August 20, 2011

At the Olympics, with plastic bats

So you think cricket featured in the Olympics just the once? In a certain Shropshire town's version of the event it's been the star of the show for 125 years now

Ask someone to name a quintessential Olympic event and it's unlikely they'll suggest cricket. Just once - in Paris, in 1900 - has cricket appeared at the Games, and it was hardly a success. Only Britain and France entered, the French team consisted mostly of English expats, and four French batsmen failed to score a run in either innings as Britain romped to victory. Cricket was never asked back, and though there is a chance of seeing Twenty20 in 2020, don't hold your breath.

You might be surprised to learn, therefore, that there are cricketing Olympians galore, and that every year new players compete for gold, silver and bronze. You'd probably be even more startled to be told that not one of them is over 11 years old, and that they all live in the Welsh Borderlands.

Much Wenlock is where the action happens. Every July this picturesque Shropshire town hosts the Wenlock Olympian Games. Featuring almost 20 different sports, from archery to volleyball, these are the Games that inspired Baron de Coubertin to start the modern Olympics. The 2011 edition is the 125th, and cricket, which was the very first sport to be played in the inaugural Games, still kickstarts proceedings today. And though the format has changed a bit since the 19th century, it might just be a blueprint from which the rest of the cricketing - and indeed, sporting - world could learn a thing or two.

Strictly speaking, the cricket "Kwik-starts" proceedings, as the competition is a frantic blur of red-handled bats, yellow balls and bright blue stumps. That it now features schoolchildren rather than adults is down to two stalwarts of Much Wenlock Cricket Club, senior coach Pete Hitchin and head groundsman Tim Pinches. And that the kids have seized their Olympian moment in the way their elders never did.

"A cricket match had been played every year," recalls Hitchin, "and whilst some years it was brilliant, on other days it was dreadful. Over the years it had been such a two-headed beast. So Tim and I asked the Wenlock Olympian Society if they would hand it over to the primary schools."

Three years ago the society did just this, and the medals are now fought over by the eight primaries in the catchment area of Much Wenlock's William Brookes School, named after the local doctor who founded the Olympian Games in 1850. Each school must include at least two girls in its team, and after playing three matches each in two round-robin groups, the top four fight it out for the medals.

Keeping track of the scores is Karen Hands, who competed in an Olympian discus event as a schoolgirl. "The kids are so good at scoring they don't really need me at all," she laughs. "I just hand the toilet card out and make cups of tea!"

As if to prove the point, a young lad sidles up to say that an official has added the totals up wrongly, and rather than losing narrowly, his team have won. When Hands and Hitchin check the numbers, he's proven correct.

That the audience consists mostly of players, teachers and officials (not to mention the odd overseas media team, looking for quirky stories in the build-up to London 2012) is due partly to the matches being played on a Friday. Intermittent cloudbursts don't help either, but Hitchin scoffs at the notion that the kids need shelter. "They're not made of sugar," he laughs. "They won't melt!"

Out on the field, four games are underway, and it is quickly becoming clear that reigning champions Broseley are going to be tough to topple.

Their head teacher is Jonathan Pygott, a self-confessed cricket fanatic. "What you put in is what you get out," he says, "but we're very lucky. I think Kwik Cricket has been fantastic... it's been one of the best developments in schools' sport, full-stop. We take part in three decent-sized tournaments a year now, and this is the icing on the cake." Right on cue, his team wrap up a semi-final victory over Brockton to reach their third consecutive gold-medal match.

"I've got some plastic dog poo that I put down. I say, 'Look, there's the dog poo. You don't want to drag your foot through it.' And it makes them do it. Two piles of plastic dog poo and they're absolutely invaluable"
Much Wenlock Cricket Club's senior coach Pete Hitchin explains his method of making sure his charges step through the bowling crease

"It's worked very well," agrees Hitchin, who, along with Pinches and other qualified coaches, goes into the schools beforehand to run training sessions.

Teaching children to bowl is the toughest challenge. "The big problem is that they throw," says Pinches, but Hitchin has some unorthodox solutions. "To make them step through the crease," he grins. "I used to say, 'Imagine there's a pile of dog poo there. You want to step over it.' And they'd laugh at me.

"So now I've got some plastic dog poo that I put down. I say, 'Look, there's the dog poo. You don't want to drag your foot through it.' And it makes them do it. Two piles of plastic dog poo and they're absolutely invaluable. The ECB should be investing in large quantities of the stuff!"

It's not clear what he'd make of such techniques, but William Penny Brookes would definitely be impressed by the quality of sport on show. As Chris Cannon, secretary of the Olympian Society, explains, this dynamic doctor was a lifelong advocate of physical education for schoolchildren. "He wanted the Games to be for everyone," Cannon tells me. "Rich or poor, from top athletes to seven year-olds."

Brookes also recognised that "the working man's only possession is his health", and used Olympian activities to keep the local men fit, occupied, and out of the pubs. "Much Wenlock had an unenviable reputation for drunkenness," writes Catherine Beale in her fascinating history of the Games, Born Out Of Wenlock. Brookes was astonishingly successful, and his legacy is preserved by the fact the cricket is still played on the ground he used to patrol.

This year, in a repeat of the 2010 final, Broseley are taking on Church Preen, whose players Jacob, Jess and Oscar are waiting their turn to bat. Is the final going to plan, I ask them. "No!" they chorus. What is the plan? "To get loads of runs," says Jacob. "Or else we're never going to beat Broseley."

Church Preen's star player is ten-year-old Charlotte, who Jacob describes as "one of our best bowlers, and one of our best batters. And a very good catcher." Right on cue, she thumps a ball to the boundary.

Looking on with approval is Joanne Brown, the secretary of Much Wenlock CC. She is delighted by the number of girls taking part. "There are some really good girl cricketers," she says. "It's nice to see."

The problem comes once they finish primary school. "It's hard," Brown says, "because they move off into secondary school, and William Brookes is a performing arts school. And given the choice between cricket and dance..."

This is echoed by Pinches. "We want to have a ladies' team, a girls' team," he says, "but we struggle to get the girls out there to stick with cricket."

At which point the heavens open with breathtaking force, and everyone dashes for cover. Much as Hitchin predicted, the officials are rather more eager to leave the field of play than the kids.

Eventually, the deluge abates and the final recommences, and, as Jacob, Jess and Oscar feared, Broseley prove too strong, overhauling Church Preen's total to record their third consecutive Olympian victory.

Broseley's all-round star is also one of their youngest: Todd, just nine years old. As he clutches his gold medal, I ask him how long he's been playing cricket. "One year," he says, which just goes to show how quickly good skills can be learnt. His favourite cricketers? "I like everyone!" he beams.

If all goes to plan, Todd will be an Olympian for many more years to come. The Society has agreed to add Inter Cricket to the programme next year, bringing in teams of 12- and 14-year-olds, and Cromarty hopes that one day the adult game will be reinstated too.

Hitchin is happy just to focus on the development of children's cricket, and isn't worried about what happens once the buzz of London 2012 has died down. "This is forever, as far as we're concerned."

As the tournament draws to an end, and Cressage take on Brockton for the bronze medal, two competitors take a well-earned breather. One of the umpires walks past, congratulates them on their efforts, and hands them both a "Chance To Shine" sticker each.

As the official moves on, one of the boys looks quizzically at his sticker and then turns to his friend. "What's this for?" he asks.

"For taking part!" his friend admonishes.

It doesn't get much more Olympian than that. Dr Brookes would surely approve.

Liam Herringshaw is a medium-paced palaeontologist who moved to Newfoundland from the UK to improve his chances of opening the bowling