Cricket: Some hope for England as the tempo quickens at grass roots

Cricket: Abundance of new initiatives but game must adapt to needs and requirements of education
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND MAY have plumbed new depths at Test match level this week, thanks arguably to an antiquated first-class structure and the inability of our batsmen to adapt from the one-day to the five-day game, but the signs are that, contrary to popular belief, from the neck downwards at least cricket in this country is still alive and kicking.

"From the Playground to the Test Arena" is the motto that has been adopted by the England and Wales Cricket Board in its efforts to ensure that the basics are in full working order, and it cannot be denied that there is an abundance of enterprising new initiatives, whether the product of the professionally revamped ECB itself or other organisations such as the Lord's Taverners or the Cricket Foundation.

There are still areas of concern, such as the provision for sport in the National Curriculum and the difficulties that youngsters from ethnic minorities, particularly the enthusiastic Asians, have in breaking through to first-class and Test cricket. But even this is changing and the appointment of Nasser Hussain as England captain ought to inspire others to follow Leicestershire's Aftab Habib into the England ranks.

If, given the miserable efforts of the England team not just this summer but over the past decade, you are starting from the assumption that the game here is rotten to the core, then some of the statistics and information supplied by the ECB will only be swallowed with a large tumbler of scepticism: nearly a million children at primary schools playing one form of the game or another, and nearly 800,000 at secondary schools for a start. But if you don't want to take the word of either Hugh Morris, the ECB's technical director, or Keith Pont, the national development director, then listen to Mike Edwards, development officer for the Surrey Cricket Board.

Edwards, a former Surrey player, does not deal in platitudes: "The main problem with cricket in this country is at first- class level and the huge hole at the heart of the constitution of the ECB," he says. "It's very difficult to make radical change with a constitution which inhibits that, and until the counties are prepared to relinquish some of their power nothing will change. But at grass-roots level the game is flourishing. I would say there are certainly more children playing cricket than there were 30 years ago, which is not quite the perceived wisdom. They may not be playing quite so much in schools, but there are far more children playing in club junior sections than ever before. In Surrey alone we have 130 clubs with junior sections that comprise anything from 50 to 300 children."

Kwik Cricket, the cost- effective, safety-first version of the game launched 10 years ago that spectators will see being played with a passion by youngsters during the interval in National League matches, continues to thrive at junior level and in the special needs environment. It provides an introduction to the game of sorts, although cynics will argue that if it is such a good idea we should be seeing the benefits already. Crick-e-Tec, a set of simple coaching aids developed in South Africa and demonstrated recently at Cricket Live 99 in Birmingham (the inaugural World Cricket Coaches Conference, an idea of which the ECB can be particularly proud), seems certain to follow in its footsteps.

The challenge of sustaining interest in secondary schools is arguably greater than creating it in the first place at primary school level, such is the variety of alternative attractions on offer, both curricular and extra-curricular. However Pont's department has come up with another new game, tentatively titled "Kool Cricket" or "The Development Game" which, like Kwik Cricket, obviates the need for expensive facilities and large chunks of teaching time and introduces the hard ball into the equation.

The main problem in all schools though is the cultural drift away from team sports and competition, which began with the selling off of playing fields and continued with changes in the National Curriculum which made sport no longer obligatory. "We're making some good headway," said Pont, "but I realise we have to change with education. Over the last 15 months we've begun to appreciate that cricket cannot stand on its own and say, `We're cricket, come and find out what the game is like.' It has to adapt itself to the needs and requirements of education. There is an enormous amount of pressure that teachers are under nowadays and sport is being pushed more and more to the sidelines. But it's no good us hammering our heads against a brick wall, we have to see how cricket can help to deliver the curriculum but also be a sport in its entirety. It's a balance between the two and we've got some very good people in place now to make sure that happens."

The pressure to produce good cricketers has inevitably shifted over the past decade towards the clubs, which are now being streamlined into a pyramid structure similar to that used by football in this country. Lower league clubs feed into regional Premier Leagues which, it is hoped, will provide a source of talent for the first-class game and subsequently the England team. Elsewhere there are encouraging signs for women's cricket; special needs cricket is being catered for to an extent; cricket in higher education is being overhauled; the whole approach to coaching is being radically revamped by the refreshingly positive Morris and his merry men; and even the sensitive issue of child protection has begun to be addressed.

For a totally dispassionate assessment, this is the view of Terry Jenner, Shane Warne's leg-spinning mentor who works at the Australian Cricket Academy and who also helps out at Sussex. "It's my second year at Sussex and I have to say that what I've seen there is terrific," he said.

"Enthusiasm, care and concern for youth cricket, and a definite programme to try and develop youth cricketers. I'd say the biggest problem in England is that there are so many clubs and so many players to choose from. But you can see the way that Hugh and his department are doing what they can to identify the talent all the way through. They've upped the tempo."

As far as the England team is concerned, the tempo now cannot be upped fast enough.

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