This past week I've been talking to influential figures in Cricket Ireland and the Unions across the country to get a feel of the work that is going on to help sustain and grow the came here.
It seems that there is definitely a shift in emphasis away from playing 'the numbers game' around participation to a more strategic approach with club tie-ins and specific targeting of schools that potentially benefit clubs.
The below highlighted passage was written by me back in 2012, when Cricket Ireland were required by ICC and various government authorities to grow the game. I can't remember if this was under the Cricket for All or Making Cricket Mainstream campaigns but what I do remember thinking is "does anyone really believe this is the case?" As with all figures they can be spun, but Cricket Development Officers were travelling all over the country, delivering school sessions, but with little evidence that these plastic bat hit and run events were actually delivery any actual cricketers at clubs.
The rapidly-growing popularity of cricket in Ireland is showing no signs of slowing down, with junior participation numbers more than doubling in the past year. An amazing 24,654 youngsters are now playing the game in comparison to 11,955 in 2011, a rise of 105 per cent according to figures released by Cricket Ireland.
There was strong growth recorded throughout all categories in the survey undertaken for the International Cricket Council (ICC), with the overall participation figure for cricket standing at 40,414 - up from 25,170 in 2011 - an increase of over 60 per cent.
"We'd set ourselves ambitious targets but have surpassed those easily thanks to the magnificent efforts of the Irish cricketing family," said Cricket Ireland CEO Warren Deutrom. We're especially grateful to both ICC Europe and RSA, whose support has proven invaluable in this expansion. The game here keeps growing at all levels, and with the senior team performing so strongly on the field of play, the future of the game in the country has never looked better."
National Development Manager Tim Simmonite said: "I'd like to pay tribute to the outstanding work which has been carried out across Ireland by the Development Team. Their passion and commitment to growing the game is clearly evident, and these superb figures are evidence of that.
At the end of 2018 there was a controversial review that saw CI devolve responsibility for development of the game to the Provincial Unions, with the feeling that rather than a one size all approach each region could decide better which area of development they could best allocate resources too. It's fair to say the process could have been handled better by the governing body, but in the end it went through and in early 2019 the Unions got the funding to start appointing personnel.
CI Participation Director Elaine Nolan told CricketEurope that they fund Provincial Unions to the tune of around €800K. This covers not only staffing, but office/admin costs, basic programme funding, inter-pro event costs, which she explains enables Provincial Union's to spend the money they generate from clubs and other sources back into clubs and grassroots development.
One potential downside of CI's devolvement of development power to the Unions has been the loss of direction, given the autonomy of the Provinces, but Nolan insists 'there is plenty of collaboration and discussion on how to effectively support and grow the game as we move forward".
So, how does the game stand currently across the provinces? Latest CI figures show "the active cricket community sitting at over 50,000 made up of players, officials, coaches and volunteers."
Of course as stated earlier these figures need to be taken in context, and figures supplied by the largest and most successful union Cricket Leinster, by General Manager Philip Smith and his development team, illustrate this.
Out of nearly 36,000 player participants 5301 are playing in club cricket at junior, youth and adult level - just under 15%, so it would be reasonable to assume that out of the 50,000 cited by CI, an actual playing figure of around 7500.
Of course it's not all just about those playing at these levels, and Philip Smith explained how Leinster are growing the game across all the spectrum.
"We have a total of six Development staff (combination of full and part-time) who are as follows," said Smith. Brian O'Rourke, Development Manager (North Leinster) looks after the Fingal area and also the Boys Underage Representative programme, while Naomi Scott-Hayward, Development Manager (South Leinster) oversees the South Dublin area and also the Girls Underage Representative programme.
"Our other Development Officers are Fintan McAllister (Dublin City), Jim Stewart, (Dun Laoghaire Rathdown & Wicklow), Herbie Honohan, (Wexford), and Anne O'Meara (Meath). Each of these roles is funded on a joint basis by Cricket Leinster and the relevant Local Authority.
"Separately, Isobel Joyce is our Women's and Girls Development Officer and is focused on growing female participation across clubs and schools - this role is primarily funded by Cricket Ireland with support from Cricket Leinster.
"We covered circa 210 schools and 22 clubs in 2019 (boys, girls and mixed). Not included in these numbers is our Disability Cricket Programme which we run in partnership with Lords Taverner's Ireland, mainly focused on the delivery of table cricket sessions at Primary and Secondary School level. They were up by 104% from 2018 to 2019, from 194 in 2018 to 395 total participants in 2019. These stats were compiled from sessions in school settings and at camps as well as with community groups. Participants enjoyed a range of cricket activities including Table Cricket and active cricket skills and games.
