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King of the jungle

There are ten minutes left of the session. Parents are milling in increasing numbers in front of the pavilion. Grey clouds gather above the far end of the field. They look ready to join forces with the parents, chasing the players off the ground, into their cars and away home.

It’s been a typical session: my efforts at coaching have engaged some, been tolerated by others and steadfastly rejected by a few more. And I’ve miscalculated: the net competition and small team games have wound up early. My charges – twelve, thirteen years old – have detected my loss of impetus. Some stand or kneel beside their cricket bags, inadequate cover for some rapid, digital social networking. Another group improvise a game, with bat and ball, too close to the parents and younger siblings for safety. A couple of boys, outside of the main cliques, paw the turf with their trainers, avoiding eye-contact, suffused by teenage awkwardness.

I take the bat and ball from the game-players; issue some shouts to gain attention; then sparse words of instruction and I have an 180o arc of cricketers, in single rank, equally spaced, around me. I toss balls, which are caught and returned. Each player stands poised, with knees slightly bent, torso inclined towards me, hands ready to grasp and cup the ball. Matching the physical attitude is a unity of purpose, a keen attention.

I start to hit the ball with the bat. Jumping, one-handed, toppling forward, the catches are taken to the accompaniment of murmurs and calls of approval. The ball bounces off the heel of a hand. The unlucky fielder spins away and moves to the far end of the arc. Everyone else shuffles around. Brief celebrations and the focus returns.

The competition is to be the king, at the top of the arc, with the safest hands and the deepest drop should a chance be mishandled. This group has claimed the game as its own, importing from their biology class a crude hierarchy of existence, with the king at the top, then stepping down, through the animal kingdom, to the lowly, butter-fingered worm.

It is the pace, and the immediate risk and reward of this simple game that galvanise what had minutes before been a haphazard, distracted group of junior cricketers. And I’m transformed too, suddenly communicative and playful. I swap my role with a long-term king and join the arc at its low-point, ready to test my reflexes and accept the youngsters’ verdict.

The ten minutes are devoured. Spots of rain fall but are not remarked upon. Parents try to attract their children’s attention, to get them to withdraw from the game. Any let-up in the serving of catches is hooted and derided. Two more minutes, we agree.

The team’s match this week will pass without a single slip catch accepted or offered. The virtue of this game is immediate and is found in the smiles, boasts and camaraderie of a shared experience that will bring these youngsters back again next week to cricket practice.

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Called up to the front-line in the battle for the playground

allstarsThe suggestion that something big might be coming the way of grassroots junior cricket could be detected last year. There was a connection made with ECB’s new Director of Participation, whose appointment in 2015 was welcomed, but still seemed unlikely to impact directly on the cricket played by children in my environs.

From late 2016, as the upper echelons of the recreational game were ushered to hear the word and get with the programme, snippets emerged: a name, an age group, a new way of doing things we’ve all been toiling away at for years. Seats for the launch event could be reserved months in advance.

The show, now about half-way through its 20 stadium itinerary, reached my town this morning. Admission only came after a spot of queuing to identify yourself and confirm the precise spelling of your contact email. An enterprise that is prepared to make people wait so that it can collect key data accurately has an air of purposefulness.

Into the hall, we moved, to take tea amongst displays of All Stars equipment. “Look, they’ve rebranded the old Kwik-Cricket stuff,” observed someone close to me. It did look a little as though they had. And symbolically, that played to the scepticism that greets the new venture with the knowing nod that we have all been here before.

Then, jarringly, the presentation got under way with something unexpected. Not the Australian accents, but the challenge to cricket to win the battle of the playground. Maybe it’s the years of feeding off football’s scraps, a learned if unhappy submissiveness to that bulldozer of a sport. Or it might just be the choice of words. There’s nothing martial in my work with junior cricketers. Diplomacy, persuasion, bad-mouthing the enemy (football), but not warfare. That would be suicidal.

Yet, within minutes, these twin doubts – we’ve heard it all before and we’re being lead to a bloody rout – were dismissed. The first telling blow came from Matt Dwyer, who spent equal amounts of time identifying himself as a moving force in Australia’s Milo In2Cricket programme and as a twenty year cricket club volunteer. He is one of us (who’s one of them), who just happens also to be a marketing guru.

Then the video of primary school kids chattering happily about football and technology, but clueless about cricket. Holding a photo of Alastair Cook (CBE) wearing his England kit, one child guessed the subject worked at Waitrose, before folding up with giggles.

Followed up with the blunt tool of survey figures showing the irrelevance of cricket to our children. Alongside which, given the same prominence as the 60% of kids who don’t name cricket when giving a list of ten sports, was the statement ‘volunteer burn-out’. All Stars aims, Dwyer emphasised, to introduce new volunteers just as much as it is about more kids playing the game. They are not asking us to do more, and not as I feared, denigrating what we do, but summoning reinforcements.

The presentation, to several hundred veterans of junior cricket coaching and organising, continued to outline its research basis, its methodology, the resources and support structure that will make it happen. The battle-cry caught our attention; the campaign logistics showed that our national leaders are ready to commit troops and have a credible plan of attack.

In many parts of the country, All Stars may find a junior sport in terminal decline. In my area, it flourishes in the shadow of behemoth football. The challenge at my club, and the many like it, will be how to integrate this sudden arrival, signalled with a modern fanfare of radio ads and mumsnet coverage, without doing damage to the quiet and steady, or steadily expanding, club junior section.

I own up to one more reservation about All Stars. Its ambition is substantial. It aims to make cricket the popular choice of young children and their families. It wants to take cricket well beyond the point to which 10,000 clubs like mine could lead it on their own. And if it succeeds, cricket will be popular and my slightly eccentric obsession will be ordinary. I will be part of the mainstream.

I will just have to deal with that and make an advance on the playground, skirmish with football and computer games or, if exclusiveness is really what I cherish about cricket, take up crown green bowls.

Short pitch: that was the 2015 junior cricket season

No more volleys of texts to check player availability have to be sent. The cones marking out the playing area for a ‘skill-based game’ have been collected for the last time. A small group of youngsters wanting to know the score or when they’re batting has been hushed for the final time. The last waddling batsmen have had their pads and helmet checked and been questioned to verify they are wearing a box.

The junior season has finished.

Usually, the weather is dry and warm at this point of the summer, so we complain about the season ending just when the best time to play has arrived. This year, late July has been damp and chilly – doing a good impersonation of September, when it is easier to reconcile oneself to cricket rounding off as autumn makes its presence felt.

In 2015, I have concentrated on cricket with boys and girls in the under 9 age group. It’s the entry level to the sport, with a wide span of ability shown within most teams. In practice sessions, we try to find different ways of rehearsing the basics of the game. Repetition balanced with interest; grooving with competition. Matches are an extension of practice and are designated as friendlies without results being digested into a league table. Most matches progress without use of a scoreboard; the scoring itself can be inscrutable: start at 200, add runs, subtract x for wickets, etc. My team lost some matches so heavily that the precision of my scoring wavered late in the game. But at the end, the team still crowded around me find out if they had won.

Adult cricket, despite the wide span of the ground, is mostly played within particular corridors of activity, with familiar, recurring shapes to play. Under 9 cricket is free form. Two fielders, the bowler and batsman converging on a ball that settles in the middle of the pitch. A batsman, fielder and wicket-keeper rushing to reach the mis-directed delivery dribbling out towards what we know of as cover-point. The bowler, turning and speeding past a slower teammate to retrieve the ball from long-on and sending a throw bounding past the unattended wicket and down to the third-man boundary.

My favourite play of the year, for sheer devilment, started with the batsman swinging forcefully and missing the ball. The keeper collected the ball and stood with it in her hands. Everyone froze, except the live-wire at mid-wicket who sped to the stumps, whispered something in his teammate’s ear. Responding to this prompt, the keeper crumpled the stumps while her teammate withdrew back to the on-side. All the while, the batsman had been standing out of his ground. I gave him out. The fielding team’s coach, who was keeping score, rejected my decision. We all laughed.

Some other favourite moments of the season, in my role as father. My younger son, on his hard-ball debut, batting capably against bigger older bowlers bouncing the ball up to his chest. Then back in under 9 cricket, that same son, playing that rarest thing in junior cricket, forward defensive strokes to straight balls bowled. The highlight of the season was watching no. 1 son, when he was tossed the ball for the 17th over of an under 16 cup final with the opposition accelerating and needing nine an over to win. I shivered and squirmed with nerves, while he bowled full and straight, picked up two wickets, conceding 11 runs from two overs helping his team to a five run victory.

We are already planning for next season: teams, coaches, training approaches. There will be indoor matches in the autumn and after Christmas. A gradual build-up to another three months of texting players’ parents, setting out cones, dodging showers, hushing talkative kids, worrying about protective gear and playing cricket, wonderful cricket.

