After one of the driest starts to a cricket season in Yorkshire, the pregnant clouds hovering over St Chads Broomfield Cricket Club signalled it was going to chuck it down; not a matter of if but when.
No matter….contingency plans had been made to book the St Chad’s Parish Centre next to the ground to make sure the cricket was definitely going ahead.
After all the hype and marketing, this Friday evening, off Otley Road in Headingley, was part of the nationwide launch of Allstars, the initiative from the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to encourage five to eight year-olds into cricket.
The Allstars concept is built around eight one-hour sessions at over 1,800 centres across England and Wales whereby many children will get their very first experience of the game with emphasis on it being fun, action-packed and involving parents.
Already 30,000 boys and girls have signed up including 2,600 in Yorkshire and that seems likely to snowball once word spreads and the momentum of this effort to turbocharge cricket participation steps up a notch.
There can be no faulting the ambition or scale. It makes Allstars the largest programme any UK national governing body has ever delivered in terms of its first year rollout.
Here in Yorkshire, the Yorkshire Cricket Board (YCB) has sought to drive interest in Allstars by going into schools along with popping up in shopping centres and at events like Le Tour de Yorkshire.
Tom Bates, All Stars Co-ordinator for the YCB (West and North), picks up the story:
“We’ve done some excellent work with clubs in local schools promoting assemblies and taster sessions to get that transition from school to club.”
Tom Bates, All Stars Co-ordinator for the YCB (West and North)
He added: “You see here today there’s loads of kids who’ve probably never even picked up a cricket bat before which is absolutely fantastic for the game and Yorkshire grassroots cricket.”
The way it works is that a child signs up (cost of £40) at a ‘centre’ (a cricket club) and that includes the eight weeks of cricket coaching but also a backpack with a cricket bat, ball, water bottle, personalised shirt and cap.
? | It’s been a busy week of @allstarscricket deliveries this week!
— Harden Cricket Club (@HardenCricket) May 17, 2017
What strikes me immediately as a lapsed cricket coach who began life coaching this exact age group many years ago is that there is a real sense from all I’ve seen on social media of coaches, parents and children all feeling like they’re part of something exciting across the country.
Unsurprisingly, the cricket kit is going down a storm – having all you need for a game at any time along with looking the part is not a hard sell…
The children buzzing around the outfield at St Chad’s and practising with their parents even before we start certainly looked chuffed to bits as they charged around in their sky blue shirts.
The cricket clubs who decide to become Allstars centres (200 in Yorkshire so far) get all the training they need so their ‘activators’, as they’re called, are able to deliver engaging, safe and inclusive sessions that ensure everyone goes away having enjoyed themselves.
Clubs also get the equipment and support to make these Allstars activities as good as they can be so they are trained on warmups, games and exercises and receive bats, stumps, soft balls, tennis balls, bean bags, cones, banners, ropes and holdall at no cost to them.
The obvious advantage to them is a young demographic, many of whom will go on to play junior cricket for that cricket club as well as encouraging parents and friends down either as members, volunteers or to just relax in a social setting.
Allstars is based on the Australian cricket scheme now called ‘MILO in2CRICKET’ that has doubled the number of children playing cricket and it is a central plank in the grassroots strategy being overseen by Matt Dwyer, the ECB’s Director of Participation and Growth.
Paul Berry, St Chad’s Broomfield Cricket Club Chairman shakes my hand and glances up nervously at the heavens.
It’s the kind of gloomy evening where ordinarily you might miraculously get away with a T20 or it might bucket down at any moment.
St Chad’s are a cricket club that routinely embrace new ECB initiatives wholeheartedly and are seeing the benefits of that with their involvement in T20 format Last Man Stands helping to swell numbers that now incorporate twelve senior and junior sides.
Membership has rocketed up – more than doubling in five years – and they have enthusiastically signed up as an Allstars centre and managed to enroll half a century of kids who have also been offered free membership of St Chads Broomfield CC to welcome them further.
For Paul, success came through getting the word out to the local community via Facebook and Twitter to Parent Teacher Association (PTA) groups and dropping fliers into the schools before starting an U7s squad in February as a precursor to the Allstars launch.
The hope is that St Chad’s can continue to increase their membership and also ensure depth of junior squads:
“We’ve had an issue with the older age groups…which alot of clubs have…so if we can get good numbers at each school year coming through then we should never have that problem again.”
You might think recruitment of eight year-olds is looking a little ahead of time but St Chad’s have a policy of beginning to select juniors for senior cricket at the age of thirteen so stepping back and having an overarching development plan over years seems sensible.
One day, Paul’s own kids might be in St Chad’s colours, George who’s seven and Stanley who’s five, both of whom are strolling confidently around in their backpacks as children stream inside and the session gets underway.
I’m curious to see if kids of this age know any of the England team and George reckons Joe Root is his favourite England player and, he adds with an enviable degree of confidence for someone yet to reach their eighth birthday: “I’m going to play for Yorkshire!”
While the parents sit around the edge of the hall, the warmup gets underway with the thirty or so kids turning over cones (‘Volcanoes & Craters’) before races while balancing a bean bag on your head and your bat (not as easy as it sounds).
A very distinct dimension to Allstars is the involvement of the parents who are brought into the action in a game with their children to try and hit a cone from ever-increasing distances with a tennis ball (also not as easy as it sounds).
It is a wild, chaotic hour that passes in a blink of an eye.
Everyone is involved and the activators do an excellent job of running things with a semblance of control given the challenge that comes with an impromptu change of plan and a premium on space.
This is not about honing the perfect cover drive.
Kids of this age don’t even need to know the rules of cricket because play is broken down into skills such as catching, throwing, bowling or batting.
After a brief demo, the children are divided into teams with a backstop at each station behind the stumps to field the ball while everyone takes it in turns to have a go at bowling.
As you’d expect, the resulting efforts varied wildly but to be honest, that’s half the fun…
Points are on offer for getting the ball in between two cones and more points if you manage to actually hit the stumps which are rattled quite a few times to raucous cheers.
You can spot those who are not new to cricket. There’s a girl who can already bowl at a very decent speed and has a fluid bowling action Fred Trueman would be proud of.
I get talking to one of the parents, Ian Sullivan, who has moved from Oxfordshire to Yorkshire and commented on how telling the infrastructure is here with cricket being played seemingly every day between May and September.
His son Eifur is four years old and when Ian’s wife saw an advert for cricket at St Chad’s Broomfield Cricket Club with their new under-sevens then they gave it a go and it has proved popular and led to involvement in Allstars:
“It’s been great…he’s standing in line waiting his turn (with the games as we do the interview)….he loves football and he can just run around but with cricket, you have to learn some discipline.”
Listening to instructions, hand-eye co-ordination, learning new skills, working as a team and encouraging each other are all really positive aspects to the sessions while Ian’s noticed the bonus of properly sized equipment that don’t dwarf Eifur:
“The bat they’ve sent us is much better sized and so that’s made a real difference. If you offered him an array of bats he’d go for the heaviest one and be unable to swing it!”
The Allstars backpacks with kit for every child encourages impromptu practice or games anytime and Ian notes that they play at home in the garden or on the drive using a bin as a wicket.
Eifur’s involvement at St Chad’s has been his first taste of cricket with winter training and now Allstars and whether it ends up being limited to these eight weeks or the start of something much longer, him and his dad both appeared to be in their element.
When the session concludes and parents and children begin to disperse, I grab a word with Mitch Lewis, St Chad’s Australian overseas player and Allstars Activator who has spent five years in Australia with the Milo project at his club, North Gambier.
So, how did the session go from his perspective?
“We got them running around, we got bowling in, lots of fielding and catching and they had a good time I think…the parents seemed happy…we’ve got seven more weeks to get out, bat and play a few games.”
Mitch hits the nail on the head when we discuss how the success of Allstars will partly be defined on people power – notably, the context of how many volunteers clubs can get involved and keep with competing priorities we all have in life.
Based on his observations of back in Australia, sometimes it was a struggle to source enough people but promisingly, St Chad’s Broomfield CC had six volunteers alongside the two Allstars coaches running things, (Mitch and Will) so there were plenty of helpers to reassure, offer advice and keep it entertaining.
As the number 1 bus eased its way through evening traffic back towards Leeds city centre, there was time to ponder over all the facets of Allstars and its potential to unlock a new generation to the joys of playing cricket.
It doesn’t represent a magical solution to all the game’s woes but as part of the ECB’s ‘Cricket Unleashed’ strategy, Allstars is already ensuring tens of thousands of children are trying cricket in an environment that should mean they get the best out of the experience and many will go on to develop a lifelong love of the game.
Sure, there have been grumbles, as there always are when something new comes along, with some clubs unhappy that it competes or clashes with their own existing junior coaching arrangements and others pointing out the lack of a ‘free’ or ‘pay-as-you-play’ option.
To them I’d say give it a chance first….lessons will be learnt from this fledgling initiative and how it sits amongst other cricket already up and running across Yorkshire.
It will surely be adapted based on feedback over time but it’s off to a really promising start in terms of participation numbers and the reaction I’ve seen from clubs, parents and most important of all, the children themselves.
So…what would constitute a success in five years’ time?
Tom’s view from the YCB centres on continuity: “I’d like to see the kids here enjoying their first experience of cricket still playing…It’s about creating that lifelong love of the game. If they’re coming back in five years, I think the Allstars programme has achieved what it set out to achieve.”
Not that there will be resting on laurels….growth in numbers will be a driver and a way of assessing the success of Allstars with scope for Allstars festivals with hundreds of children involved down the line.
But for tonight, it was all about children in Headingley looking like they were having a blast.
If you’re a parent looking to sign up, here’s all you need to know: https://www.ecb.co.uk/play/all-stars/
If you’re a cricket club interested in being an Allstars centre: https://www.ecb.co.uk/play/all-stars/centres
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