A parent’s perspective on the 2020 cricket season
Reflections on the A34
I didn’t really play any cricket as a kid – tennis was my Summer sport. My own children started playing cricket informally initially, as the Aston Rowant CC nets were on the walk to our Primary School in Oxfordshire. As they started going along to the club’s legendary Junior (and Parental Gin) Friday Nights, I figured I’d better try to learn the ropes of a sport that had always escaped me.
Four years later, and I’ve learned how much there is still for me to learn. The kids seem to have managed it better than I have. My daughter (just turned 10) bowls and bats in the Oxfordshire Under 11 set-up and my son (just turned 13) keeps and bats (or bats and keeps, depending how the day has gone) for the Under 13s.
I would say that the cricket season of 2020 will live long in the memory, but I am not sure you can really memorise a blur. I’ve played sport for 40 years, worked in it for 20, and never experienced anything like it. The most similar experience I have had was probably a ‘’football’’ tour in Prague – you’re there in body, but you’re not quite all there most of the time. The whole thing was a condensed 10-week sprint that has been intense, sapping and slightly surreal…and that’s just for me, let alone my kids.
More importantly, I suspect this cricketing Summer has been uniquely challenging for the kids in ways that we probably don’t yet understand. I’ve thought a lot about this driving my kids around the South of England. Probably too much. Nevertheless, I thought it might be worth writing down and sending to some friends who I suspect spend at least as much time as me pondering similar things while driving along the A34.
Maybe the Rogans’ experience of Pandemic Cricket 2020 is not remotely the same as yours – in which case, please feel free to move quietly along. Writing this has been a cathartic process regardless – if it causes anyone else to reflect on their own Summers, that’s a bonus.
It all began in March, of course. One moment we were squeezing in a couple of net sessions a week as the hockey season came to its climax for the kids, the next minute their respective Regional Finals were on ice, my wife Claire and I were appointed Year 5 Maths and English teachers respectively and the worst behaved kid in the classroom was now an over-excited sprocker spaniel with a penchant for Zoom-based Geography lessons. No wonder the kids were desperate to keep hitting cricket balls.
Easier said than done in lockdown, of course. So we kicked the cars off the drive, constructing a net of sorts on it. The best we could do was 16 yards long, even with a gradual and entirely deliberate take-over of the veggie patch. We set up WhatsApp video calls (behind the wicket) and FaceTime (to the side) so Wes (the kids’ endlessly creative coach) could give them some feedback as I bashed tennis balls at them. It was pretty cathartic for all of us, with only one mobile phone as collateral damage. Total training quantity actually increased, purely as it was preserving everyone’s sanity. Apart from the dog, who had a serious issue with his lack of inclusion.
My son worked hard. Some days he was dynamite (by far the most focussed I’ve seen him train at any sport, revelling in the release), other days he seemed like he’d had a little bit too much video tuition from school already. On the down days (and let’s face it, we all had them) it seemed he was simultaneously missing the social interaction he needs to unwind and competition he needs to step it up. He talked about missing the latter more. Our daughter was just delighted to be taught something by someone other than her parents.
We tried hard to keep the cardio going for the kids, too, although my son chose lockdown as the point to start growing again. Between the 6 months of Easter and September he had put on 2 inches – and struggled with too much running. Or indeed catching, in those periods where he was puzzling out why his feet had seemingly disappeared from view overnight. Our food bill went from large to astronomic. He piled on the centimetres, the rest of us tried not to pile on the pounds.
Once the club nets opened up, things returned to normal a little. The kids politely but firmly fired me as Assistant Coach, returning me for the rest of the season to my core duties of taxi driver, food provider, enabler of throw downs and occasional sport psychologist.
Our son’s first 3 excursions to meet mates were all cricket session related. Nets and outdoor pizza. Nets and outdoor picnic. Nets and gin and tonic (by this point the parents had regained control). Our son’s mates – like him at Abingdon School – are a motivated bunch. They all seemed to have managed to keep their morale up and cricketing eyes in during lockdown. In the early sessions there were furious amounts of testosterone flying around. It took until 3 weeks out of total lockdown before I saw a single forward defensive.
Watching the boys get back together was fascinating. There was very little chat, it was straight back into the action. I couldn’t see much difference between the cricket and the way they had competed together over headphones on Fortnite during lockdown. Kids don’t see the same demarcation between physical and digital activity that we do.
Our daughter’s landing back into ‘normal’ life was very different. Once coaching was allowed, one of the highlights of the Summer was seeing new girls come to Friday Nights at Aston Rowant almost every week. Nevertheless, we had to work pretty hard to get together groups of girls who had already played hard ball cricket. Friends and county team mates at Tiddington, Horspath and Oxford came to the rescue to create informal training sessions. As soon as matches had the green light, we joined up to get some girls’ games on. There was probably more chatter than actual cricket early on – but the sociability of the experience seems to drive girls far more than boys. My daughter told me that boys are fine to practice on, but there is nothing like the real thing.
Let the Games Commence
Faced with open diaries, sunny skies (initially at least) and kids who were chomping at the bit, we at Rowant were lucky to have Team Managers prepared to spend huge swatches of their working days finding teams to play against. We played against different teams to our usual League opponents, even welcoming teams from other counties. Slowly the family’s lockdown ritual of eating square meals together retrenched to the more usual cricket fodder of the Wild Bean Café after a late evening finish, with our kids bouncing with endorphins until very late in the evening. This was a bit of an issue when you really needed them in bed so that you could catch up with the work you missed that afternoon because you were helping put the boundary out for a 5pm start.
My son had a blinding start to the year with his gloves. If anything he looked like he’d done too much in the nets with the bat – he was striking the ball beautifully (but into the hands of fielders) as he started to get to grips with the challenge of playing in 360 degrees once more.
Beyond loving her girls’ games, my daughter was initially less keen when she was the sole female in the Under 11 Club side. Then, all of a sudden, something clicked in her confidence. Rather than focussing on getting even, she started taking them on. She didn’t call runs any longer, she shouted them. Her running between the wickets was a little kamikaze, but she was revelling in calling the shots, and never really looked back from that point.
Many of our daughter’s friends from other clubs had similar experiences, and so by the time the county fixtures came along, the Under 11 Girls looked a totally different prospect to the nervy, inexperienced side of the year before. There can be few things better to see as a parent than your kid starting to get the benefits of a lot of hard work on their part, in particular when it happens among a group of smiling mates.
My son’s season was very different, and turned out somewhat more complex than the recipe for our daughter of sniffing out all-girls’ matches and watching her terrorise the boys. Under 13s is tricky. County U13 games (which are really the pinnacle of the season) and club Under 13 games (the standard of which can vary a lot) is played off 19 yards. Under 15 (where club games can be more challenging, but the atmosphere markedly more hormonal) is 21 yards. 17s and Adult cricket is played off 22 yards. All use different balls, too. In general this is all extremely sensible, but it does make U13 cricket quite tricky to navigate.
If you play just U13 19-yard games then the contrast between county cricket at that level and club is often vast, a challenge exacerbated by all the county games necessarily sitting towards the end of this helter-skelter season.
The natural decision seemed to be to increase challenge earlier in the season by playing different formats. However once it dawns that saying yes to every invite is not a sensible way to go, it’s very tricky to decide which ones to play as playing off different pitches has implications for batting, bowling and also keeping. My son found keeping the trickiest. Adult bowling was generally pretty accurate, but he looked more like a goalkeeper at times trying to handle more errant kids whose bowling was swinging on 16 yards. Many of them hadn’t had time for a training session between the plethora of games, they were simply turning up and adjusting in the moment.
The availability of keen kids created knock-ons for the adult game, too. Private school kids who usually had Saturday school fixtures for the first half of the season had promptly declared themselves available for adult teams for the start of the shortened season. That seemed to create a no-win scenario for the captains of the adult sides, who wanted to give youth a chance, but rightly had loyalties to adult players who don’t have the chance to play at all during a working week and whose commitment they will need week-in and week-out next year when things (hopefully) get back to normal. Tiddington built a specific side to house junior’s integration into club cricket, much like Development sides work in hockey, which to me seemed a terrific idea.
Quantity and Quality
By the middle of August, I was being asked whether it might make sense for our family just to sleep in the Rowant clubhouse. I declined. Although that was principally because it would have infringed Rowant’s militant lockdown rules, I had also been mentally scarred by the experience of pressure washing the men’s showers after a solid winter of dank festering
Fairly quickly – and slightly unbelievably given how recently we had been fearing the complete lack of a season – managing volume was becoming a real challenge. For my son, batting frequently seemed less of an issue if a little linear. Opening the batting for 90% of your matches is quite restrictive in terms of learning opportunity, so it was great that Oxfordshire do a brilliant job of mixing up the challenges the kids face. Keeping takes a bigger toll on a young brain, however, and very soon we tried to introduce a ‘no more than 2 days in a row’ rule. There were some lively bowling cameos as a result – there can’t be many bowlers in adult cricket whose only over all season was a wicket maiden.
