Cricket For Kids: A Safe, Fun Sport That Prizes Sportsmanship

Everyone agrees that adults must take responsibility for themselves. What is concerning, however, is that the examples of intense, dangerous play that many pro athletes provide gradually become the accepted norm in the sports our children play. My son was a victim of just this sort of reckless environment when, as a 12 year-old football player, he had his arm broken in two places by an opposing player who targeted him from across the field for a blindside hit.

A recent LA Times editorial dealt with the increasing frequency of pediatric concussions, and drew a direct correlation to the types of sports played and the hyper-competitive sports environment in which we now raise our children.

Here’s an excerpt:

“According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics in August that examined U.S. emergency room visits from 1997 to 2007, the number of concussions related to the five most popular competitive youth sports more than doubled among this age group, even though participation in those sports declined slightly. Among 14- to 19-year-olds, the number of concussions tripled. Altogether, there were about 250,000 concussions among young competitive athletes.

The numbers might reflect parents and coaches seeking immediate medical attention for children’s head injuries. But researchers believe other factors are involved as well, such as longer, more intense playing seasons and practices…

More research is needed on the causes and long-term effects of concussion on children and teenagers. But youth athletic leagues, state health officials and schools should be taking action now. Lisa Bakhos, the lead researcher on the Pediatrics study, suggests a return to more varied sports activities for children, played more for fun and less as structured competition. Youth league rules should be modified to reduce blows to the head, and parents should be informed about concussion risks from the start. Parents of a child who sustains two concussions should be counseled to consider whether it might be time for a switch to a sport such as running, with less potential for head injury.”

At the United States Youth Cricket Association, we are committed to bringing a fun and safe sport that prizes sportsmanship above all else to American children.  Prince George’s County PE teacher Charles Silberman agrees. In the September 15 issue of Md AHPERD eNEWS, he said this:

“As physical education teachers, we have a wonderful opportunity to use sport as a way to teach character and build students’ esteem. I would make your next unit specifically character-based using sports as the venue or start to implement a character-based behavior system into your teaching. Three examples of these suggestions are described below.

The first is the game of Cricket. Yes, cricket! In cricket, disrespect is not allowed. If a player looks at the umpire the wrong way, he can be suspended for multiple games without pay. Because around 80% of our communication is non-verbal, and a majority of students display disrespect with body posturing, I love using Cricket to highlight the importance of non-verbal communication and express that there are consequences for all disrespectful actions. In addition, teaching a new and foreign sport allows students to learn about another culture and how others may view our students character traits such as disrespect. This, then, becomes a launching board for discussing character more in detail and also acts as a mirror where students can see how their value system looks to others. Once they see this, they begin to internalize the notion that others receive poor principles negatively and that they might need to change their value system if they want to operate in the outside world.”

Clearly, cricket is demonstrating its value for schools and for children, and as the number of boys and girls playing our game grows it will certainly take its place among America’s most popular sports.

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What An Effective National Youth Organization Could Look LIke

I have, for some time, called for the creation of a national youth cricket organization, to be directed by a national youth cricket coordinator. I truly believe that without a clear hierarchal structure, implementing a unified vision for American youth cricket, even the most fervent of efforts will have limited impact, if not fizzle out altogether.

There are many possibilities for the form a national organization might take, and still time to come together behind a collective, yet singular, vision of how best to advance youth cricket. Please consider what is to follow as merely my offering to the conversation.

To assist in visualizing how I see this program functioning, I’ll start with what I believe will be a common scenario:

A member of a cricket club in the suburbs of Houston speaks to a member of the Houston Independent School District’s school board, who is receptive to the idea of teaching cricket in Houston elementary and middle schools. The immediate need is for cricket sets for these 218 schools, because the school district says that they haven’t budgeted for this expense. The wholesale cost of each set is $60, which creates a need of over $13,000 in cricket sets. The cricket club member approaches the East Texas Youth Cricket Association regarding this opportunity. The ETYCA emails its members and supporters, and is soon able to commit to the purchase of 100 sets; the West Texas Youth Cricket Association agrees to donate another 25. The ETYCA then contacts the United States Youth Cricket Association regarding the balance. The USYCA immediately works its network of member associations in the US, plus other supporters and patrons nationally and internationally, and within days has secured the funding to purchase the remaining sets. Thus, within weeks, cricket supporters across the nation (and perhaps even the world) have worked together to get cricket started in 218 schools that will now teach cricket to 140,000 children in Houston.

