Quiet revolution underway in New Zealand cricket
A quiet, but welcome and overdue, revolution is occurring in the lower levels of cricket in New Zealand as a potentially debilitating problem is being weeded out.
It has taken a $1.5 million budget but it is shaping as the most realistic attempt yet to attack a long-smouldering problem in the game.
It's all to do with player recruitment and retention at what has become known as the "grassroots" level of the game.
As recreation opportunities grew, and the numbers of male teachers in primary schools declined during the 1970s-1990s all sport suffered an inertia which reduced participation and left potential players missing out on a chance to play many team sports, let alone cricket.
When New Zealand Cricket underwent the Hood Review in 1995, one of the key areas for attention was in the club and schools area. It has taken time for an effective policy to be formulated but NZC national development manager Alec Astle and his staff have put in place a programme which, as boys and girls mature, should result in a much-needed revitalisation of the base of the game in New Zealand.
Already the signs are encouraging. The first area of attention was primary schooling and so well has the system worked, that the intended second part of the project, the troublesome secondary school area, has had to be leap-frogged in favour of attending to the needs of cricket clubs.
If that hadn't been done, the clubs would not have been equipped to handle the expected upsurge of numbers in a few years as the players exposed at primary school come through the system.
The most obvious example of the growth of the game in schools has been in the annual participation rates for the MILO Cup and Shield primary school tournaments for boys' and girls' respectively. In 2000 the numbers of entries were 240. In 2001 it rose to 249, then in 2002 to 257 and this summer to 301.
Until this year, the finals of the tournaments have been a North v South Island contest played in Palmerston North. But the numbers have been divided into four zones this year, three in the North Island and the fourth covering all the South Island, and the four winners in both boys' and girls' competitions, will now travel to a finals weekend.
Another level of incentive has also been added as the result of a sponsorship agreement reached with the New Zealand Community Trust (NZCT) which is not only taking over as sponsor of the national secondary schoolgirls' tournament, but also sponsoring a national Year 9 (or third form) tournament for boys which will be played over a full summer, not broken into a calendar year as happens with the boys' Gillette Cup and the girls' NZCT tournament.
The Year 9 event can be played out over the summer because those secondary school pupils are not so affected by end of year examination requirements. The final of the tournament will be played in national summer tournament week towards the end of March, possibly in Taupo.
The country's six major associations are going to play a much greater role in the organisation of all the children's tournaments as part of the drive to have the associations operate the cricket business occurring within their boundaries.
Each of the majors appointed a cricket development manager for their region and he worked with a team of cricket development officers to deliver the initiatives into the primary levels of cricket.
When the national discussions were held in 2000 about the game in secondary schools, clubs and districts, community cricket initiatives were introduced under the headings of School Support and Club Assist. Working in these areas are community cricket co-ordinators who work with a cluster of clubs and secondary schools to identify areas needing improvement and the plans to follow up targeted changes.
The co-ordinators then assist in implementation of the desired strategies, placing less time pressure on the club officers and schools. Metropolitan clubs and district associations ran trials in five of the six major associations in 2001-02 and as a result of their success the programme was expanded into other metropolitan clubs and districts.
There is no set formula. Each major association has been able to bend the strategy to suit their own situation.
Auckland used the 'Club is the Hub' system where clubs are funded and club managers have the job of delivering the requirements.
Wellington and Otago are using a central structure with the co-ordinators working for the association to oversee a specific number of clubs and schools.
Northern Districts, Central Districts and Canterbury have appointed co-ordinators to work with clubs or districts. Some of these positions have been developed further by funding arrangements with the clubs or associations to encompass wider areas of coaching and development.
Monthly checks are part of the administration process across the country to ensure all are achieving specified targets.
The community cricket initiatives have been taken up by 17 of the 24 district cricket associations, by 22 metropolitan clubs, 14 in Wellington, five in Christchurch and three in Dunedin. Auckland have four clubs involved in their 'Club is the Hub' programme while other clubs are working on Sportsville studies and one club will soon enter into a funding partnership with a rugby club.
These opportunities have provided employment for 32 community co-ordinators, 19 of whom are full-time.
While there are still areas of need and much more that needs to be done, the effort to at least attack the problem and get some altered thinking in place has proved beneficial.
Important benefits that have been realised include clubs now functioning over 12 months of the year, the revitalisation of long suffering volunteers who now have time to devote to things other than administrative work, a greater profile for cricket in far-flung communities and probably, most importantly, a point of contact when problems arise, allowing a much speedier, and often less hassled, resolution of problems.
Cricket is on the move from the area of its greatest resource - if it can be maintained it could prove to be the most significant happening in New Zealand cricket in modern history.