As the junior club games racked up, the usual routine of setting up and getting the game going went from its traditional parental slow burn (why can nobody ever find the score book?) to military precision. After all, even in middle age if you do anything 3 or 4 times a week then you get pretty good at it. This efficiency had an unintended knock on in that the usual pre match preparation routines for early protagonists were shortened dramatically. This created an issue for a keeping / opener, as you need to be ready to go on the B of the Bang. The first few overs can be make or break, whichever gloves you have on first. We ended up creating our own meet times, a rare rebellion against the all-knowing Teamer platform which seemed to be regulating pretty much every part of family life. I often found myself using it work out where my wife was.
As the nights drew in, ingenuity around formats reach new heights. I’m not sure I ever really envisaged spending my parental weekend discussing the impact of 10 ball overs on sanitisation breaks and bowling changes in a 180-ball game, but I was plunged straight into that world this Summer. Fortunately, the format was devised by Neil Pickup, a cricket-coaching maths teacher (or maths-teaching cricket coach, depending on the time of year). Neil duly rescued me, while simultaneously teaching my wife and daughter to score and coaching Tiddington. I also had the odd sojourn to square leg umpire during this format of the game, and discovered how hard it is to accurately count to 10 on a consistent basis. There’s a reason I wasn’t allowed to be my daughter’s maths teacher during lockdown.
At this point Neil would probably want to know what the data says, so here goes..
|Matches Declined (Volume)||2||10|
|Overs Kept / Week||25.2||61.3|
|Overs Bowled / Week||1.8||2.6|
This sheer volume of cricket is amazing when you consider the kids both went on county tours last year but not this year, and my son also had Abingdon 10 school games in 2019 which did not happen this year. Thanks to the incredible efforts of our Aston Rowant volunteer managers and a lean (even before the perils of furloughs) but superbly committed county set-up, our kids were able to have a full cricketing Summer. I have not put their performance stats in here – they were decent, but that’s not the point. You should stay as blissfully unaware of them as the kids themselves are.
Partially the difference in games between my son and daughter is down to the fact my daughter is in the first year of a very large cohort in the Under 11s, while my son is really the only keen keeper between the ages of 12 and 16 in our club. However you can’t escape the stark truth that he was offered 4 times the number of games as my daughter. This despite James, a fantastically supportive Aston Rowant Under 11 manager, giving her far more than her share of games in the 11s. The impetus behind girls’ cricket is significant, and not a minute too soon.
After the zenith of activity in August, things started to settle a little. Our holiday was a write-off, with county games for both kids even scheduled in the middle of our planned mini-break. But the kids drove the decision-making to head back and play. In some ways the parenting objectives haven’t changed since they were toddlers, tho. If the kids are happy, you can relax anywhere….even in the middle of a rain deluge at Oxford Downs Cricket Club.
Holding your Form
The inevitable challenge with a season of that intensity, of course, is tiredness. The kids were chomping at the bit to play as many matches as possible after being prisoners in their own homes, but as parents our job is to protect them. This was a particular challenge for my son as regards keeping. Keeping to 70mph bowling during a growth spurt is not the ideal combination when your legs feel sore and your brain’s a fraction jaded. On 3 or 4 occasions I could tell within the first over that he was cooked. On other days, he was bang on from the get-go, and the biggest challenge was needing to feed as well as water him during short drinks breaks. On warm days when he batted long and kept likewise, he managed 3 dinners and smelt like a decaying badger.
I have a couple of good friends who are Olympic rowers. They talk about the defining challenge in the race for medals being the ability to hold your technique at the end of an intense, exhausting race. I think the kids found their version of that on the cricket pitch. We tried to keep the kids remembering their technique as the season evolved, but inevitably bad habits crop up batting, bowling and keeping. As a tennis player (where the most intense periods tend to be 2-3 weeks competition followed by a 1 week training and technique block) I found it very hard to get my head around a cricketing year that through no fault of its own contained 100% training and 0% competition between September and June, then 99% competition and 1% technique maintenance July – September. Wes Morrick, the kids’ coach knew by early August what he intended to work on with the kids this coming Winter, but with 4 weeks of intense cricket to come it was no time for more than gentle tinkering.
As September nights drew in and school returned, it felt like time for a rest. Recently, I’ve learned that kids’ circadian rhythms tend to be 1-3 hours later than adults. During a protracted 6 months at home, our kids reverted to those patterns, in particular with the endorphins of 9pm cricket finishes flying round their bodies for hours thereafter. Several times I was asleep long before my son. At least it was Summer holiday, as some days after a 40 over keeping stint he’d sleep for 14 hours straight afterwards.
The implications of the need for sleep on cricket certainly started to make sense to me as they returned to school, and back to the 6.30am starts. Parental chat on the boundary was of normally active, positive kids sitting in the car ready to go to cricket saying, ‘I am sooo tired’. The week after the kids went back, I saw very reliable batters made daft decisions, and terrific athletes move like sloths in the field. It looked like they were playing with jetlag, and effectively they were.
Learning from the Summer (Hoping Never to Use It!)
So with the benefit of a bit of time to reflect on it all, what do I make of it? Well, a few reflections – firstly for cricket, as a whole, and then for how we help kids.
For the sport, I think the primacy of the club for a year has been a really good thing. For kids playing at a solid level and in independent education, it can often feel as if the standard and demands of county and school cricket (balanced with exams of course) are enough to handle. Given that, club cricket can offer a gentler unwind. However, this year definitely showed the developmental benefits of great club cricket, in particular when there is a finite number of kids the county can actively support as kids grow older. One thing we noticed at Rowant was that (thanks to the proactivity of our team managers) we started to pick up more kids whose clubs maybe had not been so quick off the mark.
Culturally, too, clubs can give the kids much wider perspective beyond mixing with their own peer group. We were spoiled at Aston Rowant. My son got to face James Coles bowling at him in the nets three weeks before he took the wicket of England’s opener on his first class debut. My daughter fed the bowling machine for Maia Bouchier and was then coached by her 2 weeks before she joined Southern Brave for their Summer season. I painted the club’s new portacabins with England bowler Linsey Smith’s lovely Dad Jerry, who then kept appearing at the club with kit that Linsey had sent for the aspiring young women at the club. Irrespective of the cricket, I struggle to think of a better environment for my kids to grow up in.
Beyond the grass roots, if there is an award for persistence, ingenuity and sheer hard graft to manage through a sporting Summer, then the ECB should win it. My job enables me to have glimpses of the behind closed doors challenges many have had to navigate, and trust me, they have moved mountains. Simply having cricket around was so good for the soul. That feeling was probably best summed up by my Daughter’s Headmistress on a Wednesday afternoon as the deciding ODI unfolded…
As to what I would do differently (and here’s hoping we don’t have to go through any of this again), from the parenting perspective I think the main watchword is balance. 3 days’ holiday was not enough for any of us. With the benefit of hindsight, in a 10 week season I would look to introduce more breaks of a couple of days when the kit is entirely locked away, and even mucking around in the nets with some mates is off limits. For a (just) 13 year-old, I think 80 overs keeping and 3/4 innings in 1 week is plenty, at least until he’s stopped growing. My son thinks we got the balance about right, but I think we (I) said yes a bit too often early on. In hindsight, the enforced rain break was probably a good thing.
If we do have to go through a Summer like this again, then I also think it would be important to build different routines into the adult game. It’s not fair on anyone to have 8 juniors hoping to play adult cricket every week when they’re already over-subscribed, but at the same time the kids get so much from playing with strong adults. One to file under ‘nice problems to have’, but also see if I can help.
This cricket season was slightly chaotic, often illogical and utterly exhausting. My memory is a blur, but that happens more as you age. More important he will always remember peaking in the County League Semi and Final when it mattered, building good innings in county sessions and hitting Colesy back over his head at Men’s Night. To be clear, nobody else remembers the last of those. She will always remember hitting her first boundaries, a double win day against Northants and getting the (now indispensable) Loughborough Lightning hoodie from Linsey.
Most pertinently I think cricket made a fundamental difference to how my kids will look back on a rough year in their childhoods. And for that – a massive thank-you to everyone who has helped along the way – in particular the entire Aston Rowant and Oxfordshire crew and all-round guru Wes Morrick.
It’s a funny old game in what has been a crazy all year, but a season for which we will always be grateful.