In this scenario, cricketers and cricket supporters across the United States are pooling their time, talent and resources in a unified effort to advance the game among young people in our country. This, of course, is the best possible, and most efficient use of our admittedly limited resources to achieve our ends. And it is also the only way in which we will succeed, because if we allow ourselves to continue as a fragmented collection of disjointed programs, we will never have the strength to overcome the not insubstantial obstacles before us. Together, however, as a single community of thousands or perhaps even hundreds of thousands, we cannot fail.

I think it is also instructive to note that my scenario speaks to the introduction of cricket in elementary and middle schools. I believe that this is the appropriate place to target our efforts (while not necessarily excluding high schoolers), because younger children are more open to new experiences, they have not yet settled on what will be “their sport” (which often, in the parents’ drive to make their child great, excludes all others from consideration), and they are still years away from requiring the national infrastructure that we do not yet have for advanced skills training. As an example, lets say we recruit a 13 year-old to become a cricketer, and he falls in love with the sport. Within a year or two, he will realize that there is little hope for him to develop as a player, because local academies and camps, not to mention the opportunity to play consistently, are almost non-existent in the US. On the other hand, an 8 year-old will not be expecting these things, and if we are given five years to work our national program, by the time this child is a teenager, there will be many more opportunities for him to enhance his skills and move on to the next level.

The bottom line is that, as in any well-considered project, we must build from the ground up, allowing the infrastructure to flourish naturally around us as we go. A mistake often made is to attempt to build cricket from the top down, with no existing system to support the effort. We must not repeat past mistakes.

Something else I’d like to note is the need for the United States Youth Cricket Association, and the state associations, to operate independently of any individual or existing organization for the time being. My goal is to avoid the snares of petty politics, jealousies and infighting that would endanger our success. Far too often we have seen great ideas and good intentions derailed by these things. We are far too small a community, and there is far too much work to be done, to risk allowing our numbers to be divided by politics. We must do all we can to build bridges between individuals and organizations, and avoid this fatal trap. Whoever would enter our company must be willing to check his pride and his ambitions at the door.

No matter what the final form, we must soon establish this national hierarchy to guide and nurture youth cricket in the United States. Too many years have already elapsed without a coherent national policy, and too many young people have already been lost to cricket because we could not provide the infrastructure to support them.

A national discussion is finally underway, and this is a great step forward. However, we must also be careful that we not allow the ongoing conversation to become a reason for inaction. Let us reach a consensus, and then move with alacrity to establish the year 2010 as the year that American cricket was reborn.

Five Ways To Make Cricket Attractive To Americans

(This article originally appeared in Dreamcricket.com)

Cricket, as a game, has everything required to make it attractive to Americans, especially now that the Twenty20 format has been adopted. All arguments made to the contrary are based on ignorance or, in some cases, a misplaced parochialism. How do I know this? I have witnessed it firsthand in my association with the Cardinal Gibbons cricketers, who were smitten by the sport from they instant they played it. My experiences with those students, when juxtaposed with the rest of non-cricketing America, also provided a roadmap to making cricket more than just a niche sport.

1. Get Kids Playing Cricket.

This, I believe, is the key element in any discussion about growing cricket in America. Typically, adults are resistant to adopting new sports; the sports one enjoyed as a child are almost always the sports one follows as an adult. This is why time and treasure invested in an attempt to introduce American adults to cricket are likely to be time and treasure wasted. Yes, there are rare exceptions, such as myself, but we represent the statistical outliers, and should not be used as examples to be emulated.

The true blueprint for success can be seen in the American soccer market, which is, itself, still developing. For decades, soccer was a sport played only by adult immigrants and ignored by everyone else in the United States. It was only when soccer began to be played in schools and recreation leagues that it moved into the American mainstream. Why? Because parents follow their children. If Billy wants to play soccer, Mom or Dad must take him to practices and games, where they will learn the sport by watching, and will develop a passion by cheering for their child’s team. (I have been through this process with my daughter, Sarah.)

As Billy learns the sport, he will become interested in its teams and players, and he will want to own things that reflect his newfound interest. This will require that Mom or Dad join him on this voyage of discovery, as they will be the ones responsible for acquiring the correct paraphernalia (apparel, posters, bedding, memorabilia, etc.). Billy will also wish to attend professional or college games, which will require an adult escort, and the escorting adult will, of course, cheer loudly for Billy’s player and team, which continues the indoctrination process.

