All Star Heroes Ready Inspire A Generation of Cricketers

28 Mar

“Dreadful man.”

I have arrived a little late to the conversation. “Sorry, who are we talking about?”

“John Lennon.”

“Oh.”

They say it’s never wise to meet your heroes. Put anyone on a pedestal and you are only setting yourself up to be disappointed when confronted with a more human reality.

And the higher the plinth, they might warn, the further the potential fall. I am still scarred from hearing my university professor describe his unfortunate encounter with the most iconic band member in musical history. Still, as he then went on to tell us with certainty the whereabouts of Lord Lucan, perhaps we had got to that stage of the evening where beer was beginning to play a more significant role in the conversation.

Going back a little further I recall my school music teacher telling us as how, as a schoolboy, he had approached the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams for an autograph only to be brushed aside with a flick of the hand and a dismissive “I don’t do that sort of thing, young man.” He might count himself lucky it wasn’t Bob Willis, however, who refused a youthful Jonathan Agnew’s request in far more forthright, not to say Anglo Saxon, fashion.

But, thankfully, there are exceptions.

The young Agnew’s experience notwithstanding, I can think of no other group of sportsmen more accessible and yet more patient, friendly and willing to oblige their supporters than professional cricketers. It may be a cliché, but in more years of following cricket than I care to remember I genuinely cannot recall an impatient word to a fan, an autograph refused or, in more recent times, a selfie left untaken.

And that extends to some of the biggest names in the game. When Sri Lankan legend Kumar Sangakkara turned out for Durham a few summers ago, before, during and after each match he signed, posed and shook hands with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of admirers, each wanting their moment with the great man, their own special memory to take away. It must have been wearing but not one was left disappointed.

I have a special memory too. In 2013 Ricky Ponting signed to play a few games for Surrey before jetting off to play in the inaugural Caribbean Premier League. A last chance to witness one of the all-time greats playing on British soil, I told my son, and we duly got our tickets for a Friday night T20 encounter with Sussex.

Also playing at the Oval that night was Glenn Maxwell, fresh from his million dollar, title-winning stint in the Indian Premier League with the Mumbai Indians.

“Mumbai fan?” he asked my son as he offered up his mini-bat for a signature.

“Yes,” said Douglas.

“Hold on then, I have something you might like.”

With that, he disappeared up the steps to the dressing room only to re-emerge with his Mumbai match shirt, fully signed by each member of the championship winning squad. Tendulkar, Ponting, Malinga, a veritable Who’s Who of international cricket.

“Just one more,” he said as he added his signature to the bottom. “And there you go. Look after it!”

That shirt now hangs on Douglas’s bedroom wall, and Glenn Maxwell – and every team he plays for – has gained a fan for life. And so, if it hadn’t before, has cricket.

But, although Douglas might take a different view on this one, he is one of the lucky ones, his love of the game sparked by a cricket-mad dad. But when it comes to reaching out to a new and wider audience cricket undoubtedly has a problem. A recent survey by the ECB found that only 2% of youngsters aged between 7 and 15 rated cricket as their favourite sport, with only 7% including it within their top two. Even more starkly, perhaps, when the group was then asked to name up to ten different sports three out of five did not mention cricket at all. And this, remember, is in England – ask those same questions in Scotland at the moment and the results are almost guaranteed to be even worse. 

Whether it is down to the image of the game or, far more likely, its lack of exposure after cricket on terrestrial television has been more or less absent for over a decade, these are worrying times. In another, less scientific, poll, primary school pupils in London were shown photographs of sports stars. They had no difficulty in pointing out John Cena and Wayne Rooney; not a single one, however, could name Alastair Cook.

The evidence is incontrovertible. Whatever the reason, cricket has a serious recognition problem.

But are we on the threshold of an answer? I am at the Edinburgh leg of a nationwide roadshow presenting the new All Stars programme, an ECB scheme for five to eight year-olds that will also run in Scotland under the direction of Cricket Scotland’s Development Team. It’s high-energy, all-action stuff, big on fun whilst teaching the essentials of the game with bright, innovative kit to grab the kids’ attention.

“All Stars is a potentially transformational new entry level programme for cricket,” Ian Sandbrook, Cricket Scotland’s Head of Participation, told me. “We believe it will provide kids and their parents with an outstanding first step into the sport and help create a generation of youngsters with a lifelong love of the game. We’re confident that if we get this right our clubs and sport will get a significant boost that will put cricket in Scotland into the mainstream.

“The programme develops nine out of the ten fundamental movement skills in a fun, safe and inclusive environment, with personalised kit delivered to the home of each participant.

“It’s a huge amount of fun and with the chance for the kids to rub shoulders with Scotland’s elite players, too, I am confident that All Stars Cricket will become the leading entry level sports programme in the country.”

It looks a winner, and it’s hard not to be swept along on the enthusiasm and passion of the team behind it. I left feeling genuinely excited over where cricket could go over the next few years in this country.

And it is that last point that catches the eye. Both the ECB and CS have positioned All Stars as the first link in a continuous chain leading from the youngest tots to the elite and are backing it with their biggest names. There will be All Stars events at Lord’s, kids press conferences and ‘money-can’t-buy’ experiences, with both the men’s and women’s teams in the front line. Here in Scotland there will be unprecedented access to big-name players for a new generation of youngsters ready to be inspired by the likes of Kyle Coetzer, Abbi Aitken and George Munsey, together with a significant level of support given to clubs by way of equipment and expertise to enable them to fully capitalise on it.      

As the lack of free-to-air cricket in the UK continues to bite, grabbing then keeping the attention of a new, young audience is ever more vital in the face of unremittingly stiff competition from elsewhere. But as much as the joy of playing the game it is the excitement of looking up to heroes that really clear the pathway to a young cricket fan’s heart. It is a vital part of the strategy and one that could pay rich dividends.

Heroes inspire like nothing else. Especially when like Glenn, Kumar, Kyle, Abbi and all the others, they truly justify their place on that pedestal. 

Jake Perry writes on Scottish cricket for Cricket Scotland and CricketEurope and is a regular contributor to HoldingWilley.com

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