Richard Blackledge is the newly elected Youth Cricket Coordinator for the South West Region of USACA. This week, he spoke with USYCA about youth cricket in America and in his region.
USYCA: Richard, thanks for taking a few moments to speak with us today, and to talk about youth cricket. What was it that got you involved in youth cricket?
Blackledge: I was fortunate enough to learn my cricket from some of the greatest coaches you could wish for. I was born and raised in Yorkshire, England into a cricketing family. I was coached as a youth by the likes of Tony Bowes, son of Bill Bowes of Bodyline fame, Chris Old, the England pace bowler and the coaching staff at Yorkshire CCC and Derbyshire CCC. I was also a participant in a program run by Olympic coach Wilf Paish who used his coaching skills for Olympic athletes, specifically javelin throwers, to help develop pace bowlers.
I was in line for a county contract but a series of injuries put me out of the game for a couple of seasons. I recovered from the injuries to play professionally in the northern leagues of England which is where I started coaching youth cricketers. I've been involved in coaching cricket ever since, most recently with a very talented bunch of young cricketers from the SCCA.
USYCA: Why did you decide to seek election as the SWR Youth Cricket Coordinator?
Blackledge: I was asked to step up by the president of my cricket association, Masud Zaidi. I thought long and hard because I knew if I took the position it would mean dedicating a lot of time and energy and I'm not a cricket politician or administrator, I'm a cricket player.
It was really coaching the youth players of the SCCA that helped me decide. They don't have the opportunities that they deserve. I took it for granted that I had access to well maintained cricket facilities, turf pitches and good coaches and that there were well organized youth development programs with an opportunity to turn professional for a select few. These guys don't have those opportunities and they should. I feel the knowledge and experience I've gained can be put to good use here.
USYCA: In your opinion, why is youth cricket development critical to the future of cricket in America?
Blackledge: If the 45 years of USACA operations has proven anything, it is that the game of cricket cannot flourish here in the US whilst relying on ex-pat players and administrators.
Cricket in America is stalled. We are in a relatively golden period because of the number of ex-pat workers from cricket playing nations who have found jobs in the US but if you look at the profile of these people you find they are recreational cricketers with few being serious about developing their talents or the reach of the game in the US. Many of them will return to their home country to have a family.
This means we don't get the influx of young cricketers we need to grow. At present, interest in cricket in the US is directly proportional to the number of ex-pats living here. In 45 years there has never been a concerted effort to bring the game to an audience who can sustain and grow it.
When test teams have a slump in form you find their administration, and even in some cases their government, will launch a "grassroots" campaign - they encourage more kids to play cricket. Any businessperson will tell you, you need to market to a relatively large audience to get enough orders to grow your business - it is the same with cricket.
We need tens of thousands, even millions of kids playing cricket so that we can have thousands of adults and hundreds of professionals and one very good national team. Everything else will develop naturally around this participation; the coaches and facilities, spectators and fans, the merchandise and sponsorship, the media coverage and advertising dollars.
There are an estimated 41 million children in the US playing organized, competitive sports. Their parents spend on average $2000 per year to pay club dues, for professional coaching and for sports equipment. Those who travel spend an additional $2000 - $4000 per year. Everyone talks about the "American market" in relation to cricket but I'm not sure how many of these people realize this market is driven by youth participation.
USYCA: Why do you think that, in past years, youth cricket was more of an afterthought for many in the US cricket community? What has changed?
Blackledge: To be honest I'm not sure we have done enough yet to say it has changed. There are definitely a few good people working very hard to maintain and expand youth cricket in the US but it is far too few people and with nowhere near enough resources. The USYCA program is by far the best initiative I have seen to develop the game out here; it is easy to implement, inexpensive and it works but there has to be much more done by the stakeholders.
In my opinion, youth cricket has been an afterthought for a couple of reasons; one is there are relatively few youth cricketers. In our region, the South West Region, we have one of the highest concentrations of cricket players in the country, we have five recognized USACA cricket associations and thousands of registered players but we struggle to find enough youth players to put just one team together in each of the age groups. A lot of guys come here in their 20's and leave in their 30's. They don't settle and have kids.
Another reason is I do not think that the true value of the youth players has been recognized. If you look at how the ICC assigns grants to cricket nations you will see that the ranking of the national senior side is given 40% importance and the number of juniors playing cricket is given 10% importance. You can get a lot more money from the ICC by doing well at the senior level than you can by by having plenty of youth teams.
USYCA: What challenges do you see for youth cricket in the South West Region?
Blackledge: There are a number of challenges, not least the fact that our region is 800 miles long and 800 miles wide and also includes the Hawaiian islands. It's a large area to cover which means high travel costs to bring players together.
We also have to bridge a gap. The USYCA Schools Program is ideal as an initial introduction to cricket for our region's youth. We need volunteers - lots of volunteers - to help us promote it. Then we need to take these kids who have caught the cricket bug and be able to take them to the next level with various out-of-school programs. There is a real lack of cricket facilities, equipment and trained coaches and a lack of funding to be able to provide for any.
USYCA: What opportunities, both short and long term, do you see?
Blackledge: The challenges create the opportunities. Long term, the more people we can get playing cricket the more money for development will flow in to the game. A percentage of the youth we are able to reach will want to continue to develop their cricketing skills and play competitively. All we have to do is reach enough of them and provide a route. They will be the ones who buy the cricket equipment and insist on facilities to practice at. They will pay their annual dues to their clubs which will strengthen the leagues and the region. It is a ten-year plan.
Short term, I am hoping the current national administration will see the importance of developing and promoting youth cricket and will dedicate a percentage of the funding money they have assured us will be arriving shortly. I also have faith in the South West Region's new administration. We have a unique blend of experienced administrators and visionary individuals that all share a passion for the development of youth cricket.
USYCA: Richard, could you share the details of your comprehensive youth cricket development plan for the South West Region and the rationale behind each of your key objectives in this program?
Blackledge: In essence it is a very simple plan. Engaged youth + quality coaches + facilities = successful program.
For the school kids - reach as many as resources will allow. Introduce them to cricket. Make it easy for them to join an out of school program with a trained coach then get them into a team and the team into a tournament where they can compete. The coaches need to be qualified, so a coach training program is essential, and the coaches need to be paid for their time and expenses. For the youth who are already involved in cricket, we need to increase their access to qualified coaches and reasonable training facilities so they can hopefully progress to representing our region and the national team, as some have already done.
USYCA: Have you established a timeline for achieving certain benchmarks within the program?
Blackledge: I've started an outreach campaign to see how many genuinely engaged people we have to call on.
I would like to see the schools program begin immediately and work towards hosting a small youth festival or festivals as soon as we are able. I've been in touch with a number of people to help decide when the best timing would be to host these youth festivals given the school year. I would definitely expect this to happen with in the next 12 months. I have outlined a coach training program which needs authorization from the ICC through USACA. The budget for formulating and marketing the coach training program will need to be approved by the South West Region board and funds acquired.
I am aiming to have the business plan for this drawn up by mid-summer so we can get started with the program in time for the 2012 season.
USYCA: Richard, some teams or leagues will happily participate because they share your vision. But how do you reach out to those in the SWR that don't see youth cricket development as their concern?
Blackledge: There has been a culture of administrators dictating their goals to leagues and clubs. This hasn't worked.
I am in a very fortunate position as the South West Region Youth Coordinator in that every one of the five cricket associations in our region recognizes the importance of youth cricket development and has some sort of a youth program running, many of them just need additional support to help them grow. My goal is that we reach individuals at club level to help feed the league programs and the regional initiatives. There are going to be some clubs who don't have anyone who is willing to help with youth development. I think it's important to stay in touch with these clubs through the leagues so they always have the opportunity to start their own program when they feel the time is right.
As the youth players grow they will strengthen the clubs that have been part of their development.
USYCA: Programs such as this cost cost money. What financial and material support will you need to accomplish your objectives and from where do you hope to receive this support?
Blackledge: I am aiming to make each aspect of the youth development plan self sustaining. Where initial investment is required we will be looking to sponsors and to cricket stakeholders who will benefit from the work we do. The newly elected chairman of the South West Region, Kelly Dunagan, is working on a marketing and outreach program that will benefit the whole region and in doing so the youth program. There are also some monies available in the form of grants from USACA and ICC for youth development.
USYCA: Who are some of the key individuals with whom you'll be partnering to implement the program?
Blackledge: The response so far has been very positive.
There are a long list of cricket administrators, parents, qualified coaches and school officers from the region who have already expressed their willingness to get involved. I see a beneficial future in our association with USYCA. Former England Test bowler Simon Jones has expressed an interest in helping develop youth cricket in the South West Region and Gareth Batty of Surrey and England, whose father George was one of my coaches as a young man, has been very helpful in making introductions to a couple of well respected cricket development officers who work with the county sides in England.
USYCA: Richard, let's look into the future for a moment. Five years from now, what do you expect the situation to be in regard to youth cricket in the South West Region?
Blackledge: Within five years I would like to see each district within our region represented at U13, U15 and U19. It is a huge undertaking but one that I believe is very achievable with the right people involved.