All Stars Cricket: Why is it Failing?

This is a guest post by Danny Frankland – and first appeared at http://www.dannycricket.wordpress.com.  You can also contact him via Twitter @dafrankland

If the ECB wanted to attract new people to the sport with the All Stars Cricket programme, perhaps it shouldn’t be more expensive than existing juniors cricket coaching or almost literally every other single thing a kid could be doing instead?

For those who might not be aware, the ECB recently launched a new initiative which aims to reverse the decline in youth participation in cricket. Named ‘All Stars Cricket’, the scheme is designed to get 5-8 year old boys and girls to “fun” coaching sessions at their local cricket clubs. The parents pay £40 to the ECB a few weeks before the sessions start, and in return they receive eight hour-long training sessions and a backpack containing a personalised cricket top, a water bottle, a hat, a cricket bat and a ball. The coaching is carefully designed by experts to be help children in their fitness and hand-eye coordination, as well as being entertaining.  In addition, there are videos online featuring current men’s and women’s England players, and suggestions for cricket-based games the parents can play with their children in their back garden.

At the launch a mere 7 weeks ago, the ECB were suggesting that they were targeting approximately 50,000 boys and girls to take part. They had announced a collaboration with MumsNet, an influential parenting website, and promised a marketing campaign to extend All Stars Cricket’s appeal beyond the children of existing cricket fans. 10,000 children who sign up before May 10th will also be randomly selected to meet and play with current England players at various events around the country.

Matt Dwyer, the Director of Participation & Growth at the ECB who is responsible for All Stars Cricket, was on Test Match Special on Sunday talking about it. The thing which immediately jumped out at me during the interview is that he said it’s on course to have around 20,000 children participating this year. This is 40% of the ECB’s own target, which begs the question: Why has it all gone wrong?

Cost And Value

The first thing that jumps out at me about All Stars Cricket is the cost. £40 upfront is not a small amount of money for a lot of people. Apart from excluding children with poor parents, it also represents a gamble even for cricket-loving middle-class parents. If they sign up their child only for the kid to hate it and refuse to go back, the parents will have paid £40 for the backpack and one hour of training.

And what do you get for £40? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen cricket bats with balls in one of my local pound shops, as well as water bottles and caps. The personalised shirt and backpack might be a little more expensive, but not much. I’d personally be amazed if the ECB was paying more than £4 for every child’s full kit.

As for the coaching itself, £40 still seems a lot of money for 8 hours of junior cricket coaching. To take the example of my local cricket club, they offer a weekly 90-minute training session for under-11s for £2.50, plus an annual junior membership of £5. For the same money as All Stars Cricket, a child gets 21 hours of coaching. It’s presumably by the same coaches, teaching the same skills and probably in quite similar ways. Perhaps it seems like better value in more expensive parts of the country, but it’s hard to see All Stars Cricket as anything other than a rip off where I live.

An important thing to remember is that All Stars Cricket isn’t just competing with existing cricket coaching, if parents have £40 to spend on making their child happy they have much better ways to spend it available to them. They could buy at least five or six new DVDs for them to watch, which is almost certain to offer more than 8 hours of entertainment. They could buy a new console game for around £40, again you’d expect more than 8 hours fun from that. They could buy 40 cheap crappy toys from their local pound shops, way more than 8 hours of fun there.

It might seem like an oversimplification but if the ECB wanted to attract new people to the sport with the All Stars Cricket programme, perhaps it shouldn’t be more expensive than existing juniors cricket coaching or almost literally every other single thing a kid could be doing instead?

Forward Planning

The other obvious flaw I see in All Stars Cricket is that it requires forward planning by the parents. The whole training plan is based around the kit the kids will get in the backpack. Each one has to be personalised and then delivered, which obviously takes some time. If someone heard about their local cricket club’s All Stars Cricket sessions the day before they started, they couldn’t just drop their kid off on the day with £40. If a kid who has signed up enjoys it, nothing they can do could get their friends to join up until the next year. If a family has a holiday booked for one of the weeks, the child will miss out and potentially be left behind the other children taking part. And of course the parents will still be paying for the hour’s training that the child misses.

All Stars Cricket, like most ECB-run schemes, suffers from rigidity and over-centralisation. If a new kid turned up at my local club’s regular junior coaching session, they wouldn’t be expected to pay anything up front. They’d almost certainly get one free trial session to meet everyone and see if they enjoyed it. They wouldn’t need any of their own kit.  Kids who forget to bring their weekly fees or pay their membership are still allowed to play, with a gentle reminder to bring them next week. With more than 8 hours of coaching every summer, if a child is away one week they won’t miss out on specific skills they might need to play cricket at the same level as the rest.

I’m also a little curious what happens with a club’s All Stars Cricket programme if some of it has to be cancelled due to rain. Can the club schedule an extra week, or do the kids lose out on some of the carefully selected activities due to lack of time? Again, and I hate to keep banging on about it, I doubt the parents get a refund either way.

Marketing

I don’t have any children, so I suppose it’s possible that the marketing is great and I’m just not seeing it. Obviously people who are already active with their local cricket clubs will almost certainly be aware of All Stars Cricket. I’d assume there are probably articles about it in many local newspapers, and some clubs will have managed to put up posters, handed out flyers, talked at school assemblies and so on. The usual kind of local unpaid outreach done largely by selfless volunteers.

I’ve not been able to find any evidence of the collaboration with MumsNet which was much heralded at the scheme’s launch. The only things which show up when searching for “All Stars Cricket” on MumsNet.com are an invitation to the launch event in March and a handful of posts in localised forums. I honestly find it a bit embarrassing.

Beyond that, all I’ve seen are social media posts and articles by national cricket journalists. The thing about these is that they’re only going to be seen by existing cricket fans. For a programme which many people had suggested could reach out to children without a cricket-loving parent, I’m not seeing any evidence of the ECB even trying.

Conclusion

In short: The ECB (which tries to solve everything with lots of money, mediocre marketing and no understanding of the general public) has tried to solve poor youth cricket participation with lots of money, mediocre marketing and no understanding of the general public. I’m honestly a little surprised even 20,000 kids will sign up.

As always at the ECB, despite creating a colossal failure no one will lose their job. It was probably all KP’s fault. Or it was the public’s fault for not understanding what a great deal the ECB were offering them. Clearly no one can be held responsible for this, or is so incompetent that they need to be replaced.

Feel free to insult me, or the ECB, in the comments below.

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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Up and down the country, young people are picking up a bat or a ball for the first time.  It might be in the back garden, it might be in the local park, but at any given moment someone who will go on to be a cricketer is gaining their first experience of the game.  For most, it will go no further, a casual game with the family or friends, and a memory that will occasionally resurface through life.  For some, a few, it will instil a deeper affection for and love of the game itself.  Those people will seek out a club, will learn how to improve and will play on a regular basis for years to come, and perhaps even for a lifetime.

At some point will come a time for reflection, a wondering of how they got to that point and about those who played a part in it.  Family is often first and foremost, and perhaps it goes without saying that it was my father who first put a bat in my hand.  But that is frequently just the start of the story, there are many others who play an instrumental role in what follows.

A few years ago I received a text from my mother to let me know that one of those who introduced me to the sport had died.  He was an old man by that point, the circle of life I guess, but nevertheless it came as something of a jolt to the system to hear the news.  In our minds people stay the same, and particularly so as we move away from our childhood homes and lose contact with those who were present in those formative years.

Neil Duncombe was someone who was in the team when I first started.  The excitement of being in the Sunday 2nd XI for the first time aged about twelve or thirteen is a vivid and evocative memory, far more so than playing for my school.  Of course at that point playing involved batting somewhere in the lower order, making up the numbers and doing the running around for the older players (wondering why they wouldn’t make an effort in the field, only to discover 30 years later that they were making an effort), and realising that the boundary was a hell of a long way from the wicket keeper.  The contribution in terms of runs was minimal – to the point I can recall reaching double figures for the first time and considering it a substantial achievement.  Neil was already about sixty by then, his career was coming to a close and he spent the day stood at first slip imparting wisdom and the humour that is so particularly a part of the game.  Yet he was one of the gods of the team to my young mind, a proper player to whom I looked up who I would spend the tea break sat next to just so I could listen to him, and who showed me how the game should be played.  He had been a good cricketer too, and a lesson gleaned from that was that if a 60 year old is playing against you, then don’t see them as they are now, imagine how good they must have been in their youth to still be on the field at that age.

Nor was he remotely alone in imparting wisdom, the captain was a man called Mike Connell, not the greatest cricketer – although at the time I thought he was of course – but the one who worked endlessly to ensure eleven players turned out every week, who organised everything, who walked the tightrope of friendly cricket game management in terms of trying to keep everyone involved and happy.   He was also the one who after a couple of years asked if I’d ever thought about keeping wicket.  Of course it hadn’t occurred to me, but given it was abundantly obvious I was one of the worst bowlers anyone had ever seen (capable of reasonable pace but entirely unable to direct it even vaguely in the right direction) he rather pithily pointed out that being behind the stumps might actually lead to me offering at least some kind of contribution to the team in the field.  He took me beyond the boundary, lobbed the frankly rubbish and oversized club gloves to me and started throwing cricket balls.  That I remember clearly, along with the “OK, you’ll do” observation having watched me.

To that point I’d had no desire to do the role at all, batting was all I cared about and by that time I was developing and scoring runs.  Mike was also the one who to my shock told me one day I was opening the batting.  I scored 19 – hardly an innings to pull up any trees, but I batted for a fair while and came off to lots of smiling team mates telling me that this was my metier and that I was a born opener.   My wicketkeeping on the other hand had to be pretty much self-taught; in those days the idea of qualified coaches in a club was something of a pipe dream – even now finding those capable of teaching wicketkeeping is a rarity.  Nevertheless, with encouragement I learned and progressed, and it gave me the added bonus of now being stood next to Neil on a Sunday afternoon where he would tell highly amusing tales and periodically offer up pertinent advice.  He may not have been a wicketkeeper himself but he knew the game, and importantly he knew when to keep quiet, that advice can be counter-productive if it’s not from a position of knowledge.

Curiously enough his son Chris also would become a keeper (and in my adult life a good friend) and some years later we would battle each other for the position in the first team, with me being driven on by the fact he was usually the first choice.  I was much younger than him and I was learning – put simply he was better than me at that point, though naturally enough I didn’t see it that way at the time.  Besides, my primary role in that side was to be a batsman, first as one of those not quite good enough for the firsts and then moving up the order until reaching the opening slot where I would spend most of my subsequent career.

The third member of those seniors in the Sunday 2nds was the opening bowler, Derek Robinson.  A seamer who eventually had to stop playing when his back finally gave way rather spectacularly during a game; he was also supremely accurate, something of a boon to someone having to learn how to stand up to the stumps from scratch.  With the batsman’s healthy disregard for bowlers of all types, I probably had less direct interaction with him initially in a learning sense (after all, bowling was for lesser types in my mind), but his delightful disposition and humour made him a joy to share a field with and a source of wisdom about the wider game.  As my keeping developed so would his advice in that discipline and his study, usually from fine leg, became a valuable source of information.

Of course, it wasn’t too long before I outgrew the Sunday 2nd XI, progressing through the sides to the league teams, initially the Saturday 2nd XI and then the 1sts.  Runs came much more freely, wicketkeeping progressed rapidly, life developed and I moved away eventually to a new club in a different county who got by far the best of my cricketing career.  It is a deep regret that while their time and effort allowed me to develop into a reasonable cricketer, those at my first club never remotely saw the best of me on the field.

And yet.

Looking back now, everything in terms of my cricketing life developed from those few short years on the lowest rung of the cricketing ladder.  Those three people were hardly alone, there were numerous different ones at every step of the way, even when I was old enough to hold my own as a player at a decent level.  But nothing is so formative as those in the early years who encourage, advise, criticise and perhaps especially when they tell you off.  An opposition player did that once too; I don’t know who he was and never played him again, but one of his team-mates scored undoubtedly one of luckiest fifties I’ve ever seen, balls flying in the air just past fielders, edges past the stumps and so on.  Reaching his half century was greeted by us in silent disbelief, with one or two making unfriendly observations about good fortune.  But as with many friendlies, one of their players was standing at square leg umpiring.  He came in at the end of the over and quietly said “People have different levels of ability – this is a big thing for him, respect his achievement”.  That opponent may never have scored a fifty again in his life, but that was his day, and it was magnificent.

His comment is seared into my mind, I felt deeply and utterly ashamed instantly, and the lesson he taught my fourteen year old self remained me with ever since.  I would always applaud or acknowledge an opponent’s landmark from then on, no matter how fortunate it might have been, and that wise cricketer’s words were passed on by me to many a young team-mate in similar circumstances.  I doubt he would ever even remember saying so, but I cannot thank him enough for delivering that quiet, understated bollocking.

For here is the point:  Few are ever aware of the impact they have on other people, young people especially.   They would doubtless be surprised to learn of their part in it all.  Neil Duncombe even gave me my first set of batting pads, old-fashioned cane ones with buckles that provided limited protection to my legs, but they were mine and they were a gift from someone I both looked up to and adored.  Mike Connell made me into a wicketkeeper.  Just him, no one else; hundreds of stumpings and catches down to his decision on a sunny day.  What made him do that, I have no idea.  Derek Robinson taught me how to improve, how to get better, and how to have fun on a cricket field.

I never told them.  Oh dear God, I didn’t tell any of them, not these three, not Paul Brook – a modest cricketer but a great man, not Martyn Cobb who taught me that cricket is a game that rewards thinking, not one of the many others I could list who weren’t my father yet who did so much.  In at least one case it’s now too late, and for the others I don’t know where they are or if even they are still around.  These people were instrumental in my cricketing life, yet I was far too self-absorbed with the arrogance and certainty of youth to realise it at the time.  They taught me everything, they gave up their time – yes to have fun, but also to guide, encourage and teach a young player about both the game and about life itself.

Everyone reading this will have had the same kind of experience;  it might be in cricket, it might be in any other sport. It doesn’t even have to be within a sport itself, for we all have those who have made the difference to who we are.  These names mean nothing to all but a very few, but you will have your own who do.  Tell them.  Express to them what they did for you.  Tell them how important they were, thank them for being who they were and what they did.

Before it’s too late.  Before you fervently wish you had taken just a moment to do so.

Community Service

In this part of the world, and for a certain category of person, April is a special time.  The arrival of spring in itself can warm the soul as well the skin; the profusion of life, the sound of birdsong and the explosion of colour signifies new beginnings.  Yet for some, a small collective, it suggests something rather more.

Across the world, the dates may change, and the climate may be very different, but the principle is identical, and the approach of the cricket season brings out the same mentality and activity wherever it may be.  For those who care start to get ready.  That might include players, who went to indoor nets in January and February, but it also includes all those who do the legwork, who prepare the fixture lists, who seed the grass on the ground, who put up the outdoor nets, who re-wire the pavilion or remove the mildew from the showers.  Those who spend the first part of the month repainting the picket fence outside the pavilion, or who have silently spent the winter ensure the square is ready – year in, year out.  Who go on courses to learn how to do it better, who wince every time the ball bounces badly.

When April itself arrives the same group of people then plan the coaching evenings for the kids, in full awareness that many parents regard this as free babysitting, and they do so on the off chance that one in twenty of the children who turn up may fall in love with the game and therefore could go on to be a playing member for the next thirty years.  They do this even though if that player becomes exceptionally good, they will leave and go somewhere else to play a higher standard.  Possibly and potentially, that might include the county programmes, meaning that all their hard work goes not to their club, but to the wider game.  They will joke that what they really want is a good young player who isn’t very bright, who won’t go to university and who will stay in the area.  But they know they will, and they know they will lose them.  But they pay it forward, in the hope their club will benefit from the hard work someone else put in somewhere else.  The circle of mutual support is a wide one.

And then there are those who have had their cricketing career, who captain the Sunday 2nd XI, batting at number nine and standing at slip, not enjoying their lack of contribution, frustrated at their waning powers, but deeply aware it was done for them in their youth.  They get little thanks for it, and may well be dead before the 40 year old they introduced to the sport thirty years earlier fully realises what he did for them, who then laments that they never told him quite how important to their life he was.  It was a he, mostly, but in decades to come it will be many a she too.   It already is.

Or there are those who despite their full awareness of the affectionate contempt in which the players hold them still volunteer to do the scoring, a thankless, dull task at the best of times, hated by most, loved by a very few.  They may have no cricketing ability at all, but choose to be involved and choose to help out.  Perhaps instead they go on an umpiring course, to give up their weekends to annoy players by being human and getting a decision wrong.  Come September those same people will compile the annual reports, with statistics, averages and club records.

A further subset go and watch a county match, aware of their small band of fellow travellers with whom they are often on first name terms, despite little in common but a shared passion for a game that passes most of the public by.  They go when the weather is cold and grey, and they go – and are joined by a few others – when it is warm and sunny and the appeal of a cold pint with appropriate on field background entertainment is available – the crack of ball on bat, the cries of fielders as they appeal for a decision to another who has given up a substantial proportion of their life to give back to the game they were brought up with, and who are able to make a modest living from doing so.

For five and a bit months across the country, this pattern prevails.  Some make the teas, traditionally they are tea ladies, more recently not so much.  Many will have little interest or concern, but will drive past a village green filled with cricketers and know that a traditional element of their national character is being played out in front of them.  Like Morris Dancing, they may not wish to be part of it themselves, they may even sneer at those who do it, but it is a precious part of national consciousness.  John Major was laughed at for his references to it, but as definitions of a desired national character go, there are many worse that could be chosen.

Each week the same group, always a small number of people in any club, go through the same process.  They prepare, they work, they give up their time for no other reason than a deep seated love for a sport.  Even within their own organisation there aren’t enough of them, they do several jobs not just one.  Sometimes they may get frustrated at the lack of respect they get for the contribution they make, but they do so not for fame or fortune and not for recognition, but because it needs to be done and if they don’t do it, then who will?

The rarefied atmosphere of the highest level of any sport is a world away from the day to day that makes up virtually all of the game.  Yet professional sport relies on the amateur to a far greater extent than the other way around, even though they both need the other for it to flourish.  But take away professional cricket, and the game would survive.  Take away amateur cricket and there is simply no game at all, which is why the dismissive behaviour towards it remains one of the more despicable attitudes pervading the corridors of power.  They deny it, but all involved know it is there – the ECB won’t even give the “recreational game” as they put it, elected representation to their organisation.  That is the reason this band of brothers and sisters quietly get on with things, with little help, and less interest from above.

These people do it all.  They are the backbone without whom nothing, nothing at all, would exist.  They are a minority within a minority, they provide everything and in return get little except perhaps personal satisfaction for making a contribution to society.  They are denied the right to even see their chosen sport at the top level without paying again for the privilege,  they are belittled and even laughed at.  Decisions are taken that make their lives just that little bit harder, and their response is to give even more time, and make even greater efforts, for no reason other than they feel it is the right thing to do, and that it matters.

Cricket is a sport first and foremost.  It isn’t a business, and it isn’t the opportunity to make vast amounts of money.  That may be a by product for a chosen few, but it is not the driver, it is not the raison d’etre, and those who behave as though it is should be ashamed.  Those who allow it to happen should be even more ashamed, for they could speak up yet do not do so. They betray the work done across the country, across the world, to provide a background for all those who care little for their efforts to exploit.

These are the obsessives.  The fanatics who move heaven and earth to ensure there is something for successive generations to complain about.  They do it in many different ways, from the park in the city centre to the village Common.  They support, morally and financially, all rungs of the game, and they provide the base interest that in turn creates the next level, be it County Championship, T20 or 50 over.

Yes, Mr Harrison, they are obsessives.  Every single one of them.  And you should get down on your knees and thank them for their very existence.  And so should we all.

Lost in Space

It’s been a fair while since I’ve  written a piece, and it’s been like an itch that needs scratching.  The last few months have been fairly manic with work, but after next week it should be a quieter period, just in time for Christmas and then January and February, which are my easy months of the year, comparatively.

I’ve also been doing some research on a bigger post to come, and have notes scribbled all over the place.  Picking the right time to do that is perhaps the biggest question.

The approaching series is the one in South Africa, historically always one of the marquee series, and thus one where excitement is building, right?