"One of the highlights each year is the running of our District Competitions. With the growing numbers at youth level, boys and girls are given the opportunity to represent their District (Dublin City/Fingal/ South Dublin/Dun Laoghaire Rathdown) with games played in coloured clothing and using a white ball. These act as informal trial games for full Leinster selection, plus gives the participants a higher level of cricket to play and acts as the perfect 'bridge' between club and full provincial levels," added Smith.
"The School of Excellence clinics are very popular within Leinster and these have now been expanded into the Autumn period with both Fingal and Dublin City currently working with their underage squads on a weekly basis.The South African school exchange programme continues to assist our promising cricketers an opportunity to travel to South African and England to further develop as players.
While Leinster have a range of well-established structures, some of the other Unions are starting from more or less scratch as General Manager Peter McCartney explained.
"The NW in February 2019 started to employ Brian Allen as 'Club and Partnership Officer' with responsibility for club support, coach education, umpire and scorer development, and club funding, while David Scanlon is the 'Schools and Club Development Officer' responsible for school and club participation, developing school and club links and our youth participation programmes. Both these roles are funded through Sport NI and Cricket Ireland.
"Kathryn Rough, started June 2019, as 'Women & Girls Development Officer' and is responsible for increasing women and girls participation, developing female coaches and our girls' pathway programmes. She also works with David in our primary schools programme, coaching boys and girls. Kathryn is funded entirely by the NWCU through a combination of sponsorship and grant funding we have obtained."
"We have gone for very much a targeted approach around school to club links and want to build a solid base of feeder schools into the club structure. We are forming partnership with specific primary schools that will feed into our existing clubs. This has proven successful over the past 18 months:"
Although Covid has hit development hard this past six months, McCartney gave the following highlights: Hardball games in primary schools in the North West for the first time in over 10 years, a new NWCU Primary school tournament with 15 teams entered in the first year, the development of 'Smash It' an Under 9 participation programme which proved so successful that Cricket Ireland now plan to roll it out nationwide.
"The big statistic from this is that of the boys and girls attending 63% were from families that had no connection with the club or cricket - we are reaching out to new cricketers and new families for the first time in years. We want to build a large playing base at U9s and U11s to feed into clubs so that clubs are starting with a solid foundation," said McCartney.
He does acknowledge that all is not sweetness and light in the region with the women's game hit hard by the pandemic - just three teams finished the season, but he is confident that the work carried out by Rough - albeit on a part-time basis - will bear fruit in the years ahead.
"We have seen a 220% increase in Under 18 girls playing the game since Kathryn joined. Our U13, U15, U19 and U23 Warriors were all undefeated this season and we have up to 60 girls at U14 attending NW sessions. Kathryn has made a huge difference to our girls programme and in 4-5 years we will see a real impact on our Women's League and Cup Competitions."
The number of clubs folding in recent years has also been a major concern, but he is quick to point out the positive measures designed to help them.
"We have helped clubs access over £200k in grant and government support. We are also supporting out clubs on significant capital projects at Newbuildings, Glendermott, Bready and Letterkenny. 12 clubs achieved Sport NI Club Accreditation (compared to 1 in 2018). This ensures proper governance in clubs around committee structure, safeguarding, club development and succession plans. Newbuildings, Letterkenny and Maghera have all made considerable progress in the past 2 years.
"I think we have been very proactive in reviewing the existing competitions and not being afraid to put proposals of change to our clubs. Our revamped competitions for 2020 proved our ability to be innovative and come up with successful formats to suit our clubs - our playing numbers in 2020 actually increased despite the shortened season and Covid.
"We are moving to coloured clothing and white ball at all levels next season (men's, women's and youths) which will be a first in Ireland. Our competition structure is currently under review and we will be putting proposals to clubs next month for 2021 structures with the aim of retaining players, attracting back past players and creating new players. Our new T10 competition has helped to revamp midweek cricket. The feedback from clubs since March on how the NWCU have dealt with Covid has been very positive and I know how much work the staff put into making the season a success. We had 21 clubs all playing cricket and actually increased our playing numbers in 2020.
"An important stat to show just how important cricket is in the NWCU - we are the 3rd highest participation sport in the Derry & Strabane District Council. It is football, GAA and then cricket. No other council area in Ireland can say that and it shows we have a solid base to work from and the staff are working hard to support our clubs as much as possible."
In Munster there are currently no development officers since Jim Doran left after more than ten years in the role. However there were plans for two part-time officers to start last month with the role being split along a geographical basis. Funding for the roles were to be sourced from a combination of Cork Sports Partnership, Cricket Ireland and local Munster sources.