Short pitch: Radcliffe CC

IMG_1196Yesterday evening, I wandered around the boundary at Radcliffe CC, watching an under 16 cricket match. The play was of a good standard, but subdued. The two teams had played each other the night before in an exciting Cup Final and this match, despite having the potential to be a league decider, was passing calmly. The scene was peaceful, too. The ground, in bright evening sunshine, was still, belying its elevated situation to the north of Manchester, Pennine hills visible to the east. Family and players from both teams, sitting on the terraced benches rising up to the pavilion, chatted amicably.

The ground stands on the site of an old race course and was first used for cricket in the mid 1870s and has been in continuous use for the sport for 107 years.  For an urban-sited ground it is unusually spacious having not experienced the incursions from land sold for housing or from clubhouse extensions to earn the club fees from function room, bar or multi-sports facilities. The boundary, when the full field is in use, is marked by a narrow gutter and whitewashed low brick wall. There’s a low picket fence around one stretch of the field and whitewashed walls mark the club’s curtilige. The playing area shows devoted care that promises batsmen will get the full value of their shots. The outfield may be Test, let alone first-class standard. The square extends two-thirds of a central band running east to west across the ground. The tracks to the east, within 15 metres of the full boundary, are well worn, suggesting their use, not for junior matches but square practice with a mobile cage.

IMG_1204In the break between innings I climbed the steps to the pavilion bar. Charmed as I was by the ground, the bar brought even more treats. On a beam, above the picture windows looking out on the ground, that runs the length of the bar, were photos of each of the club’s professional cricketers. Worrell, Amarnath, Pepper, Sobers, Ramadhin, Pilling, Moseley, of those with instantly recognisable names. In an unlit corner, marked for sponsors, there was a sculpture of Sir Frank Worrell who had pro’d there from 1948-53.

As we drove away from the ground, I told my son that he had been playing at the club where Gary Sobers had played. “Was he famous then?” he asked.

“Oh, yes. He played Test cricket at 17 and held the record for highest individual Test score when he played here.”

“Why did he play here?”

I explained that there was very little money in the game for players before the 1980s and a professional in the Lancashire Leagues would be well paid for one or two days work a week. The key detail I didn’t have to hand, was that until the late 1960s strict residency qualification periods were in force for county cricket. For example, Bill Alley, synonymous with Somerset, spent five years playing league cricket in Lancashire before becoming eligible to join Somerset in his late 30s.

If Sobers had been born 60 years later,  he would still have been forced to migrate to make a good living from the game. But not to Lancashire (or Nottinghamshire), unless perhaps for a four week contract covering the final stages of the county T20 Cup, but to Bangalore, Brisbane, Melbourne or Mumbai.

Radcliffe is quieter and less vital than in the heyday of the Lancashire Leagues. The buildings and areas beyond the boundary are looking worn, but good attention seems to be paid to the bit of real estate that matters – the bit in the middle. The junior section thrives and, from my experience of watching three games, has depth and a good friendly spirit.

Next year, the club breaks a tradition of almost 80 years. Radcliffe leaves the Central Lancashire League to join the new Greater Manchester Cricket League. New clubs, fresh players and followers will have the pleasure of playing on and spectating at its excellent ground and pausing in the bar to take in its heritage.

Short pitch: an over

Just 1.1% of a full day of Test cricket; only 5% of a T20 innings. An over is the second smallest unit in cricket, but for a non-bowling cricketer, obliged by the format of a competition to bowl, it has the potential to be the period of time covering the transition from active playing to determined retirement. It lasts long enough for repeated humiliation that then echoes onwards for years ahead.

“You now,” shouts the skipper. The innings is short; the call inevitable. I trot towards the umpire, hand him my cap, and mark a short run-up, wondering if performing these conventional actions can somehow create an aura of bowling competence that will sustain me through the next six deliveries. That number, six, I put out of my mind. I know it’s a best case scenario. It could, with a mechanical merciless umpire, be infinite if I cannot control how I propel the ball. But even six deliveries, with these batsmen, could yield runs so richly that the game could be put beyond us.

Before any more thoughts can overwhelm me, as if approaching a cold pool for a dip, I step forward and send the first ball on its slow flight towards a violent fate. It’s straight and full. The batsman meets it on the half-volley and drives it swiftly to the left of our fielder (one of only four) at wide long-on. The batsmen run one, and there’s a call for a second. A powerful throw reaches the keeper on one hop, the stumps are broken, we shout, the umpire raises a finger. We cheer and congratulate. A new batsman comes to the wicket, takes guard.

So much has happened. The over should be finished soon, I feel. But, no, it has barely begun – five more balls required.