Hmm.  Over the last week we had the nominations for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and the observation that despite a truly fantastic year, Joe Root was missing from the list.  It was also pointed out that at the same time, a woman footballer was on there, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued.

From a couple of cricket writers.

From the wider public there was the sound of complete indifference.

Now, the reason for me apparently picking on a female footballer there was deliberate.  You see, not only are those matches visible on terrestrial television, but it goes further than that.  Participation in female football has been growing rapidly in the last few years, and in the next 12 months or so, it will exceed the male participation in cricket in this country.  Add to that the higher viewing figures for the Women’s World Cup, and realistically, why should there be the slightest objection or even query?  By these measures, women’s football is simply more important to the English people than cricket is.

Is it really?  Probably not, yet one of the defences the ECB puts up to cricket not being on terrestrial television is that it is available on Test Match Special on the radio.  Yet here we have an Ashes winning year with one player across the calendar year proving genuinely exceptional and becoming the number one batsman in the world, and he wasn’t included.  But the fundamental point is that people do get missed off these things, that isn’t the story – the total indifference to it is.

Few would argue that the SPOTY award is more than a bit of fluff, yet it is symptomatic of the decline in interest in the sport generally that Root being left out didn’t cause a storm of outrage, instead it wasn’t even noticed.  Go to the pub, sit at the bar, raise the subject amongst those interested in sport and see what the reaction is.  There’s a slight raising of the eyebrows and a response of “oh yes.  That’s true”.  This is more dangerous to the game here than anything, when the sporting public don’t even realise until it’s pointed out.

When this debate occurs, the question of terrestrial television coverage is always rejected with the line that the drop in revenue from doing so would be a disaster for the game, and that terrestrial coverage wouldn’t suddenly change everything.  This is true, yet it is what it always has been – a complete straw man argument.  No one is arguing that it is a panacea for all ills, it’s a deep seated concern that there won’t be much of a game to support at this rate.

Ah yes, but crowds remain excellent and there is strong demand, so the story goes.  Yet this year there were day one tickets available for the Lords Ashes Test, on the day of the match.  Trying to find this kind of information out from the ECB is nigh on impossible, and so the supporting evidence for this assertion is a simple one – I looked at the Lords website and went through most of the process of buying one to see if I could.  It’s unlikely there were many, but the point is there actually were some.

Let’s just think about that; day one tickets, on the day, for the Lords Test, of an Ashes series.  And England had just gone 1-0 up.  Cost is a big part of this for certain, the exponential increase in ticket prices and the gouging of supporters by the ECB (funny how the huge rise in income for the ECB hasn’t held ticket prices down) has probably reached a point where a substantial number of those who would go simply don’t solely for this reason. Yet the alarm bells should be ringing loudly, and the biggest concern is they don’t seem to be.

It didn’t help of course that the Ashes series itself was such a dreadful one, five completely one sided matches with barely any drama or uncertainty beyond the first day and a bit.  But to counter that, the two Tests against New Zealand were truly magnificent, cricket as entertainment at its best.  It still didn’t make much difference.

With most specialist interests, there’s the matter that anyone writing or talking about it is doing so in an echo chamber, the only people who react or read it, or argue back are those who have the same interest, and thus it can be talked about at great length, entirely oblivious to the fact that no one outside of it cares.  This is where cricket now is.  The national press do cover the game, but if the Sun stopped writing about it (tucked away four pages in from the back) would anyone care?  Would anyone outside of the few even notice?  It seems unlikely.

Out of sight, out of mind is the most dangerous state for any sport to reach.  For decades the lamentation that football has taken over the national consciousness at the expense of cricket has gone up, but it’s gone way further than that now.  Rugby union is miles ahead, notwithstanding the England team gloriously completely the full set of the three “major” team sports all going out at the group stage of their respective World Cups (the football team’s failure is positively superb by comparison with the other two), in fact rugby league probably is.  Cycling, tennis, athletics – they all now have a much broader appeal than cricket does.  It’s nothing more than a minority interest, and the slump in people playing is as good an evidence of that as anything else.

If you were to visit some of the London parks, the removal of the cricket pitches by the councils is something that has been highlighted over the last few years.  Yet a question that is never asked about that is what if the councils are right?  What if they have removed them not just because of the expense, but because no one really cares if they do?  It’s not like it was met with strong protest, more like quiet grumbles at the way things are going.

The national team is the pinnacle of any sport, and also the showcase of it.  For all the talk about the dominance of the club game in football, nothing pulls in viewers or captures the imagination like the national team doing well – younger readers may need to ask a parent – yet despite the defeat in the UAE, the England cricket team had a reasonable enough year post World Cup, and for most of the wider public, it simply passed them by.

A South Africa tour should be highly anticipated, England don’t win there often, and despite the hosts comprehensive defeat in India, it will be a stiff challenge.  But will anyone notice?  Will anyone even realise it’s happening?

The wider ramifications of the ICC power grab are yet to unwind, the complicity of much of the media in allowing that to happen with no objections or investigation as shameful as it ever was.  But the bigger issue right now is the game itself, and where it is in this country.  And for the first time I am starting to truly fear for its future, not just at the top level but throughout.  The mendacity and self-serving nature of the avaricious ECB is a subject to which we will return time and again.  The danger is that it reaches a point where even when it’s put in front of the public, they still couldn’t care less.

 

 

State of Play

The gap between Tests reduces to some extent the frenetic nature of the media as far as cricket goes, and allows a little time for reflection about where we are more generally, and how we got here.

Although it’s fairly rare to offer up any praise for the ECB (for the simple reasons that they tend to both incompetence and duplicitousness, which is rarely a good combination), it is worth noting that Women’s Ashes matches have been scheduled for between the men’s Tests.  For once they have it right, as it’s far more likely to gain attention that way.  It says a fair bit about the ECB that the overriding reaction to seeing such a piece of consummate common sense is surprise.  Generating that interest creates a feedback loop, as shown by Sussex announcing that the T20 at Hove is nearly sold out.

The rise of women’s cricket in England is a fascinating development.  It’s one that the ECB pat themselves on the back for an awful lot, and it has to be said they have played a significant part in that, although women’s participation in what were traditionally male sports has shown a significant rise across the board, from the success of the football team to the way the women’s Six Nations is now covered on television and gets decent crowds.  In rugby, the RFU have gone as far as to schedule some matches directly after the men at Twickenham, something the ECB have also done beforehand with some England games, and with the same kind of success.  As a means of allowing the more casual supporter to watch, it’s obviously highly successful.  But what it also means is that cricket is not a discrete entity in this; women’s sport is gaining an attention that would have seemed highly unlikely a generation ago.  Quite why that might be is a little hard to pin down, much of it being for sociological reasons as to the acceptability of women playing such sports – good to know we’re in the 21st century at last.  The ECB are entitled to be pleased, but when seen in the context that the number of women playing football is shortly to overtake the number of men playing cricket, it raises as many questions as it answers about their role as governors of the English game.

Nevertheless, whatever provided the catalyst, and whatever the context of cricket more generally, the ECB have certainly played their part in helping growth in women’s cricket.  Free kit has been distributed to clubs, and free coaching and umpires courses provided for women who wish to make use of them.  That does represent something of a contrast in how it is for men wishing to do the same, and the costs involved tend to be significantly higher (and with less given back) than the football equivalents.  Many clubs offset that cost themselves, in order to encourage their members to gain their qualifications, but it is still a lot of money.

What doesn’t get mentioned much (and here the ECB aren’t alone by any means, it is taken for granted across both sport and other walks of life) is that any success requires people on the ground to volunteer and give up huge amounts of time to help encourage people to play the game.  The decline of schools cricket is often cited as being disastrous in this, yet in comparing what was available 25 years ago to what is available now, the clubs have more than filled that gap.  As someone who attended a cricket playing state school, the coaching was non-existent (and the county paid little attention to the state schools there anyway – in that little has changed) while only one local club had a thriving youth section – indeed only one local club even tried to create a thriving youth section.  Moving forward to the present day, it is truly astonishing to see medium sized clubs having colts evenings comprising up to a hundred youngsters of an evening, and a plethora of qualified coaches to help them.  It is, of course, enlightened self-interest from the clubs; shorn of a supply of schoolboy cricketers, they are producing their own.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that for a child who has shown an interest in cricket (therein lies a different debate), the opportunities for playing are now markedly more plentiful than they were in the 1980s.  So far so good, with the obvious concomitant opportunities for cricket more widely.

With both boys and girls cricket, those volunteers are the heroes and heroines.  Many clubs simply decided they wished to create a women’s and girls’ section, and worked ridiculously hard to try and make it work.  Many male players will be familiar with making up the numbers in the initial stages until sufficient players of the correct sex were available.  It is there where the ECB provided some support, a little of it directly, more of it via the counties.  Let there be no mistake, that support was and is critical, but it is still the uncredited hard workers that form the backbone of every cricket club who have made it happen, almost always unappreciated higher up in the game.  The ECB and the counties have been facilitators of an existing desire, not the creators of it.  Given the sheer number of clubs it couldn’t be any other way, but that’s where the balance lies, not in initiatives from the ECB.  Like any organisation, self-justification is part of the marketing, but agreeing that they deserve some credit is not the same as allowing them to take it all.

There is another side issue that affects both male and female youth cricket, and that’s the way funding and support is channelled through the counties.  Girls cricket provides a fascinating insight into the methods of boys cricket as well, given that it was essentially a tabula rasa upon the foundation of the structures.  Some of the counties are excellent, and it’s striking how many cricketers at the top level they are producing, notably Durham.  Others are not.  There is sufficient anecdotal evidence that some counties wish to work with a very small number of clubs in their Premier League alone, and ignore the rest.  That manifests itself in pushing even 12 year olds of promise, boy or girl, to the big clubs in the county, where they can be watched by the county structure.  The frustration for the majority is that there is little point in focusing on producing the best players they can, if the first time they come into contact with the county, that county tells them to leave and go somewhere else.  It becomes a parasitical relationship rather than one of mutual support.  Now of course, as that youngster develops, there comes a point where they need to be exposed to the highest level of club cricket possible, if they are to make it to the professional ranks, and every club is – or should be – fully aware of that.  But that isn’t what is occurring in at least some of the counties, they are attempting to hoover up every single promising player and divert them from their home club at the earliest possible age to a bigger one.  If this was happening to a tiny village club with one eleven, you could almost understand it, but it isn’t, it applies to clubs who are playing in the county league cricket structure and by any measure are good, strong cricket clubs.

