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 –

Which cricket?

The brilliant tumult that was the recent Cricket World Cup underlined the distance traveled by this most extraordinary and arguably most traditional of games. The cricket Down Under and in New Zealand epitomised the almost alarming dynamism of a particular strand in the sport, clattering expectations, redefining (as they say) The Possible.

Fifty overs used to mean an ‘opening’ period where watchfulness and caution, even, were bywords for batters. It used to centre more on cunning than clout or blast. But as the brutal swordsmanship of the Warners/Maxwells/McCullums demonstrated, a new era of glorious carving has superceded that which has gone before.

And I do mean gone. My sense is that given the revolutionary essence of this new genre – the fact that in particular the bowling was characteristically met with a new breed of irresistible violence – we can barely identify pre- (let’s say) 2014 short-format cricket as the same animal. Cricket World Cup 2015 stamped upon our consciousness the separation – the lurch away, the blast-off – from the familiar/the proper/the old. (Delete according to prejudice.)

Though we knew it was coming, this was the moment the dirt was wistfully then swiftly dribbled in over the coffin of yaknow… Richard Hadlee; Ian Botham; the Chappells – cricketing icons that played a patently different game. The gaudy, incremental hikes through T20 Blasts and IPL Extravagorgies seem done; now the World Cup is carnage of a uniquely modern or post-modern sort. It’s official; things have changed.

Relax. This isn’t I think the preamble to some reactionary exposition on the authentic or the true. Truth is I can barely unscramble the various repercussions or likelihoods following Aus/NZ but I am sure enough I don’t simply and categorically oppose this dramatic new beast. It was too… riveting. It was, despite the shocking newness, recognisably sporting drama – elite sporting drama. For all the doubts, that makes it undeniable.

Plus… the argument that cricket cannot afford to suppress in any way that which might be its saviour (economically if not spiritually) does hold some weight. Even those of us love or work in the game have to concede that the demographic/driver wotsits that the office folks concern themselves with point to a shrill and urgent need to engage with those maybe forty years younger than yer average Lords Member. (Apologies if I slander here but you get my drift?) In the no-brainer age it’s a no-brainer that the ‘see ball hit ball’ core of all this gets a heavy shot of chilli.

Rightly or wrongly the bulk of the Youff of Today are turned off by stillness and quiet seduction (Alistair Cook v Any Spinner) but MFI when it comes to orgasmic adrenalin-showers. They love – they are bred, they are pressured, they are educated to love – the whiff of death, the full-length dive, the cliff-edge climax. So who wouldn’t be drawn to the expectation of a denouement featuring twenty runs an over or an explosion of stumps?

Whilst nobody is suggesting that 13-30 year-olds are sole heirs to anything, they are, of course key to TV and stadium audiences and (more crucially?) to the player base itself. And they want… this. Something that is fascinatingly post-Pietersen. Something really pumped.

My own club has set up an Under 19 team who will wear bright blue clobber and play other young dudes of an evening whilst ‘sounds’ form a backdrop to the ‘scenes’. It will probably be epic… and… or but… we need it. I think it’s great.

But despite the multifarious wonders of the game, zillions of teenagers – boys and girls – do drop out of playing and lose interest or fail to develop their interest in cricket. The very existence of short-format is a response, in no small part, to this issue. (Fair comment that the over-riding and marginally less wholesome urge to make pots of moolah also contributes to the emergence of the IPL and various T20 tournaments around the globe but that need to grow or prop up the game somehow means the greater authorities as well as men of independent means support, in their various ways, the boomathons.)

I’m both stirred and disturbed by the prospect of sorting out or gathering in this game – cricket – that seems to be expanding apart like a floppy-hatted cosmos.

The idea that this vital, ungovernable sprawl could somehow be controlled makes me smile. Not sure I’m optimistic, mind. Even if it were clearly desirable to collect in the various competing elements to some co-operative or sustainable whole I’m not sure the models of authority for the game are there. Blissfully, currently, that’s someone else’s problem.

On a local/national level the environment I work in has shifted to one where targets for growth within the amateur game (in Wales) have had to be scaled back… because growth is not realistic. This may not matter; for one thing it may simply be impossible for a team sport to expand its share of the ‘market’ against the increasingly diverse and often individually-centred competition – be that computer-based or kosher game-based. (Incidentally, I heard recently, in a gathering of sports professionals, that the only sports to be succeeding in terms of numbers gained are cycling and running; both essentially individual pursuits.)

Even an amateur shuftie at the philosophy of all this gets interesting. Start by considering the following; that growth may be inessential to the health of a sport. Why can’t a game that is loved and which retains its support and balances numbers of retiring players with new players be sustainable – be wonderful, even? And if growth is abandoned as a luxury beyond contemplation does that perhaps increase the possibility for retaining cherished essences (sorry, that word again) which may otherwise be subsumed beneath the charge for popularity/exposure/gold?!?

Again I’m being more agent provocateur here than campaigning against the new. However the confluence of challenges around how cricket is demands our attention; the presence of apparent antitheses – tradition/revolution Test/Blast etc etc – are either a recipe for remarkable diversity, diabolical conflict, or something hopefully intelligently poised between. Could we accept that some of the energy which goes into the abstract – this concept, growth – might be better expended into the corporeal – physical support, actual support – for the cricket experience?

The very fact that short-format cricket is either packaged or lumbered with circus imagery or post-POP-ART kerpoww-dom speaks volumes. About what it is and of the increasing gulf between 50 or 20 over action and the Test Match. In our dizzying new world the issue of whether it can be possible to accommodate, never mind grow cricket feels a less appropriate question, suddenly than… which cricket?