Conference rise.

It was a real coup for Cricket Wales/Glamorgan Cricket to get the new ECB Head of Coach Development, John Neal, to open the first National Coaching Conference, held at The SSE Swalec Stadium on Sunday. (Good work on the nobbling-him-early-doors front, from our very own Paul Morgan.)

John is both plainly a top man and the top man in terms of his responsibilities vis a vis cricket coaching in England and Wales. He came across as exactly the sort of authoritative, centred, witty and determined individual you might really want to lead you through… whatever.

Opening up, the former WRU and RFU man did not so much speak – certainly he didn’t lecture – as conduct an exchange with us, which was (despite the fact that it had by its nature to be themed), refreshing, challenging, funny and direct. Those of you who attend vaguely corporate gatherings of this sort may shiver coldly when I tell you he played a series of short games with us but a) he did b) they were fine – they were funny, meaningful and illustrative of his points.

Understandably reluctant to lumber himself with a glib, conference-friendly soundbite, John threw away the notion that ‘this is about Making Coaching Fun’ – before making it fun. He was big on the ideas around the right reflex and how we must challenge our own ease or easing towards judgements which may be wrong; when we (ourselves) are often wrong anyway… and this is fine.

On the process of coaching, Mr Neal offered the following, in essence: that it is largely about the coach being skilled in offering good questions to stimulate self-learning in the player. I am para-phrasing, but speaking privately for some time after his initial remarks, the sense was that John is right behind the idea that

“players must problem-solve: coaching is not about answering”.

After a start that was as provocative as it was informative, the fifty coaches attending were then ushered down into the indoor school at the Swalec, where three top-level deliverers were waiting.

Cookie Patel is one of the ECB’s go-to men for leading Coach Ed. sessions. His brief on this occasion was to share some ideas and principles around fielding; from catching to sliding to stats. Inevitably, he threw in a few nuggety specifics around posture or practice – offerings, I would say, rather than instructions.

So there were observations and some demonstrations for the various disciplines, calibrated for – and then re-calibrated for – different abilities or scenarios, or just to make them more fun. Couple of half-decent fielders were tested: all done with a bit of healthy mischief and a good dollop of streetwise (but also clearly authoritative) cricket humour.

In short Cookie was engaging, sharp, likeable and packed a whole lot of learning into his sessions. There was some gawping at a screen full of prompts or stats but there was a good flow – good energy.

Sharing the space was the ECB’s Dan Garbutt, who beasted his posse of innocents with a chaotic-but-not-chaotic runaround under the theme of Game Sense. This was an inventive multi-game, loosely and briskly set up by Dan, demanding lots of input and application from the participants, in order to a) score runs through targets b) challenge the players’ wits.

Dan intervened only occasionally: he told me rather proudly midway through ‘I’ve offered no coaching points’, meaning this was about inventiveness – movement, adjustment, game sense – from the players. It was crazy-dynamic in a really good way: the coaches were smiling and knackered.

Screened off in a single net area (hard ball work) was Mark O’Leary, lead coach at Cardiff Met and the driving force behind the MCCU side which won out at Lords a month or two ago. Mark was and plainly is into spin.

Tall, slim and alarmingly youthful, ‘Sparky’ bustled his groups brilliantly through all things spintastic. Entry-level under-arm games; progressions towards Rashid-dom; use of visual cues and handy, wristy tips. He demystified stuff and demonstrated, simply but strikingly well, how you might extract major turn. (Certainly he did: the leggies and the extraordinarliy nonchalantly launched googlies turned about a yard – or that’s how they would surely have felt to the batsman). Impressive.

Impressive but delivered with just the right amount of direction, humour and humility. Loved that Mark unashamedly spoke of leg-spin (in particular, though obviously not exclusively) as an art and yet entirely demonstrated how accessible that magic around the art can be. The session, like the balls, fizzed.

In practical terms, Sparky used ver-ry few bits of kit. A builders line between bowler’s mark and off-stick; a washing line, effectively to draw loop and dip; some balls. The rest was ingenuity and enthusiasm – and yes, knowledge.

Those amongst my co-gluttons at Cricket Wales who failed to attend the day may be interested to hear that lunch was generous, tasty and included hot chunks of meat as well as the dainty sandwiches of yore. Well -fed, we sat again to listen to Hugh Morris.

Hugh is CEO at Glamorgan Cricket. I know now – having been in his company on several occasions – that he is also a hugely capable and honourable man, impressively focused on building a successful club, with a strong, Welsh core under-pinned by a truly effective pathway. Hugh knows there are sceptics; he himself joked about the South African rather than South Walian origins of a good deal of the current squad, but I am clear he means it when he talks about developing a county side that consistently reflects its support, its national identity, its base.