The Sky Millions question is: how widespread is this?  It is dangerous to extrapolate anecdotal experiences with reality, but it is a complaint heard sufficiently to cause deep concern.  The trouble is that few people have direct experience of multiple county structures, so one that doesn’t behave in this way would be seen as doing things extremely well by those living in a “good” county without being aware of the circumstances elsewhere – and vice versa.  In at least some of the counties, and perhaps more, the club game is treated as something of a hindrance, except as a means of extracting the best players out of it and into the arms of the county.

That attitude towards the clubs at the ECB and the counties is evidenced by the complete lack of representation of the amateur game within its own governing body.  It is striking that the much maligned FA has much greater representation outside the professional game than the ECB does.  A cricket club needs to be affiliated to the ECB but has no power of influence over it.  There is a single representative from the recreational game on the board, and that one person wasn’t elected by any clubs, but is an appointee.  Equally, there is little or no oversight for how a county fulfils its obligations to the clubs in its area, which means it is reliant on them doing so in the wider interest rather than their own.  The clear decline in participation can be for any number of reasons on an individual level, but when there’s a pattern more widely, questions need to be asked why.  It would be easy to point to the loss of terrestrial TV coverage, and undoubtedly that will have played a part, but it is much more complex than that.

Where this has relevance as we move up through the levels of cricket is in terms of affecting the quality of the player base from which the counties and then England can select.  As has been pointed out on a number of occasions, up to seven of the England eleven are public schoolboys.  In some instances they are scholarship boys, quite possibly because of their cricket prowess in the first place.  This isn’t a class based point, or a political one, but the reality is that with 93% of children going to state schools, there is clearly an enormous wastage of basic talent.  That has to be balanced with the reality that with excellent facilities, the public schoolboy has likely far better access to cricket as a matter of course.  It’s not an either/or and it’s not a straightforward criticism.  What it is though, is extremely careless to have failed to make the most of the vast majority, in a way that football tends to avoid.  And that’s without taking into account the worrying lack of Asian talent making it to the top level given the proportion of club cricket that comprises.  The clubs are developing young cricketers in greater numbers than they ever have before, athought there is inevitably wastage as they grow up, and inevitably some parents will regard it as a useful form of free babysitting.  The volunteers and the clubs themselves are more than aware of that, but do it anyway because of the small percentage who will stay with the club into adulthood.  If the clubs themselves are providing the basic numbers, then at some point as the standard increases, they are falling by the wayside as a proportion of the whole.

With the Edgbaston Test approaching, the dropping of Gary Ballance for Jonny Bairstow has been accompanied by a sideline that there aren’t too many alternatives to choose from.  There is obviously the pachyderm hovering which must not be mentioned, but even in that instance, the point of origin for that player is South Africa.  Since he arrived as a 19 year old off-spinner, a strong case can be made that he learned to become the player he was in England rather than anywhere else, yet the formative years weren’t here.  Indeed the same applies to Ballance himself who learned his cricket in Zimbabwe.  The county system itself looks in both directions, both up to England level and down to club level.  If done well, that link can be invaluable, if done badly, it’s a matter of self-interest rather than the greater good.  England are always going to have some input from places like South Africa for obvious historical reasons, the number of overseas British passport holders is enormous, and the county game offers the potential for a good living.  Some object to the importation of such players who then turn out for England, but given the rules, which are stricter in England than they need to be internationally, there is nothing wrong with England choosing them, and in any case someone who moves across the world to make their career as a teenager is clearly a driven individual.

No, this isn’t about the use of such players per se, but why it is that without them England would be so markedly weaker, why we aren’t producing enough players of the requisite standard ourselves, and why we don’t produce the exceptional players that other countries seem to.

A little over a year ago, an article appeared in Cricinfo from a father talking about the experience of his son, who hadn’t been part of the age group sides, but had developed later on his county trial.  For those who missed it, it is well worth reading again in its entirety:

http://www.espncricinfo.com/thestands/content/story/717821.html

On its own, a single article like that means little, but the trouble was that it very clearly chimed with a great many others.  It was a small article, somewhat hidden away, and within the depressingly small confines of those interested in cricket, received a lot of attention.

Even if they can still think for themselves, they won’t be allowed to if they want to progress. Their whole lives will be structured by a battalion of experts for every eventuality, and should they speak up against it, they will be labelled “a divisive influence”, “a rebellious individual”, or most worryingly of all, “not a team player”.

The relentless focus on fitting in with what those above wished, the intolerance of individuality, and the requirement for a player to be coached to meet the narrow definitions of the approved cricketing path, rather than trying to get the most out of them is a complaint heard all too often, even in the national set up.  This is the other side of the coin from the counties themselves trying to drive the direction of youth cricketers from a very young age.  A child whose parent resists the push to move to a bigger club at an early age is already risking being marked out as part of the awkward squad, with all that entails.