So how do we make Billy a cricketer? Billy probably won’t choose to play a game he’s never heard of, or join a league where he has no friends. This is why it’s critical that we start by introducing him to the sport at school, where it can be taught as a part of his curriculum, and he and his friends can learn it together. (Cricket is a perfect sport for physical education classes, but I’ll leave that for another time.) My experience has been that often this is all that will be required to spark a passion for cricket. Once Billy and his friends begin to enjoy cricket at school, they’ll want to play at home, and it’ll be up to us to make sure they have the opportunity.

This brings us to the major hurdle we face in this regard: Right now, there is no coordinated national effort to introduce cricket at the elementary or middle school levels in the United States. As a matter of fact, I’ve never even heard of an organized local effort. This vacuum of leadership in the area of youth cricket creates an obstacle that will frustrate all of our desires to promote cricket, if it is not addressed. This is why USACA, as the sport’s officially sanctioned governing body, must appoint a board-level National Youth Cricket Coordinator without delay. This individual will be responsible for articulating USACA’s vision for youth sports, and developing local leaders, sponsors and programs that will effectively implement that vision. Until this is done, our hopes for youth cricket will founder and drift as a series of disconnected, directionless dreams.

Until we see children playing cricket at American beaches, in American parks and in American gym classes, little of lasting substance can be accomplished.

2. Cricket Equipment and Sets Must Be Readily Available For Purchase In Stores

Even if, in the beginning, it’s only toy cricket sets on the shelves at Walmart, having something to give Billy for his 8th birthday that will foster his love for the game is critical. Soon after, we’ll need to have real equipment on the shelves at places like Modell’s & Sports Authority. Right now, there are precious few places in America where cricket gear of any kind sits on a store shelf, and while dedicated cricketers may be willing to order online, those that are merely curious about the game (our target market) must have somewhere convenient to go to satisfy that curiosity.  Also, if we want to see children playing cricket, we need to make it easy for their parents to acquire their equipment. That is not the case today.

To change this, a major push will have to be made both by the manufacturers of cricket products and by the game’s American supporters. Retailers will want to know that SKUs can be obtained easily, at a cost that will enable them to make a profit. They will also need to know that a market exists for these products. Someone at a national level will have to coordinate this joint effort if we want to see immediate results.

3. We Need To Have More Places To Play

From my experience in the Baltimore/Washington area, I can tell you that there simply aren’t enough pitches for the teams that exist already, and there are no indoor facilities closer than New Jersey. This is unacceptable if we wish to develop the game. Players need facilities at which to practice (especially in the offseason), and teams need places to play. Changing this will require both public and private funding, and the patience to wait for the market to grow to the point of full usage of the facilities.

4. Cricket Highlights Need To Be Seen On Television

One impediment to the adoption of cricket in the United States is that most Americans have never seen it played. As a result, they reject it as alien, and assume it to be unwatchable. Regular highlight clips, played on networks that are available as part of the basic cable package, are important in both introducing the sport and dispelling the stereotypes. It may seem strange, but psychologically, as the sports fan sees cricket alongside other “accepted” sports, it will seem more normal for him to have an interest in it, and his mind will be opened. (I’ve actually seen IPL highlights on ESPN Sportscenter’s Top Ten before, but there needs to be more than that, and it needs to be more than just the IPL.)

5. T20/IPL-style Leagues Must Be Used To Promote The Game

All of the buzz seems to indicate that we are very close to seeing an American professional T20 league established. If this becomes a reality, it presents a wonderful opportunity for the teams, players and coaches to get out into their local communities and promote the game. This can be accomplished through youth clinics, demonstration games, ticket donations and so forth. It would truly be a lost opportunity if the league came and went without ever leaving the cricket grounds. The individuals involved have a duty to be goodwill ambassadors for the sport, and it is my hope that they won’t fumble this golden chance.

Our success will eventually be measured not by the number of trophies won, but by the number of children playing our sport.

As you can see, when I think about growing cricket in America, my focus is squarely on developing the youth market. If we fail to do this properly, no advances made anywhere else will make a difference, including winning international matches. On the other hand, soccer has expanded vastly in the United States, despite the fact that the American men’s national team has never gotten within sniffing distance of a World Cup. This points out the fact that creating and maintaining a fan base is not dependent on world-class victories as much as it is dependent upon the adoption of the game by kids.