ECB hope new All Stars initiative can arrest cricket's decline among children
The ECB are to launch an ambitious project designed to attract a new generation of supporters to the game.
With evidence suggesting the sport has slipped to something approaching irrelevance in the eyes of children (research suggest pictures of wrestlers are more recognisable to children than England's captains and that only 2 percent of children between the ages of 7 and 12 rate cricket as their favourite sport), the ECB hope that the All Stars Cricket scheme will inspire around 50,000 new cricket lovers in its first year.
The nationwide initiative, which is based upon the Milo Cricket scheme pioneered in Australia, is aimed at children between the ages of five and eight. Parents will be required to pay £40 per child (the ECB are understood to be exploring the possibility of providing financial aid for families in need) for which the children will receive a rucksack full of kit and eight weeks of introductory sessions at a local cricket club starting in May. Clubs will receive £5 for every child that signs up and will be encouraged to run summer camps in the school holidays as part of ensuring a lifelong involvement in the game. The ECB hope around 1,500 clubs will sign up to All Stars in its first year with each club attracting at least 30 children.
If all that sounds familiar - and many clubs do already run such admirable schemes - the emphasis of All Stars will be more towards enjoyment ("competition without exclusion," as the ECB call it) than some comparable courses. There will be no hard ball or full-size pitches, for example, with bean bags used instead of balls for some, with progress badges awarded as skills such as 'catching' or 'hitting' are achieved. Instead of coaches, 'activators' will run the sessions and children will receive emails from England players congratulating them on their progress. As other commitments allow, there will also be personal appearances by England players as the ECB build on research underlining the value of "heroes" in inspiring a new generation of cricket lovers.
But it's the method that the ECB will use to reach this new generation of potential players and supporters that differentiates this programme. Determined to reach beyond cricket's normal audience, the ECB plan to invest heavily in advertising - the scheme will, for example, be pushed on popular radio stations around the time of the school run - while they also hope to agree partnerships with various lifestyle publishers and websites such as Mumsnet. They are also expected to announce a celebrity ambassador - likely to be a woman with young children - in the coming weeks. Research has convinced the ECB that it is, in general, mothers who make most of the decisions over which hobbies children of such ages.
The project is part of the ECB's wider 'Cricket Unleashed' programme, which aims to re-establish the sport's relevance to all sections of society. In the longer term, they hope their new-team T20 competition - which looks likely to be partially broadcast free to air - will play a leading role in the expansion, but with little cricket currently broadcast free to air (there are some clips and highlights on-line and on TV), they are investing heavily in the department run by Matt Dwyer, the ECB's director of participation and growth, who now has around 80 development officers around the country. Dwyer was also heavily involved in the Milo programme that has run successfully in Australia.
Dwyer's team will aim to work closely with the County Boards in driving growth in four key areas: kids, clubs, communities and casual cricket. With staff based in regional locations as well as at Lord's, the team will be backed by increased investment in marketing and digital support to strengthen connections with county cricket boards, clubs, leagues, volunteers, coaches and officials.
The All Stars scheme is not without its critics. Some have expressed concern at the failure of a pay-as-you-go option (thereby reducing the impact of the one-off outlay for parents), some at the negative impact on clubs already running such projects, and others on the failure to deal with the substantial problem of teenagers dropping out of the game. There is an issue, too, with volunteer disillusionment and weariness. The ECB state that a few teething troubles are inevitable and the project can be tweaked as it develops. They also say they are working on plans to combat the drop-out issue.
But whatever other faults may be levelled at the ECB, they have acknowledged the game has a serious problem in England and Wales and they are investing heavily in trying to find a solution. Whether that can be done without a serious realignment of the broadcasting landscape - a key factor in Australia's success with the Big Bash - is debatable.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo