With a huge grin that displayed a forest of teeth, Eaton Gordon threw the ball towards a lean 10-year-old girl called Rona. She followed it all the way and caught it neatly in her midriff with an élan that - on recent evidence - most England slip fielders could only yearn for.
Neither pausing for breath nor letting the smile slip, Eaton went round the whole group, firing tennis balls at them as though they were coming from cannons. He demonstrated a bowling action to them and he then went over to a larger group, split it into two teams and had their members hitting balls and running. Some of them hit it straight and a long way, some of them barely made contact. To a girl and a boy they all laughed - yes, even the fat kid at the back couldn't help it - because it was fun.
This was Chance To Shine in action last week at the James Watt Primary School in Handsworth, Birmingham. It is the ambitious project aimed at reviving cricket in state schools, a task that by and large requires the skills of resurrection rather than life support.
Its objective, seen as fanciful in some quarters, is to raise and spend £50 million over 10 years either to rejuvenate or reintroduce cricket in a third of English (and Welsh) state schools, some 6,000, by 2015. Launched a year ago, this is the summer when we will begin to know whether the initiative has legs.
"We were a horse without form last May," said Nick Gandon, director of the Cricket Foundation, the charitable but autonomous arm of the England and Wales Cricket Board, under whose auspices Chance To Shine operates. "But now we are a few furlongs into the race and travelling well."
The project is an example of how cricket clubs and schools can combine forces. It could not exist without clubs, who provide the coaches, but its reach is much wider. It is clearly doing something right. Of the 350 ECB focus clubs - all of whom have met certain standards - 250 applied to be part of Chance To Shine this year. Of those 100 were chosen and another 100 will be next year. Having been picked the clubs in turn choose the schools, who are then guaranteed four hours cricket coaching a week for 15 weeks. It provides a base of continuity and constancy for cricket in state schools which has not existed for a quarter of a century.
"There is something messianic about it," Gandon said. "To some extent we are looking to effect a culture change which goes beyond cricket and spreads into the significance of team sports and what they can do for everyone. The coaches are instrumental in achieving this."
Eaton Gordon perhaps embodies the type of coach they might be looking for, possessed of technical nous but with an ability and desire to transmit the joy of the game. Gordon said: "I had coached at clubs before but in schools it's different. You are talking to kids who may not want to be there and do not have much idea of cricket. But you want to give something to them all."
Of the £50m which the project has budgeted for over 10 years, it has now raised £9m from donors and another £2m from the Government via the Sport Foundation. It intends to raise another £16m of its own which the Government should match pound for pound.
Gandon and the project's cricket operations director, Wasim Khan, both have a missionary zeal about them. Khan, who is based at Edgbaston and learned his own cricket in Birmingham, is adamant that cricket can be part of young people's daily lives again.
The barely suppressed desire is to get cricket being played again in city schools. Hands-worth embodies that. Cricket will not have it easy. In last week's group at James Watt there was an 11-year-old called Kingsley who hit straight and long and bowled straight and fast, a natural athlete. He said he enjoyed cricket and Eaton's way with it, but that his favourite sport was still football. Eaton is working on it.
If the coaches are vital, so are the teachers. It is as though at James Watt all the ingredients have come together. Helen James, the head teacher, was as energised as could be by the regular advent of cricket and its ability to teach values beyond the mere technical.
Some clubs, who have large colts sections already, might have felt cynical about this project but they are being won over. "Some of the pre-existing schemes have not endured," said Gandon. "This will because it is specifically long term."
The early indications look good. It can work given the money and if it never produces an England cricketer (though they should look out for Kingsley) it does not matter. Eaton Gordon's smile is worth turning up for.Reuse content