Like the other Unions there is to be a more strategic element to the targeting of schools within a certain distance of clubs rather than the scattergun approach which gained plenty of numbers in the participation column but very, very few actual playing cricketers making their way through to the clubs.
Former Cricket Ireland Board Member Peter Dineen bemoans the lack of a local youth cricket league where teenagers can compete against their peers rather than being thrown in at the deep end in adult cricket. There are obvious challenges given the size of the province, but certainly a Cork based competition should be achievable, even with a limited number of sides.
Current Munster Head Coach Ted Williamson is a driving force behind the emphasis on youth at his local club Cork Harlequins who adopted a long-term youth strategy which six years on is starting to pay dividends.
"We knew we were going to take some hammerings in the early days but we persevered and the improvement is there for all to see," said Williamson.
"The average age of the Harlequins side now - leaving me out - is 19. We have invested heavily, put a lot of work in, coached in targeted nearby schools ad given the young guys plenty of opportunities which is fundamental.
"The key is to have links and tie-in with clubs and that's what we have done. One area we need to do some further work on is the potential to tap into the crossover with other sports, especially hockey."
While talking all things development with Ted, I took the opportunity to ask him about the recent debate around the interpro series and Leinster's domination.
"It's no fault of Leinster they have been so dominant. We've seen it's not only in cricket but also in rugby and GAA given their size and resources they have. I can't see any way that any of the other unions are going to catch up with them.
"We had hoped when we started to have a home grown Munster side in five years. We have been getting closer but for various reasons we aren't there yet. Munster Heat competed last year in the Alan Murray cup and won all their group games including beating YMCA and Clontarf so that was encouraging.
"I'd certainly be in favour of a franchise system. It would be great for the game down here if there was a Kevin O'Brien, Gareth Delany or Andy Balbirnie as part of a Munster team. We've been starved of cricket and the public would certainly buy into that."
The NCU region's approach has been a hybrid one, with council funding demanding KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) be met, meaning they have to play a little of the numbers game as well as the more strategic approach now favoured by all. Callum Atkinson is the region's CDO, also liasing with the Ulster University, while Wayne Hughes is the School and Club Engagement Officer.
The NCU have been focused on building the capacity within clubs, schools, and communities to improve and upskill the workforce. In the off-season workshops and training within three crucial environments of club life were delivered: Club and Coach Development, as well as Coach Education. The 2019/20 Club Life programme provided 853 formal and informal learning opportunities to officials, volunteers, coaches, tutors, and teachers which will ultimately benefit clubs and schools in the region.
Existing school programmes that have been successfully running for 10 years include; the NI Kwik Cricket Finals and various Super 8 competitions for girls, and work has been carried out to expand the schools programme to deliver Fundamental Movements with Cricket to Key Stage 1 children, delivery in Disability Schools, and the recent T10 Hardball league for Primary Schools to bridge what can be difficult transition from soft ball to hard ball cricket.
The support of the Department for Communities and Ethnic Minority Sports Organisation NI has helped the NCU build relationships with communities in Belfast. With the support of the Community Relations Council, they are expanding this programme into other council areas in 2020/21. The next step and one that CDO Callum Atkinson acknowledges is critical, is to link these programmes to clubs to improve club membership and sustain the participation of ethnic minorities within the region.
Last year in addition to the recruitment of the two full-time Development roles within the NCU, they agreed that the duties of Simon Johnston, the Knights Head Coach, would be expanded into a full-time role
In addition to the Senior Knights Men's squad, Johnston undertakes coaching programmes within the Knights Senior Women, Emerging Knights, Andrew White Academy, NCU/UU Girls Academy and the talented players from the various boys and girls regional age groups squads.
Alan Waite speaks highly of the work carried out by Johnston, and his role in the setting up of the youth foundations in 2013 that have started to filter through the various youth Knights to the senior ranks.
"Simon was the driving force in the creation of the current regional development program back in 2013 and has intimate knowledge of all the players involved in the various squads.
"We as a Union were galvanized into action by the low numbers of NCU youth players in Irish squads and that has improved ever since alongside much better success at youth interprovincial level.
Waite acknowledges that there is great disparity at club level where Instonians and CSNI are leading the way, helped by strong links to schools with a strong cricketing tradition in RBAI and Campbell College.
In the women's game there have been great strides in recent years with an ever improving club scene, but accepts that there is still a long way to go to get to the level they wish in order to have more international representatives joining Cara Murray in the senior ranks.
There is obviously great uncertainty surrounding all aspects of funding at the minute, so one can only hope that development budgets continue to be a priority for the powers that be.
Over the next few weeks I'll be talking to the clubs to get their views on the state of the game and their priorities in the years ahead.