By Richard Edwards
4th September 2023
As I write this, the Cornish weather is, for a change, playing ball.
Which is fitting, given the numbers of young budding players attempting to smash one into the English Channel in one of the many games of beach cricket taking place in this enduringly beautiful part of the country.
In pubs perched high on cliffs overlooking the sea, I catch snippets of conversations about the Ashes and the upcoming World Cup. The phone – when signal allows – meanwhile, consistently buzzes, telling of record attendances for many of the matches in The Hundred. In short, cricket is big news. Even though the football season is now underway.
The challenge now is for the momentum of a memorable men’s and women’s Ashes summer to be built on. And for the interest generated by the heroics of the likes of Ben Stokes, Tammy Beaumont, Zak Crawley, Harry Brook, Alice Capsey and Mark Wood, to lead to something tangible. Namely increased participation levels in boys and girls’ cricket at grassroots level.
Something Kate Cross, one of the standout performers for England’s women against Australia earlier this summer, hopes is eminently possible.
“You’ve got young girls in the crowd now, and you’ve got families watching – cricket isn’t just thought of as a boy’s sport, as might have been the case previously,” she says. “We now want that to translate into young kids – boys and girls – playing the game.
“It’s the norm that girls can now aspire to playing cricket professionally, but we need it to continue to be really easy and really normal for them to take up the game in the first place.
“When I was young my nearest ‘home’ club was in Sheffield, which was an hour and a half away. Now there are so many more opportunities closer to home. The grassroots side of women’s cricket is hugely important and clubs are now really making an effort to push that. If that continues then we’ll hopefully keep seeing participation levels rise.”
All-Stars, which was launched in 2017 with the aim of introducing 50,000 new cricketers between the ages of five and eight to the sport, has been and continues to be a resounding success.
Dynomos, which targets the older age group, was then announced as another flagship programme on the eve of the Covid pandemic in February 2020.
Both have succeeded in introducing a new generation of players to the sport. But, anecdotally at least, there’s a sense that a renewed sense of purpose is required to keep both relevant.
Down on the south coach, the head of youth cricket at one of the Hampshire’s leading clubs, tells the Club Cricket Conference newsletter that more clubs are now going it alone, rather than continuing to adopt the All-Stars model.
“We have run it for five consecutive years but in 2023 we decided we had enough players from last year to just run an U8s squad outside of All Stars,” he says. “Typically, we aim for 30-40 players in our U9 squad to maintain a pipeline of players through the older age groups, but having looked at our squad sizes for 2024, we already have 20 players in the U9s.
“The key point here is we’ve not suffered by not running All Stars this year, and we know we always attract new U9 players who have completed All Stars programs elsewhere.”
At the opposite end of the country, in the north east, Chris West, President of the North Yorkshire and South Durham Premier Cricket League, says that’s a trend that is being replicated.
“Some clubs are finding that it’s more helpfully financially to it themselves,” he says. “The youngsters love the branding of All-Stars and it was a great initiative. But I think the figures are plateauing a bit from what I’ve seen.”
The benefits of both programmes, though, extends beyond the youngsters taking up the game, as West explains.
“One of the main benefits of All-Stars and Dynamos is that clubs are gaining access to not just a new generation of cricketers but also a new generation of volunteers, which is a hugely critical aspect of running a cricket club,” he says.
“All-Stars and Dynamos encourages new people into the club. It’s also great for the female game. In my opinion, the Hundred has been outstanding for women’s cricket and it’s development and that’s reflected in the club game as well. Clubs are being far more proactive in developing girls and women’s sections.
“There’s still a real onus on the clubs, though.
“You bring the youngsters though the All-Stars and Dynamos but then it’s really down to the clubs to make sure that those players stay in the game and continue to play.”
West makes the point that, as far as he is aware, there is currently no monitoring system which can gauge how many players eventually make that move from the ECB-run programmes to become fully fledged junior members.
Asking the clubs to implement one would be another onerous task in terms of workload.
Back in Hampshire, the head of youth outlines some of the other limitations of the All-Stars programme.
“The kit and branding is good and the kids like it but the standard All Stars curriculum is quite basic and too limited for keeping 5-8yr olds engaged for a whole hour every week,” he says.
“We have always adapted it to make more interesting and dynamic, but we know how to do that because we have experienced coaches. That wouldn’t necessarily be possible with a brand new All Stars parent coach.
“The ECB also continue to take the majority of the registration fee (clubs get £10 out of £40).
“Yes, we can increase the fee by £10, but we could easily organise a young group ourselves and receive the full £50.”
It’s hard to argue with that
kind of logic. But while the sun is out, and the kids are playing, let’s
celebrate everything the programme has so far achieved. As with so much in
English cricket at the current time, what happens next is anyone’s guess.