So, back up to the crease, getting this unpleasant duty done. Another drive sends the ball skimming straight past me to the boundary. The ball is returned to me and I wave the four fielders straighter. I should have done it at the start of the over, but the notion of setting a field for bowling that I feel I can barely control, seemed like tempting fate.

Here we go again, before my hand starts to tremble, a couple of steps and over comes my arm. I’ve managed to keep it full again, but this one is heading for the batsman’s legs. Down comes his bat, but somehow, probably through lack of pace, the ball evades it, hits his pads and bounces a yard or two into the legside. The batsmen run a leg-bye. My team-mates shout encouragement to me. I’ve made it to the half-way mark. It might be comical, these slow looping lobs, but I’ve not yet felt humiliated or put the game beyond us.

The tall opener is now facing me. Forward I go and launch another benign missile, which he steps out towards and drills past my left hand, ball bounding to the straight long-off boundary.

Not far to go now. I let a thought of technique into my mind as I move into my next ball: to pivot on my front foot so my chest rotates from facing leg to off-side. The tall opener clatters my next ball to my right. A full-length dive on the boundary cuts off the ball and keeps the runs down to two. I stop and applaud, relieved to be spared a boundary; embarrassed by the gap in quality separating my bowling and the fielding.

My finishing line, my summit is approaching. I don’t want to ruin things now. That sense of protecting something carries through into my action and, hardly possible one would think, I put even less on this ball, which floats along the 20 yards, descending towards the batsman’s thigh, in front of which he waves his bat and spanks it past the square-leg boundary.

“Over,” calls the umpire and I am released.

Short pitch: back in the nets

My Dad once (or twice) netted with Surrey. That was back in 1946 when he was a 15 year old school boy.

IMG_0955This weekend, 69 years later, he was back in the nets, bowling at his second grandson, who is aged 14.

The two stories seem equally as unlikely, but are as true as each other.

Short pitch: the Grade Cricketer

This is a post that needs writing now. In a matter of days, praise for anything Australian will come through gritted teeth. But this week I am relaxed and can write uninhibited by a live Ashes series.

Amidst the dense polyphony of Twitter, original voices are very rare. An original voice that, paradoxically, is that of an everyman is an inspired creation. The Grade Cricketer, like thousands of men around the world, plays weekend club cricket. His milieu is the changing room, the mid-week nets, the after-match trip into town. His world revolves around the match and his team-mates, jostling for status. So much, so familiar.

The Grade Cricketer’s achievement is that he is a macho chauvinist, who in the span of twitter’s 140 characters can both assert his base maleness and undermine it. He is dedicated to this sport and crippled by it. He is on show and yet pathetically self-conscious; boastful but under-achieving; a member of a team, without mates.

The nearest English equivalent is Dave Podmore, satirical seam bowler for various East Midlands county sides, who was always on the look out for some sponsored munificence. But Podmore’s world was gentle – English farce never did anyone any harm. The Grade Cricketer is in a harsh, realist drama and may just topple over the edge.

The Grade Cricketer is very funny. That’s service enough. He also reminds us that the game fosters selfish, brash, unpleasant men. At a time when we want a broader interest in the sport, the Grade Cricketer’s simultaneous exposing and ridiculing of those traits is an important achievement.

Short pitch: batting for the draw

I have played very little cricket where getting a result, any result is all important; and when I have, rarely has the balance of the game been tilted decisively at the half-way point.

“Just bat. Just don’t get out.”

That was the gist of the skipper’s instruction as I padded up, getting ready to open our innings after tea on Sunday. 270 was the target, but not one that I was being aimed at. 40 overs was my objective.

Whenever a Test team starts its second innings with nothing but crease occupation at stake, I pause for a moment to imagine being asked to bat and bat and carry on batting. Would it be liberating, to be freed from the pressure of scoring runs? Would you attain a focus and rhythm, with pulse suppressed and consciousness narrowed? Or would the fear of making a mistake cramp and sully what could be a pure exercise in staying at the crease, over after over?

I recall being involved in a rearguard for my club in the Kent League in the early 1990s. My partner and I were doing our honest best to suffocate the game. I have never been subjected to such foul abuse on the sporting field, or anywhere else, as I was by the fielding team that afternoon. I scoffed when I next came across that club, 20 years later, on an ECB sponsored video looking all prim and proper setting an example for involving volunteers in running junior cricket.

I may have conflated two matches, but I think I was eventually run out. I hit the ball to the pavilion boundary, where our players signalled a four. I was talking mid-pitch to my partner when the fielder returned the ball, the bails were removed and I was given out. I didn’t skrike like Ian Bell at Edgbaston. I was in the wrong: the umpire hadn’t signalled the boundary.

