In 1999, the position of second eleven coach was added to my duties. It was ideal really, as I could monitor players from ten years old and upwards in Somerset and from the south west as a whole from fourteen and upwards. My role became quite varied. The academy was a daily winter coaching programme, as well as a form of junior Emerging Player Programme formed in 1998, based around one to one coaching. Sunday morning coaching sessions with Devon age groups at Plymouth College allowed me to see young Devonians progressing. During the season, the county second eleven programme allowed me to draw in players from around the West Country junior programmes. On rest days, junior games were aplenty, whether in Somerset, Devon or Cornwall, but particularly county festivals throughout the country. It was a tiring programme, but hugely fulfilling.
In 2001, I decided to take a break from Somerset. I needed refreshing. I didn’t realise how much until I bumped into Jos Buttlers mum eighteen months after I had left. I was watching a cricket festival at Kings College when I saw her. She remarked at how well I looked. I flippantly replied, “did I look that bad before”? To which she replied, “oh yes, you looked dreadful”. I had no idea. I also bumped into an ex-girlfriend who I had parted company with shortly before I left Somerset. She asked why I had left. I told her that I felt Somerset had been taking over my life, to which she replied, “it took you that long to realise that”! She wasn’t being angry, simply making a point. And she had been right.
I had loved my job at Somerset and it had been a privilege. I don’t think enough coaches realise it is they who are privileged to work with young cricketers, not the other way around. It is a position of great responsibility, where the players have to come first. It isn’t always the case. I recall a young cricketer from one of Devons age group county squads missing some winter training sessions. The manager wanted to drop the boy from the squad for his poor attitude. It later transpired that the boy had a broken leg. The manager hadn’t even bothered to find out, yet was willing to punish the boy. Obviously, communication could have been better on all sides, but surely the environment is run for the benefit of the boy, not the benefit of the manager? Sad stories such as this are more common than we wish to believe. One lad was even left out for not returning his availability form on time. By all means, fail his admin skills, but don’t punish his cricket. The good news though, is that both lads have progressed into excellent cricketers, with one still within the professional game, despite a broken leg hampering his development momentarily.
After leaving Somerset, I spent some relaxation time in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. Staying away from coaching was impossible though and part-time roles at Kings College in Taunton and Horowhenua Kapiti in New Zealand followed. In 2004 an opportunity arose in Mid Canterbury, New Zealand. A role combing CEO and district cricket coach. It was a new challenge and something I was totally unprepared for.
Having been involved in environments where numbers were never a problem, other than maybe too many, Mid Canterbury had a severe problem with numbers, which became apparent at an early age group selection meeting. It was announced that historically, one of the leading selection criteria was an ‘ability to breathe’.
In my first week, I was asked to take the under 19 team to the final day of their four day festival in Christchurch. I was asked to drive the mini-bus and meet the team at A to B Autos. I duly did so, only to see five lads waiting for me. “Where are the others”? I asked. I was told that they had stayed in Christchurch overnight, which sort of made sense. We drove to the ground and met the rest of the team. Before we started I felt it might be best for me to a) introduce myself properly and b) talk about what representing my county / district had meant to me and hoped representing Mid Canterbury would mean to them. As I spoke there seemed to be quite a few blank faces looking back at me. I continued though, finished and set about the warm-up.
As the day progressed, the guy (Richard Hayward – former team-mate at Somerset) that had been instrumental in placing me in contact with the Mid Canterbury board arrived at the ground. He was Director of Cricket for Canterbury and oversaw all development cricket. I knew him well, so wandered around for a chat. He asked how things were going and how I had found the group. I told him okay, but then explained that I had been taken aback by the lack of reaction to my Mid Canterbury ‘team talk’. He just started laughing. I asked what was funny. He then proceeded to explain to me that only five of the team were from Mid Canterbury. The other six had been drafted in from other districts so that Mid Canterbury could make up an eleven. The bottom line was Mid Canterbury were incapable of fielding eleven players at under 19 level. Oh s**t!
Not only was the cricket struggling for numbers, our finances were rock bottom. District cricket associations in New Zealand rely solely on funding from governing bodies and local trusts. New Zealand Cricket and Canterbury Cricket were withholding funds due to the lack of a development plan or a strategic plan being in place. The two Ashburton Trusts that funded all local sport were also reluctant to apply any more funding, due to the period of inactivity over the previous few years. Oh s**t!
It was a fascinating journey. The entire plan had to be targeted towards making cricket more visible and simply respected as a pastime. Forget detailed coaching programmes. Forget winning. It was simply a matter of creating interest. We organised T20 days involving Canterbury cricket. We developed annually renewable sponsorship programmes. We ran coaching courses. We identified support coaches. We identified other funding avenues. Yes, the journey was fascinating.
To cut a long story short, in 2007 the under 13 team finished runners up in the south-island festival, involving sixteen teams. In 2008 they won it. In 2007, the under 19s were runners up in the under 19 festival, with a full eleven of Mid Canterbury players. And in 2007, the Mid Canterbury Board announced that they were financially stable and the Ashburton Licensing Trust had authorised cricket the first 100% application payment in its history to any sport. We had come a long way.
It really was as simple as making the sport respected. We had an active / supportive board. No agendas, other than the betterment of cricket in the district. No agendas, other than recognising that cricket had to be of value to the clubs and players in Mid Canterbury. It was a massive learning curve and from being a coach involved in elite coaching, trying to identify future professionals, my eyes had been opened to a far greater depth to the game. And with that depth, success on and off the playing field is still possible.