The ECB has launched its most ambitious project yet: a brand new entry-level participation programme aimed at boys and girls aged between five and eight.
For English cricket, scrapping to stay relevant in a cluttered world, the fight is on. Coaches have changed, new captains appointed and playing styles amended, all with the aim of reinstituting the national team into the heart of British sport. But it’s not just at the elite level where reforms have been needed.
The results of the ECB’s now-infamous 2014 participation survey sent shockwaves through the organisation. The number of people playing the game had dropped from 908,000 to 844,000 in a single year, an alarming decrease of just over seven per cent.
Another study a year later found that just two per cent of 7-12 year-olds rated cricket as their favourite sport – and when the same group of kids were asked to name 10 sports, a staggering 60 per cent did not even mention the game. Comfortably more kids recognised the American wrestler John Cena than Alastair Cook. It seemed cricket was becoming less and less relevant to the next generation of potential stars.
Now, belatedly, there are signs that the complacent, top-down approach of previous regimes – with its blasé belief in the marketing power of a paywalled England team – has been turned on its head.
It’s not before time.
What Is All Stars Cricket?
As of March 20 the ECB has launched its most ambitious project yet. All Stars Cricket aims to inspire 50,000 children aged 5-8 across over 2,000 clubs nationwide.
Parents will pay around £40 to sign their child up and in return each young player will receive a rucksack full of equipment and personalised stash. The fee has been market-tested and compares favourably with similar sports schemes. It costs clubs nothing to register, with the ECB reimbursing them £5 for each youngster who registers.
Each club will also receive a large bundle of free equipment to run the sessions, which will last for 8-12 weeks during the summer and be run by volunteers known as All Stars Activators, who will receive specific training from the ECB.
The initiative is the brainchild of the Australian Matt Dwyer, the ECB’s director of growth and participation, and a man who has already rebooted the image of cricket in his native country with a similar programme called MILO in2CRICKET.
During his five years with Cricket Australia, Dwyer adapted his professional experience in sales and marketing to the game he loves (he describes himself as a “cricket nuffie”) to oversee a marked upturn in growth: 1.4 million Australians took part in organised cricket across their 2015/16 summer.
“In the five years I was there [at CA] they took the game from the fifth favourite sport to the number one, doubled the number of kids playing and also got three times as many schools playing cricket. They did some really good things. But what really excites me is that I genuinely believe the plan we’ve got here exceeds anything we had over there.
“We have big ambitions to significantly grow the game and this programme is all about putting a bat and ball in the hands of more children at an earlier age. First and foremost, we want to make playing cricket a fun and enjoyable experience for children and give them a passion for the game to last a lifetime.
“What we’re doing with All Stars Cricket achieves two pretty critical things in terms of sustainability in clubs – bringing kids into your clubs and also attracting volunteers to help out.”
Spreading The Word
In recent months Dwyer and his team have been on the road, explaining to club representatives and members of the 39 county cricket boards exactly how the scheme will run. That twofold message is repeated everywhere they go: give children a great first experience of the game, and attract helpers to lessen the burden on over-stretched clubs.
Modern coaching theories and practices will drive the sessions, even down to the provision of non-specialist equipment such as beanbags and tennis balls to make the learning of what can be a complex game as accessible as possible.
The kids will also be rewarded with badges for achieving tasks relating to the basics of cricket, such as catching and batting, while they will also get unprecedented access to the stars of the English game, including the chance to attend Test matches and have professionals visit their sessions.
But while the All Stars Cricket package gives the impression of being solely aimed at children, it is the parents who hold the key to its success, and accordingly this is the biggest investment the ECB has ever made for a participation marketing campaign. The influential website Mumsnet has been enlisted to establish All Stars Cricket as an authentic option for parents to consider.
Mumsnet CEO Justine Roberts says: “We all know that kids (not to mention grown-ups) benefit from regular exercise, but finding fun new ways to get everyone running around can stretch parents’ ingenuity. We’re happy to be working with the ECB on their campaign to highlight ways to help parents find fun, sporty activities that their children will love.”
On top of this, parents will also be actively encouraged to take part in each session their child attends, while they will also be sent weekly ‘back garden games’ to play as a family at home, with a view to finding new waves of volunteers. “It’s an unashamed focus on kids and mums,” Dwyer says.
The programme has also received government backing. Tracey Crouch MP, minister for sport, tourism and heritage, says: “All Stars Cricket is exactly the type of programme we are keen to see more of. It is vital to encourage children to have a happy, healthy and active lifestyle from an early age. All Stars Cricket proposes to do just that and I’m sure parents will jump at the chance to sign their kids up.”
A volunteering crisis pervades through amateur cricket, as with most recreational sports. The aforementioned 2015 survey, headed by Dwyer, revealed a shortage of volunteers at club level, with many of those who did give up their time feeling burnt out, with their love for the game suffering. With the promise of plenty of support and training, and a strong online focus to fit in with busy work schedules, All Stars Cricket is the proposed panacea.
The programme has not been met with blanket support. Simon Prodger, managing director of the National Cricket Conference, a body representing 1,100 clubs across the country, many of them cash-strapped, fears the scheme runs the risk of squeezing the coffers even more. “I am very much behind any strategy that genuinely has the development of recreational cricket at heart,” he says. “I’m in favour of anything that is going to help bring more players to the game at any age. But I’m not sure that just creating another scheme for clubs that already have junior programmes to enter is going to do anything to develop participation.”
Nevertheless, the ECB are confident that All Stars Cricket will be a success and believe they will achieve their targets. Within weeks, over 2,000 clubs had signed up. Now the official public launch has taken place, parents are able to go online to register their child at a cricket club that works best for them.
“We have a pretty decent spread of clubs across all regions of the country with the aim of recruiting 30 children per side, although that is a flexible target as we realise that getting 10-15will be a success in some regions,” says Ben Walker, communications manager at the ECB. “It’s great that it is all coming to fruition.” The bigger tests are yet to come. It is no exaggeration to say that the game’s future is at stake.