The invitation – the instruction – to bat as long as possible is then very rare. It’s a luxury to be revelled in; not an opportunity to spurn. But, not far below the surface, it feels self-indulgent. It’s the all you can eat buffet of the batting world, but with the risk, not of indigestion, but dismissal, unfulfilled, wondering how many runs you passed up. 

All this talk is cheaper than a first-baller. How did I do?

I edged the first ball wide of second slip for four. I recorded eleven more scoring shots: ten singles and a two. Wickets fell regularly at the other end and the bowling was testing, particularly the young opening bowler. I managed to calm my instinct to have a dash at anything pitched up on or outside off-stump. There was one exception: the ball after I fended a bouncer away from my throat, that instinct rose and I swung and missed by some margin a ball wide of off. Thereafter, for the final third of my innings, my shot-shyness was assisted by only being able to hold the bat with one and a half hands (see reason here). The rest of the time, I was content to stretch out into a forward defensive, watch the ball pass wide of the stumps, or deflect the ball off my legs. It was a challenge of concentration and technique.

There was plenty of chirping from the fielding team – all of which felt justified given my aim was simply to spoil their afternoon with my virtual inactivity. And they did seem happy, when with momentary carelessness I played across a straight, short-pitched leg break, was struck in front and sent packing. It was the end of the 17th over, I had scored 16 and hadn’t completed half of my assignment.

Our lower order held on for the draw – in doing so, playing some attractive cricket. I would be daft to deny there is great pleasure in that, but there’s also something to cherish in taking up the invitation to “just bat.”

Short pitch: Battle scar?

I’m not in the mood for much typing tonight. I returned from cricket with a sore thumb.

IMG_1108The question for you is, did I sustain this minor injury:

A: hitting my thumb with a mallet when setting up the stumps before the match;

B: fending off a bouncer;

C: shutting the car door on it when hurrying back to the house for my son’s spikes that he had left behind;

D: rolling the pitch covers over it when positioning them after the match.

Short pitch: Girl Guides cricket

While England were taking another step towards limited overs rehabilitation in the Twenty20 international at Old Trafford on Tuesday night, two tram stops to the south, there was another potential breakthrough taking place.

Recreational cricket in the UK is suffering a decline in participation. A priority action to address and reverse that decline has to be the encouragement of greater involvement of girls and women. At my local club, we had well-founded hopes that this could be the year that girls cricket takes off. A university women’s player has been running weekly training sessions; our club development officer is working in the borough’s junior schools; co-operation has been agreed between clubs in the area who are trying to establish girls cricket sections to enter joint teams in the county league; and we have the dedication of one of the club’s most experienced volunteer coaches.

Despite those good intentions and better actions, the girls membership has not increased. Raising teams for the competitive fixtures – for ourselves and the opposition – has become no easier. Murmurs that it’s a doomed enterprise, have been heard.

The challenge, I felt, was how to get a large group of girls to experience cricket in a friendly, unpressurised environment. From that large group, there may be a proportion who want to return to play again. A possible solution came to me recently when dining with friends, one of whom is a girl guide leader. With the help of my guiding friend and her colleague, we arranged for the whole group to come to the club for an evening of cricket activities.

So, on Tuesday night, three volunteer coaches, our development officer and an under 15 girls cricketer, who has completed a cricket activator course at school, gathered to greet the guides. The weather, on mid-summer’s eve, was warm and bright; the ground looked in peak condition.

The guides started arriving and the noise level increased. The guide leader raised her arm and there was quiet. We took over. Thirty girls, divided into three groups, took turns at a bowling activity, a fielding game and a batting contest. When one activity ended, the guides ran to the next station, where they peppered us with questions, before throwing themselves with a great sense of fun into whichever task was set.

After an hour and a quarter, parents arrived and we realised we had run out of time for what would have been the evening’s climax: a continuous cricket match. That we agreed, could happen next time. The guides were given details about joining the club and we will see if any take up the offer. Even if none do, then we have forged a relationship with another group in our community, who can help us in the future make girls cricket a thriving activity.

At Old Trafford on Tuesday evening, England nearly set a record for their margin of victory in a T20 international. Several miles south, we may have had records set for quantity of laughter and number of handstands on a cricket field.

Some of the girls said to us, “my brother plays here,” which shows they came thinking of cricket as a ‘boy’s game’. We may have moved them onto considering it to be a ‘girl’s game’. One day, we want cricket to be just ‘a game’.