All Stars cricket can create new generation of fans - Vaughan
Michael Vaughan, the former England captain, says that the launch of All Stars Cricket, a major grassroots initiative for children aged between five and eight, is about creating a new generation of fans in order to sustain the sport into the future.
From midday on Monday, parents have been able to sign up their children online to become All Stars in an ECB scheme that aims to introduce the game to 50,000 boys and girls across the country.
"I think we're in a world of competition from many sports," Vaughan told ESPNcricinfo. "I do think cricket has sat back for many years and expected people to come and play the game. This is a project that takes the game to parents and kids."
The need to engage young children with cricket has never been more pressing as cricket has lost out to a range of individual pursuits that have been galvanised by Olympic coverage and social media interest, and by the effects of a social environment less naturally attuned to team sports.
"You only have to look to the left and see the Olympic Stadium," Vaughan said during the launch event at the ArcelorMittal Orbit in Stratford. "Who'd have thought many years ago that kids would have seen BMX racing on TV, or taekwondo? These kids have been inspired by the Olympics because they've seen the game. And that's really important, that cricket gets seen more.
"If one or two England players are made in the next ten years then great, but this is more about creating the cricket fan. I would hope that any youngster who comes through the programme, whether they play or not, they are going to like the game. And that's what I call spreading the wings of the game. The more we can grab kids of a younger age, the more their wings are going to be spread later in life, and that can only be good for the game."
A clue to the ECB's priorities comes in the fact that the media release prior to the launch came with enthusiastic quotes not from the MCC or any traditional cricketing body, but from the CEO of Mumsnet, Justine Roberts, who spoke on behalf of parents in celebrating: "Fun sporty activities that their children will love."
"We're trying to make a very early connection with girls and boys around the country, which if you get that right, the return on that time and investment is over a lifetime," ECB chief executive, Tom Harrison, told ESPNcricinfo. "It's a fantastic way for us to demonstrate how we are trying to broaden the appeal of cricket around the country, through our club network, county boards and ultimately also through communities that we don't reach through cricket clubs."
The initiative has been almost two years in the making since the ECB appointed Matt Dwyer, who had successfully promoted the game at age-group level in Australia, as its director of participation and growth.
Upon sign-up, participants will receive a cricketing backpack including a bat, ball and everything they need to try the game for the first time. They will then start an eight-week programme at their local centre in May where they will be introduced to the game in "a fun and safe environment".
As a gesture towards educational advantages, children will also learn the social development skills that team sport brings.
Each session of the eight-week programme - developed with input from Andrew Strauss and the England performance team - aim to give children the basic skills they need to develop a lifelong love of cricket.
Participating centres will receive free All Stars kits, volunteer training and support via a central marketing campaign, celebrating 'Big Moments' as children take their first steps in the game. The programme reflects ECB's strategic framework for growing the game at every level.
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. ESPNcricinfo gave more details on the scheme last month
The ECB has promoted All Stars at a series of meetings in county clubs around the country. Some of those already running successful youth cricket have reservations, bemoaning the fact that they will have no choice but to join a more expensive and glitzy marketing-led scheme.
With cricket participation levels down, however, after a decade without free-to-air coverage, and with all team sports feeling a fall in numbers, and pressure on facilities, All Stars comes at a crucial moment for English cricket.
Dwyer said: "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.
"Drawing kids to the game at an early age will develop more players, create more fans and show the power of cricket in developing physical and social skills.
"We also want to make sure that parents have a great first experience at the club and give them the chance to have an hour back with their kids every week. We will be encouraging parents to get involved with sessions, whatever their prior knowledge of the game.
"Within weeks of unveiling the programme to clubs we had 2,000 of them sign up to deliver All Stars Cricket and this summer we hope to have 50,000 kids trying the sport all over the country through this exciting nationwide programme."
England men's and women's stars Jonny Bairstow and Lauren Winfield joined Vaughan at the event's launch on Monday evening.
Additional reporting by Andrew Miller
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps