly, articulate athletes – proper humans who could talk engagingly even though they were world stars – lit up the footie-player-heavy universe.  They were lovely as well as gobsmackingly talented.  They were real and rounded.

Fast forward or maybe re-wind just a few days.  Focus (finally, yes?) on a particular sex. Throw your arms around or share the joy around Anya S, Sarah T, Heather Knight and that daft bugger Dani Wyatt with her twitter and her Proper Sense of Humour!

Read the backstories about shared houses and shared disappointments or challenges. Get the whole idea that there’s been a tough revolution going on – one where these tremendous women have been through major, testing stuff.  And now look at them.  Listen.  Get to know them.  This is England Cricket.  These are our World Cup Winners.  How great is that?

I need to acknowledge coupla things.  Firstly, I’m a dumb bloke.  Secondly, there are people who think this dumb bloke is as bad as the rest of them: somewhere on that patronising/sexist/misogynist spectrum.  Meaning I should be keeping my mouth shut.

I’m not going to because I know (actually) that I try pret-ty hard to be careful and reasonable with what I say… and I know however flawed I may be I am genuinely committed to some vague-ish but powerfully-felt ideas about equality.  I’ll get stuff wrong but as a geezer and a coach I do not entirely lack political sensitivity and do try to make things better.

By that I mean specifically supporting women and girls into cricket – or in cricket.  Apologies for the digression.

England’s World Cup win is a gift as well as a wonderful moment, a triumph.  The manner of victory was intoxicating and gut-churning and all those things that characterise truly fabulous sport.  It was unbelievable, dream-like, horrendous, glorious, daft, moving, nerve-shredding.  The actual match was extraordinary and captivating.

So the drama – the sport – was as magical as sport can be be but the levels of interest and coverage also went off the scale in a way that must surely mark a new phase; ‘just the start of the story’ as described by the outstanding Ebony Rainford-Brent.  Cricket needed that, the universe needed that and we Community Cricket Coaches needed that to really move things forward.

This is what’s exciting.  I hope it doesn’t sound too worryingly cynical if it feels like we all – not just those of us work in cricket – have to use this.  It’s BIG.  BIGGER THAN CRICKET. I’ll not wade into the wider debates just now but I do hope there will be an unstoppable energy around this event, feeding into rilly profound developments ‘elsewhere’.

I personally have been enthusing folks for bats and balls and stuff for about ten years. For the last four, for a living.  I am absolutely clear that us Cricket Wales coaches (who spend much of our times in Primary Schools and clubs) have actively set out to make girls feel like this is their game.  The argument can certainly be made that we could have done more but one of the central messages we’ve been trying to put out there is exactly that: girls, you can do this – it’s yours!

We in the Community Team run what we call cricket assemblies, generally alongside or in the middle of a series of school cricket sessions.  The centrepiece of these assemblies tends to be a shortish video, supplied to us by Chance to Shine, the treble-fabulous cricket charity, one of our sponsors.

I very often bring out a film that was made a few years back, showing India winning a World Cup, amongst other buzztastically uplifting cricket-scenes.  The presentation (bit concerned about that word, in fact) features a Jesse J soundtrack and the challenge is laid to the teacher and/or learning assistant to name the singer and the song – Domino.

I encourage the kids to sing along and if the hwyl with the staff is good to ‘dance around a bit’.  If the teachers get the points for identifying the singer/song then the kids get unholy amounts of points for knowing the words.

We have a bit of fun and maybe a quiz or a relatively ‘educational’ discussion around what we’ve seen.  Which countries were playing?  Recognise anybody – any flags?  I big up the notion that cricket can feel like this then I always ask a few of the girls present

was it all blokes?’  (The film has clips of England Women in action).

When the girls say ‘NO!’  I ask the class

who’s the best team we’ve got?

A question that throws them, admittedly but soon enough the lads start saying Chelsea, Manchester Utd, Swansea, or Scarlets or Ospreys.  I let them shout them out and we have a giggle or two around that – especially, obvs, at the Chelsea fan’s expense.

I then tell everybody that there’s a very strong argument that the best and most successful team we have (acknowledging the brilliance of our cyclists and rowers, maybe) might really be England (and Wales!) Women’s Cricket side.  Because a) they are right up there on the world stage b) because they do win things.

I’ve been saying this fairly convincingly for four years. Now, these classes – these girls – are gonna believe me.

I will again look them in the eye and say

girls. This is your game. Cricket is a fan-tastic game… and it’s yours every bit as much as it’s mine… or his… or his.

Bristol-bound.

Who knows why, exactly, England were intent on Bristol? All the talk was of staying there – to the point where those of us born north of Filton (or Watford) feared a further outbreak of naff regionalism. What’s wrong with Derby, people?

Whatever the mindset, or the prejudice, or the preference for south-west softiedom, in the final group game Heather Knight’s Mainly Blue Army secured their stay in the artsy, freewheeling, café-rich capital of Almost Cornwall via another emphatic win.

Emphatic in the end.

The game v W Indies had gotten rather stuck, firstly when England’s batting spluttered and stalled, secondly when the opposition – kinda weirdly – forgot the object is to get runs, even when under pressure. England coasted in, towards the semi’s, towards more Bristol, as West Indian eyes glazed over in quiet submission.

Hang on, now. This under-appreciates both the fact of England topping the table come the end of the group stage and the level of their superiority (particularly in the field?) against Taylor, Dottin and co. However there may be concerns about how England batted against spin: if the West Indies had generated any kind of momentum with the bat, the spells when Fletcher’s legspin traumatised the English might have been pivotal. Ultimately, they were not.

The end-of-group-stage report, then, is stamped with a B+. Robinson’s developing posse are ahead of expectation but with a little work to do: that’s what things point to.

But let’s extrapolate around this presumption/expectation thing. One of the great things about tournaments – about sport – is surely the fabulous rich nonsense about form? About ‘the place you’re in’ as a team or player. About predictivity and quality surplanting or expressing their superiority over the now.

England, even an England who may believe in Process, not Pressure, will of course will be preparing towards A* in order to win this thing. Take care of, indeed treasure, respect, groom and perfect the process and the results tend to take care of themselves. This is the contemporary mantra, right?

Okaaay, get that but what if the knockout matches get scratchy or messy or weather-affected or fall into that mildly nauseous listlessness ‘cos somebody just can’t make it happen? Impossible (arguably) to entirely prepare for wobbly underachievement or nerve-jangled looseners flung two feet down leg. By humans.

C+ really might do it; in today’s semi against the South Africa they smashed for 370-odd against earlier; in the final beyond. Maybe?

That previous meeting – a boomathon where both sides carted the ball to the boundary with what you would imagine was confidence-building glee – will register, naturally. Player X will remember Player Y’s slower ball, or the way they shift early in the crease. Stuff will be learnt. But how great that sport won’t let it be the same, today: that the learning might be unlearned or mean nothing?

I take my seat behind the bowler’s arm at the Ashley Down Road End and reflect that in almost every sense England are ‘ahead on points’… but so what?

Bristol is fine. The outfield is lush green, with the odd pock-mark. It’s 70-odd degrees, at 10a.m. You’d say it’s a batting day and sure enough, South Africa, having won the toss, opt that way. Likely they think the track should be decent and relatively benign but may offer their spinners something in the second dig.

Brunt to open up for England. Fine leg & deep third man. Poor start – first ball raw & down leg – despatched. A wide, later. Nine off the over and not much encouragement.

Shrubsole. Touch of inswing? Retrieves things with a great over.

Brunt settles. Fuller. Beats the bat. 13 for 0 off 3.

Shrubsole continues in exemplary fashion.  Deservedly gets her woman in the fourth but… successful review from SA. No matter; she bowls Lee in the fifth. I punch the following into my notes.

Make no mistake. Shrubsole is quality. Superb, controlled spell.

Nothing, meanwhile, has happened for Brunt. Been okay but she’s frustrated. End of her fourth over she hacks at the crease with her boot.

33 for 1 off 9. 41 for 1 at 10 (first powerplay). England would surely settle for that? Few boundaries, South Africa closer to timid than watchful.

Enter Sciver. Competent. Enter Marsh. Flighty offspin – nice. Then drops one tad short. Punished.

Chetty is sharply stumped by Taylor off Sciver. We’re at 48 for 2 in the 12th, with Eng quietly dominant; young Wolvaardt cool and enviably composed but simply too passive.

We let out our first, synchronised Munchian cry as the opener tries to break out by clumping Hartley but instead offers an obvious c&b which the bowler simply isn’t sharp enough to take. Clanger.

South Africa get to 100 for 2 in the 26th.

Knight steps forward and immediately makes things happen – good and bad. Wolvaardt plays round one that barely deviates (125 for 3 in the 32nd) then the skipper drops the incoming bat next ball… but Kapp is run out in any case in the same over. Deep breath and it’s 126 for 4.

A word about the fielding. Over the whole piece it was consistently goodish but again there were poorish drops and occasionally sluggish movement – maybe particularly when a full-on dive was called for.

Into the second powerplay and it feels faaar too quiet from a South African point of view. Brunt is now bowling to her level, mixing it up. 158 for 4 at 40 feels under-par and the lack of will to accelerate feels unwise. First six of the innings comes in the 41st. (I believe, incidentally, that England struck none. Go check?)

Gunn gets a regulation c&b in the 42nd. At 170 for 6, with the runrate close to 4, on this pitch, in real heat, the consensus around me is that this is inadequate. Du Preez makes 50 but off 86 balls: it seemed too slow.

The reply. Winfield steers a four through the covers first over. Ismail second & fourth overs; fluent, athletic, to be respected. England watchful, knowing steady should see them through.

Kapp finds a decent rhythmn at t’other end. Finds the edge too but a sharp chance is dropped by the keeper. Just me, or is Winfield looking a tad wooden? 19 for 0 off 4.

Then things get a bit loose from the visitors: wides bowled down leg from Kapp, no-balls – meaning free-hits – from Ismail. Winfield takes her opportunities and suddenly England are at six-plus an over, significantly ahead.

Against the flow of it – although not entirely out of character for her innings – Winfield slashes rather lazily to gift South Africa a way back in. Caught, skied. Enter Taylor, who announces herself with a beautifully steered cover drive. 52 for 1 after 10.

Beaumont has been mixed; she is bowled Khaka on a slightly scratchy 15.

First spin in the 16th – Van Niekirk. With Taylor and Knight beginning to settle the legspinner may need to have some impact. She is controlled, in the main but no obvious threat. The experienced English pair move untroubled to 87 for 4 after 20.

Out of the blue, Knight offers an ultra-sharp chance to the keeper, off Khaka. Again not taken. Second leggie Luus is now on from the Pavillion End. Little bit of slow turn but England are (reasonably enough) playing circumspect cricket – meaning the rate of scoring has slowed a little. 100 up for 2 in the 24th.

The drift persists. The crowd become aware of the dangers implicit in England sitting on this. Ultimately the batters seem to recognise the same and look to lift the tempo, before the impressive Taylor is rather frustratingly run out on 54.

What had seemed prudent begins to seem indecisive – foolish even. Khaka’s figures (announced to some applause) of 10 overs 2 for 28 do seem more a result of lack of dynamism from England than brilliant bowling, in truth.

After 30, England are a mere 2 runs ahead. Low-grade tension broils.

Now Luus bowls an awful over but Knight inexplicably carts a full toss straight to square leg. Eng are proferring a game where it seemed there should or would be none.

Inevitably, Sciver is bowled and suddenly Eng are 146 for 5, with Brunt and Wilson new to the crease. Meaning Pressure.

A fluxxy, flashy, inconclusive period finds us at 170 for 5 off 41, with 5.5 needed per over. This is a game – a proper tense competitive one, now. A knockout.

South Africa have gone with 7-2 or 6-3 fields over these key overs. It’s worked because England have neither been brave enough to dance and pick a spot legside nor skilled enough to hit through the offside masses. When Brunt is bowled for a disappointingly subdued 12, England look in trouble. Is there a grandstand finish, or nervy calamity in the offing? And what did I say about fabulous nonsense?

Van Niekirk rings the changes every over – boldly and clearly with some success. But a possibly disoriented Kapp (a zillion changes of end) bowls two consecutive wides as Eng profit during the 45th. We’re into the excruciating, brilliant, cruel, seemingly too-directionless-to-result-in-anything end-game.

6 needed. Gunn and Wilson look to be bringing Engalnd home but then Wilson gets unnecesarily cute -scoops behind.

Last over. Can’t talk or write. Marsh bowled! 2 needed. Lols like you wouldn’t believe… and in comes Shrubsole.

A connection. 4. A game that almost got stuck violently coughs out the final drama. World Cup Final, for England.  Wonderful, messy, exhausting sport. Congratulations. C+.

 

Postscript; because I have time, unusually; because I’m a dumb bloke writing about women.

C+ sounding a bit mean? Got there because at that extraordinary end, my second thought was how Robinson might view things. (First thought was WHOOOOPPPEEE!!, by the way). I reckon he’d be ecstatic, relieved and furious.

Ecstatic and relieved to be in the final – to have achieved and possibly over-achieved(?) But also furious at some errors and I’m guessing particularly at the drift when his side batted. Robinson will know that Taylor’s excellence was nearly frittered away because his side lacked dynamism… when surely this is the one thing he has looked for?

England are morphing swiftly and encouragingly towards the athletic, skilled excellence underpinned by positivity that their coach and the world-game demands of them. In Bristol they won a gut-churningly outstanding victory without convincing us that they’re where they wanna be yet. That’s fine. The revolution – the chase – goes on.