Recently, he trialled with a first-class county, and after a single session lasting less than three hours, he was left injured and demoralised for more than a week afterwards. The injuries were because the session seemed to be less about cricket and far more about physical punishment. If a bowler failed to hit the cone, hurdle or pole that was acting as a target in the drill in question, he faced punishment. If a batsman failed to hit the bowling machine ball back between the cones provided, he would face punishment. If a fielder failed to complete the drill faultlessly, he would go back to the queue, because for the second half of the session, fielding drills were the punishment.

Allowances in that particular article need to be made for someone being a father to his son; the trouble was the lack of outrage from other counties, and the lack of anyone coming forward to say that it was an entirely isolated incident.  Indeed, just the opposite, with even some coaches lamenting that their own experiences in the centres of excellence mirrored it exactly.  Few allowances are made for players developing at different rates in the first place, if anything it was something of a surprise that an older player who hadn’t been through the county process got as far as getting a trial in the first place.

There’s a degree of irony in this.  When England talk about “executing their skills” ad nauseam, what is clear that those skills form a smaller part of the development of young players than might be thought.  English cricket – and the clubs are no more immune to this criticism than those above – has a terrible tendency to focus on what someone cannot do rather than what they can.  It is indicative that it is somewhat hard to imagine a Steve Smith, with a highly unconventional technique, making it to the top level without someone trying to force him to do what everyone else does, and probably failing.  A wise man once said that the skill of coaching was to ensure a player became the best he could be, and that doesn’t mean making that player fit in to preconceived ideas and micro-managing every aspect of their lives beyond the nets.

The danger for women’s cricket is that this template is being duplicated at every level.  From a low base, this probably doesn’t matter in the immediate term, but it seems too much to hope that lessons are being learned.

None of this should be seen as a criticism of the selection of Bairstow, his record this season merits consideration, and he is clearly steeped in cricket from birth, both directly and indirectly.  It is a matter of closing the circle from the lowest levels on the village green to the Test arena, whereby England are able to select from the widest and deepest talent pool available.  Whether it is the bowling attack, or the batting line up, the cry that often goes up is that is all too samey.  Yet this is hardly surprising given all the above.  Talented players are pushed the same way, to the same circumstances, and the same end result.  And ultimately we end up with an England team where the batsmen tend to be very similar, and so do the bowlers.  It is perhaps unsurprising in that context, that the county who are often seen as creating a template for producing players who exist on their own merits – Durham – are also the one who create players who reach England level that have quirky personalities and techniques that have been largely left alone.  It is furthermore disappointing to see that someone instrumental in that, Graeme Fowler, felt the need to stand down in protest at the direction the university cricket centre was going in.

In recent times one of the more striking things about the England team has been the peculiar joylessness in their play.  If the likes of the article above are true about how the various development centres are run, it is unsurprising that this would be the case, players pushed in a certain direction from a very young age, forced to operate with narrow parameters lest they be considered unable to toe the line or form part of the group, and prevented from expressing themselves in their play.  Of course, the New Zealand series showed that this doesn’t need to be so, yet the last Test showed worrying signs of a reversion to the mean, although a single match shouldn’t in itself be viewed as any kind of trend.  The challenge for Trevor Bayliss and Paul Farbrace would then be far more extensive than simply to allow England players to express themselves, it would be to undo half a lifetime of being trammeled and restricted.

This doesn’t mean for a moment that those players in the England set up are therefore unhappy, but it does take a particular type of person to operate in the kind of environment cricket in England works in.  The problem is not those players who have made it, but those who have not.  How many talented players are lost at every stage due to it?  Falling by the wayside is inevitable, not making the most of what you have is criminal.   Whether at 12 years old or 25 years old, a one size fits all approach cannot work, it simply produces those who are pre-disposed to fit the prevailing culture.  And that’s all very well, but you end up with an England side who are the products of that, with all the limitations therein.  One of the most striking things about l’affaire Pietersen is that he so plainly didn’t fit into the box into which the ECB wanted to put him.  When that same perspective pervades the entire game, then suspicions start to arise that the ECB itself is a major part of the problem.

It is highly unlikely that the ECB are doing anything except that which they feel to be the best overall.  But the tail wags the dog, with the counties having the overriding power.  Where this ties in as at both ends of the game’s spectrum.  The wider club game is often viewed as a chore within the counties, hence the desire to compact it to as few clubs as possible, while the England team is not the focus except inasmuch as it benefits those counties, especially financially.  That being the case, from youth to senior professional, the counties play their role well, producing significant numbers of county level professionals, of whom England select the best at playing county cricket.  The trouble is, that is not the same as producing the best possible players.  And this is completely inevitable, because although some would doubtless protest at the way they are being painted here, any organisation will gear itself to the promotion of its primary aim, irrespective of what they might say that aim is.   How that translates in terms of the financial distribution of the money brought into will be the subject of a future blog.

Women’s cricket is in an expansion phase where there is optimism about the direction in which it is moving.  But by doing it the same way as they are with the men, the potential for the same shortcomings is clearly there.  The men’s team will play the best available team (with arguably one exception) who will do the best that they can.  But why they are the best we have is a subject that reaches right the way down to the park and the village green, and ultimately, England get what they have worked for since the players were children.  The problem is, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

@BlueEarthMngmnt