The former Glammy and England opening bat majored on the Long Term Athletic Development pathway that he believes – and again, I really think he does believe – must be central to a joined-up, fit-for-all-purposes, enabling structure. He took us through the detail, so as to make the argument unanswerable and impress upon us how necessary he believes the changes are. It was arguably dryish stuff but the gaffer was utterly, convincingly clear that the model of LTAD planning he outlined would be key to achieving the twin objectives of great, appropriate sporting provision and the development of great Welsh players.

Hugh was gracious enough to enlarge privately on the arguments – and the research around them – for some time after his presentation. Plainly, explicitly and rightly he wants Glamorgan to be geared up and ready to bid for and use the (potentially increased) ECB funds to make real his vision. It’s ambitious. It involves considerable culture-change and investment. However, Mr Morris, I can tell you, is committed.

After a few brief questions from the coaches, it was back to the action on the floor, as groups rotated through the sessions.

Dave Leighton is a shortish fella – fair cop, Dave, you made the jokes – who may well have played rugby league (as well as cricket) before his twenty-odd years service with the ECB. He now heads up National Participation in his role as Coaching Manager. Dave twinkled his way through ‘the graveyard shift’ asking questions about his chief areas of concern – ‘beyond Coach Education’ and ‘the club environment’.

Having spoken to him before he addressed the coaches, I was interested to see him in relatively discreet mode: he gave little away in respect of the transformation about to be unleashed: I respect that. However (again privately) he did share his confident expectation that resources will be ploughed into the recreational game… over and above the huge investment in All Stars Cricket. Coaching, it seems, will be recognised, valued and supported (by the ECB) in a way that marks a step-change towards the bubble-burstingly brilliant future envisaged by Matt Dwyer. I wish Mr Leighton had been as clear about that to the assembled throng as he was to me, individually.

Whatever, there’s a theme developing here, is there not?Centred on belief and expectation. Around investment which folks are pret-ty certain is a-comin’. Let’s go back to where this began – to the other Top Man, John Neal.

John was absolutely clear that he has the freedom to make changes happen; that he will do so. Given that his brief is for Coach Development he will broaden the Coach Education pathway, making it possible to improve and achieve in (probably) three newly defined areas rather than (probably) get blocked in the current, suffocatingly vertical structure. He likes the word enablement and he will enable. The money is coming and the ground has shifted and things will happen – are happening.

Final thoughts? Sunday was a good day. For those who participated, it was a blast, a pleasure, it was challenging-but-great. It was well-supported but chiefly by exactly the sort of coaches who support stuff – who always do this stuff. Meaning a) if you are coaching in Wales and you didn’t attend, why not? b) you’d be daft to miss the next one.

There are about forty-seven cricket revolutions going on simultaneously, right now; some on the pitch, some off. The first Cricket Wales/Glamorgan Cricket National Coaching Conference evidenced, echoed and nudged forward that sense that we are entitled to come over all excited, in these extraordinary times, because pound-for-pound, it seems likely that we coaches – we cricket people – may be able to contribute more, expect more, influence more… because the investment is coming. That’s the clear implication.

So, call me an optimist… but I am optimistic. Don’t just take my word for it, mind – all of us the Swalec were buzzing.

Aimee Rees, lead for Cricket Wales Women and a hugely respected coach in her own right, put it this way;

‘today’s conference was excellent – really well organised and all of the presenters were engaging and knowledgable… The standout session for me was on spin, with Mark O’Leary from Cardiff MCCU. I am already looking forward to the next conference.’

Friends, there will be a next conference.

Glamorgan – the players.

If you visit Glamorgan County Cricket you may or may not come across the following people. I did – because I sought them out – having become abstractly aware of either powerfully altruistic or economically necessary forces at the club moving to accommodate, entertain and welcome the fan, the visitor.

All of which sounds like something from a pamphlet you just might not want to read. And some of which sounds like the forces – or policy – at work were unknown to me. They were, pretty much.

But get this: I knew there would be stories behind both the individuals themselves and the process of deciding what Glamorgan can or should *actually do*. I knew those stories would be seductively ‘human’ and point towards the really tough issues and choices County Cricket has to face. I was interested to know more about the process of capturing and sustaining support when the economic facts are frankly pretty scary.

I had a gut feeling that Glammy were doing lots of things right – whatever that means – but had no real concept of how any strategy they might have for ‘engagement’ (or similar) was enacted. It was somewhere between refreshingly fab and downright inspiring to see this all in action.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been to three recent #T20Blast games at SSE Swalec and this has provided the time and the contact with individuals to pull together a fair overview of the various elements we might reasonably lump under the heading Visitor Experience. Which again, unfortunately sounds like something out of a pamphlet but if I learned anything during my visits it was surely that what’s going on at Glamorgan definitely transcends well-meaning corporate dogma. Inevitably, it’s about people doing stuff naturally well.

So I’m following this up because I think the county’s energy around this is fabulous and because I met some great people trying to absolutely nail that Visitor Experience thing – under real pressure from the zillion factors challenging cricket generally and the tighter issues specific to Cardiff and/or Wales. Also… I reckon there are things which might be learnt, here.

