By Ian Pont
Having played and coached in the professional English cricket system, it’s always a challenge to work in an associates’ system that is lacking in both funding and a professional outlet. After 3 years as Assistant Head Coach with the Dutch national team to successfully qualify for the 2007 ICC World Cup, I have seen there are many factors that can genuinely help develop cricket. And now, with 3 coaching visits under my belt to the US plus numerous conversations with officials and those involved with playing and coaching, I see far more clearly how the US can help itself.
1. Stop The Politics
In any walk of life people are out to make a name for themselves, But when it comes to developing a sport, a far bigger picture is important. More than making speeches, it’s useful for officials and those involved with the game to actually DO things to bring young players through. Initially, it may mean losing cricket matches at various levels whilst people learn how to win. You will often find managers and coaches of teams just wanting to get their own personal record as good as possible and not think about how they can bring talent through. The game is all about being fair, reasonable and player focused. It’s never about administrators and coaches records even though they like to think it is.
2. Develop Players Correctly
Get a development plan, stick to it and see it through. The only way any country can make a sport attractive is to develop those who already play first, so the national teams that represent that country actually perform well. No media wants to cover a ‘minority’ sport where its teams are not playing at the highest levels. Or worse still when they do, they are heavily beaten. It would be madness to imagine that others are attracted to a sport where there’s no success, outlet for success, nor the opportunity to take the game up further after a young age other than for recreation. If cricket in the US is merely for recreation, it’s competing with activities that take far less time out of a day.
3. Coach Cricket Professionally By Developing 'Professional' Coaches
It’s worrying to note that so few high level coaches (or any recognised level coaches) work in the US or are involved with cricket in the US. It simply means that talent lies wasted, unfulfilled. The best players require the best coaching, or at least specialised coaching from experts who know how to maximise talent. And beginners deserve the chance of access to the best advice. Parents are keen to help but there’s a massive lack of coaching knowledge. A coach education program with an awareness of what’s required to bring lads through is vital. I have been lucky to coach at first-class and international level with players such as Andy Flower, Darren Gough, Dale Steyn and Shoaib Akthar, but most of my time is concentrated on Under 19’s now because this is where the most good can be done. For US to move forward, it must have coaches that can teach the professional aspects of the game – and on a regular basis - with a professional attitude to cricket.
4. Spend Money On Grass Pitches
As understandable as it is, playing on matting pitches does not help the US with its cricket. Yes if it’s all that’s available to get a game played then fine. Every region of the US should have at least a couple of grass pitches and funding for this must be made a priority. The US must seek to have two or three pitches that would be suitable for ODI’s. This means the US could host matches from larger countries. Most of the players coming through cricket in the US have little concept of how to build an innings due to the nature of the surfaces they play on and the type of cricket they play. It’s only when players travel to Test playing countries they realise just how different real turf pitches play. And however good a US player is, if he has played only on matting then he has little chance of adapting.
5. Look At Your Neighbours
Canada has shown the way. I was fortunate to go to Toronto with England Under 19’s as a player in 1979 to play in what was the forerunner to the current Under 19’s world cup. We played on turf pitches at Upper Canada College and it was a delight. Canadian cricket has done the four ‘must do’s’ listed above and continued with that over this entire time. And whilst Canadian cricket rises and falls dependent on the cycle of players, they have embraced some of the ‘professionalism’ required in attitude to develop the sport on a limited budget. Canada appointed the best available national coach for their ICC 2007 World Cup (former England Under 19’s manager and friend of mine Andy Pick, who is now ICC Associates Director for the Americas) to work for 3 years at the highest level and scout for and develop players within the system. Even on smaller budgets, there was real progress made. There’s an Associates’ success story in place on the US doorstep that would be worth mimicking, or at least reviewing and adapting.
My fear for the US is that the clock has been ticking a long while now. The rest of the world is expecting the US to step up and make cricket a viable option as far smaller countries like Afghanistan, Ireland, Kenya and Canada have done. The lure of the lucre from T20 cricket is lip-smacking. So the prize is a huge one. But it’s the longevity of cricket, which is important as much as instant success on the field. It’s a careful balancing act. What little money is available has to be put into cricket resources. And like any investment, it’s a calculated investment and not a huge gamble that’s required.
The urgent always overtakes the important. I just hope that the US can think about what’s important.
[The author is Founding Partner, Mavericks Cricket Institute (MCI) in UK and is the founder of ABSAT Coaching Methods. He has written two books on coaching - The Fast Bowler's Bible and Coaching Youth Cricket. Ian has made three coaching visits to the US in the last two years coaching on behalf of DreamCricket Academy.]
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