For cricket in Scotland, as in every other corner of the globe, growing the game in the context of an ever more crowded leisure market represents the ultimate challenge. Whether through work in schools, one-off projects or initiatives involving clubs or community groups, attracting new participants to the sport is the prize that safeguards a healthy future.
It is the objective upon which Ian Sandbrook, Cricket Scotland’s Head of Participation, is totally focused. And having just received international recognition in the form of the ICC’s Best Overall Cricket Development Programme Award and with an ambitious new strategic plan in place, the affable Kiwi is confident that his team is on the right path as he looks to build on the solid foundations already in place.
“It was great to get that pat on the back but we’re also really honest and open”, he said. “We know that we’ve still got a huge amount to do.
“In the new strategy we talk about inspiring Scotland to choose cricket and we want to get that message out there to every part of the country.”
It is a message that will involve challenging complacency – and perhaps some pre-conceived ideas, too.
“Over the next three years we are looking to grow the number of committed participants in Scotland by 20%. I say participants because it’s not just about club members. Ultimately, yes, we want to grow that core group, but gone are the days when the only way to play cricket was to join a club.
“We’ve got to embrace that and be far more open-minded in how we approach things in the future.”
The ICC award recognised Cricket Scotland’s work in developing the game across the country through a wide-ranging series of initiatives. It is the work in schools, though, that remains the cornerstone of the programme.
“Over the past few years our community coach programme has been at the heart of everything”, said Sandbrook. “We work in partnership with local authorities and development groups, put in matched funding to get someone on the ground to do some coaching in schools and basically boost the profile of the game.
“We have partnerships right across the country and over the last four or five years the programme has developed to the point where there were over 50,000 kids involved last year. It’s broad brush, yes, but it’s unashamedly so because we have to get cricket out there. We need kids to see cricket, to experience it.”
And as that work progresses Sandbrook is looking to bring cricket much closer to the everyday school curriculum. The government directive that requires schools to deliver a minimum of two hours of ‘quality PE’ every week has – ironically – presented a challenge to be overcome.
“Some local authorities decided that our coaches provide physical activity but not as part of that ring-fenced time. In Dundee and Angus, for example, we’re not allowed to do curriculum time delivery. We can do lunchtime or after-school clubs, but for a sport like cricket, which doesn’t have the profile of football or rugby, why should kids sign up for a sport they have perhaps never seen before? We needed to find a way around that and our Curriculum for Excellence programme was the obvious solution.
“We approach it very much from the teacher’s perspective,” he went on. “If I put myself in the place of a young primary school teacher cricket is not going to be very high on my agenda. But what we’re saying to teachers is that this is about helping you hit your curriculum outcomes and deliver them in an easy-to-access way – we recognise that you’re under pressure so we’re going to give you a programme that fits with the curriculum at each level in primary schools, which is really simple to deliver, and all those preconceptions you had about cricket, that it’s English and snobby and cucumber sandwiches and boring and all that, well, actually, that’s not what it’s like at all.
“That for me is how we have to sell cricket and if we can get as many schools as we can buying in to that then we can bring about a genuine cultural shift in Scotland.
With the establishment of the Thriving Clubs initiative, Cricket Scotland’s approach to supporting the club game has also evolved.
“Thriving Clubs came about from us looking honestly at how successful our club development programmes had been in the past. And probably, being brutally honest, they were not very.
“The scheme approaches things from a new standpoint, one that is absolutely fundamental if clubs are to survive, let alone grow. We have to get clubs to properly engage with their communities. They have to ask themselves what the impact on their community would be were they to fold. Would anyone even notice?
“It’s a hard question to have to ask, but for cricket to survive we need the answer to be that the community wouldn’t sit by and let it happen.
“Connected to that is the Cricket Force event which is also about how you attract the community into your club, how you make your facilities more welcoming.”
Clubs are also asked to take a second look at how they are organised.
“We want to encourage behaviours in clubs which will help safeguard them for the future. The Club Awards are part of that process. We’ve got to recognise those people who have put in decades of fantastic service to their club, of course we do, but we want clubs to look at new angles too – the best use of bitesize volunteers, for example, the best community engagement, most innovative income generation, most welcoming cricket club and so on. If clubs start to look at how they are organised from those standpoints they will see a far more effective approach compared to how they might have traditionally been doing things. Having clubs that are more visible, vibrant and viable, those are our straplines.”
In addition to raising the profile of clubs, Sandbrook is also focused on exploring alternative ways to attract new players to the game.
“The truth is that not everyone who wants to play cricket wants to play it at a cricket club. Take Last Man Stands, for example. They started a Scotland franchise three seasons ago in Edinburgh with six or seven teams and that has grown to forty-four across Scotland today. That has to be telling us something about how people want to engage with cricket.
“As a participant in LMS everything is done for you, you literally turn up and play, and the experience the players get is high quality. That is why we’re behind it. There’s no commercial gain for us, it is about working with a partner who can help us to grow cricket. And if some of those guys filter into the club game, so much the better.
“Carrying on the development in the female game is absolutely crucial too. How many of our clubs have got female teams? There’s a huge amount of growth potential there, and everyone knows that having women involved makes for a better club.
“Of course, looking to grow all participation in club cricket is what we ultimately want to do,” he continued. “Someone who is involved in a club is going to be playing on a Saturday, volunteering, maybe coaching, buying a Scotland shirt and going down to The Grange to watch the team. Ultimately for the health of the Scottish game we will be far better off if we can get that transition from everything we are doing into our clubs.”
Overall the vision is clear as well as ambitious, informed by an honest appraisal of realities together with a willingness to learn the lessons of the past.
“The way we will grow club cricket, the inner circle if you like, is by growing the outer circle,” said Sandbrook. “You don’t grow that inner circle by trying to concentrate on it alone.
“I think historically we’ve done too much of that. We have concentrated on the same people too often when there are only so many of them out there.
“We need to be smart in how we use our resources and package our game. Over the next couple of months I’ll be getting out there to share the plan and talk about what we’re looking to do.
“I know we haven’t done that too well in the past. Cricket Scotland has maybe been seen as inhabiting some sort of ivory tower to be honest. We have sometimes got things wrong, absolutely,” he said.
“But if we can get across an understanding of what we’re trying to do as well as project some of our passion to everyone out there, I think we can get a real groundswell of support behind us.”