I’ve said before that I absolutely consider myself a sportsman not a salesman but clearly have to acknowledge the drift towards either sycophancy or corporate messaging here. But I can live with the thought (your thought?) that @cricketmanwales ‘would say that’… if you will hear me out.

I am clear, in short, that Glamorgan are doing an exemplary job in many respects of trying (*trying!*) to keep their rather lovely Taff-side ship afloat. Having really looked at what’s being done, I am more committed than ever to support that mission. Having met and spoken at some length to the off-pitch players involved, I know it’s a brilliant, dynamic and what us sporty-zealots might call top-top righteous project.

Let’s meet just some of the people that might in another era be labelled The Backroom Staff. (Apologies if your kit or mine isn’t up to supporting the following slideshow. If necessary please feel free to use your imagination.)

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The Scorer.

Except he really isn’t just The Scorer. Dr Andrew Hignell is a much bigger, more all-round presence than that.  He does lead the team of scorers for Glamorgan CC but is also the archivist, museum man, the guided tour man, the lighter-up of wee visitors man. He educates, he is the voice of authority and one of the key links between incoming children and rich, often uplifting experience. Andrew Hignell, for Glammy, scores over the full three-sixty.

Like several of the good folks I spoke to, the doctor has a history in teaching. He also has a lifetime’s worth of interest – interest? Seems such an inadequate word! – in cricket. Like myself he visibly feeds off a) stories around the game and b) the broad understanding that we can make things better by offering a way into sport. Mr Hignell doesn’t need too many lessons from the Communications Posse about the ‘need to engage.’ The messages ooze from him – about opportunity, personal growth, communal expression, development – The Scorer understands life that way.

The Volunteer. (Of which there about 40, it seems.)

Typically public-spirited, open, friendly. Maybe patrolling a particular beat with a particular task; welcoming folks in, proffering freebies and yes, a smile – answering questions.

Volunteers I met included a teacher who ‘happened to be’ a big cricket fan, doing this ‘for enjoyment and to support the club’. He was gifting out luminously iconic headgear genuinely cheerily. He was talking with and listening to fans. Like a teacher free to banter. He was skilled and friendly.

Volunteers are unpaid. Some also prop up other local events/other sports, meaning they’re not necessarily cricket fans, more people who get that thing about putting something back – being sociable. They’re plainly essential and invaluable and I do know the Glammy hierarchy is conscious of how fortunate they are to have such gorgeously generous humans out there batting for them in the fanzone or at the foot of the stairs. The V men and women did tell me they love doing their occasional, part-time cricket-thing. I hope they do.

The M.C.

James is the face and the voice on #T20Blast night. Sickeningly handsome, impressively well-prepared and researched. Young but with presenting work for the ICC (amongst others) in his locker, James interacts with and leads the crowd through their evening at Glamorgan.

This isn’t just a matter of drawing out the most intimidating bawl the locals can offer their opposition. James links with the Communications Team’s work on screens and audio to try to raise the whole experience. He also conducts interviews and the like. We spoke at some length about the challenges and the need to be friendly, entertaining, professional – to in some way replicate the extravaganzatastic Sky Sports mode.

James is a free-lancer contracted in to cover the T20 games. He is not, however, a part-timer in terms of his commitment to and understanding of this unwritten(?) Glamorgan Visitor Experience project. People expect things. Crowds maybe in particular. Again, under pressure and in the spotlight it’s this young man’s job to project a kind of welcoming, entertaining Big League legitimacy. He nails it.

The Engagement Man.

Former player Mark Frost, most recently seen darting from The SSE Swalec in full black tie ‘n DJ kit to attend an awards night on Glamorgan’s behalf, is Community & Development Manager. He in fact splits his time between roles at both Glammy and Cricket Wales – it being decided a year or so ago that this literal joining of the two cricket clans would be beneficial to both.

Mark has been central to the establishment of a diverse but increasingly focussed web of activity aimed at increasing or strengthening the profile and presence of the game in Wales and (thereby) building support at Glamorgan CCC. This implies work over a spectacular range; from diversity projects to local club mentoring to sorting the blokes with the climbing wall.

Of course Mark is not alone in this. I’m singling him out partly because I have a photo of him dressed up to the proverbial nines – he collected another award for Glammy that evening, by the way – and partly because it feels like he is driving the policy towards brilliant engagement at the stadium.

I’ve not yet mentioned the 100 catering staff who were there on match-night last Friday, or the Activators, or the guys (players) signing autographs. Nor the rugby fellas, nor the receptionists battling with a failing phone system, never mind the folks whose job it is to actually organise and/or present the Glammy Show – those in Comms/Groundstaff etc. These people are all essential to the offer – the multiple award-winning offer that Glamorgan are making.

I aim to find out more about how things are decided; what the policy that I feel being played out so well looks like and where exactly it comes from. Meantimes I want to say a big thank you and an old-school-but-genuine congratulations to all those playing their part.