Crisis in schoolboy cricket

SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — The way Burtram “Barry” Barnes tells it, back in 2007 when he began coaching at Manchester High, there were more than 50 schools competing in the all-rural Under-19 Headley Cup cricket competition.

There has been a marked decline since then, to such an extent that in the 2023 season which ended in May, only 41 high schools were involved in schoolboy cricket across Jamaica.

That’s 27 schools in the all-rural Headley Cup and 14 in the urban Grace Shield.

By contrast, in the ongoing schoolboy football season 81 high schools are competing in the all-rural daCosta Cup and 43 in the urban Manning Cup.

School leaders and coaches say high costs is the main reason for the dwindling number of schools playing the glorious sport of bat and ball.

“Most principals back away from cricket because it costs an arm and a leg,” said former Jamaica fast bowler Dwight Stewart, coach of Clarendon College, who at 40 years old still plays at parish and community level.

Stewart noted that while schoolboy football brings in significant revenue through gate receipts, cricket is seen as a burden though its value in encouraging discipline is well recognised.

Such has been the decline that, Westmoreland, readily recognised among Jamaica’s leading cricket nurseries had no representation in rural high school cricket in the 2023 season.

Keith Wellington, principal of St Elizabeth Technical High School (STETHS), the most dominant school in Jamaican schoolboy cricket over the last 40 years, said STETHS spent a “minimum” $4.5 million on its Under-14, Under-16, and Under-19 cricket programmes in the past season.

As is the case for other sporting disciplines, long travel time to and from home, means STETHS and a number of other rural schools are compelled to provide boarding, including meals, for its cricketers. That, said Wellington, represents a “huge” expense, alongside the cost of gears, transportation to honour fixtures, wages for technical staff, et al.

In the 2023 season, STETHS coached by former fast bowler, Clive Ledgister, won the all-rural Headley Cup, the all-island Spalding Cup, and the all-rural Twenty/20 title.

Recognition of the financial burden influenced United States-based STETHS past student Reuben Robinson to contemplate raising funds to help meet cricket costs at the Santa Cruz-based school.

Robinson was watching the T20 all-rural final between his alma mater and Manchester High in late April and chatting with friends when the cost factor struck him like a blow to the abdomen.

Cricket, he later told the Jamaica Observer, is without doubt the “most winning sport” for STETHS, but in his estimation “it is also a liability”.

With STETHS having to travel as far as Montego Bay to play in the first round of the all-rural Headley Cup, Robinson focused on transportation to emphasise his point.

“The school has to buy fuel, it has to pay a bus driver… and that money is coming from somewhere else [not cricket],” he said.

In the rural areas especially, the dwindling number of participating schools means fewer games. However, there is more and longer travel time, often across parish borders — with related expenses — to complete match fixtures.

Like Stewart, Robinson drew comparison with schoolboy football, which, for many schools including STETHS, substantially earns and pays its way.

Robinson decided there and then to begin a fund-raising project.

At short notice, he made contact with 27 friends, mostly past students, and raised US$2,700. The money was handed over to the STETHS cricket programme during a ceremony to honour the school’s under-19 representatives on the last day before the summer holiday break in early July.

While his ideas for funding the cricket programme are still being fleshed out, he has visions of coordinating with past students — especially past cricketers — in the USA and beyond as well as alma mater groups in Jamaica.

School leaders and coaches say the cost of gear also weigh heavily.

“Thirty pairs of cricket shoes can easily run you $600,000,” said Wellington, who is also head of the Inter-secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA) which has organised high school sporting competitions in Jamaica for decades.

Barnes also listed 30 pairs of “boots” around $600,000.

Yet onerous as those expenses are for established cricket-playing schools, Wellington said the situation is even more challenging for new entrants and those without a strong reputation in the sport.

For STETHS, cricket–playing past students and overseas admirers in England in particular, regularly donate gear which means “a lot of our players have their own bats and other equipment…,” Wellington said.

It’s very different for others like May Day High School.

Located just outside Mandeville, May Day High shocked the cricket fraternity by reaching the 2023 Headley Cup final against STETHS. That was after only starting an Under-19 cricket programme in 2019.

Stanford Davis, the cricket-loving principal at May Day told the Sunday
Observer in mid-year that up to then, he still had outstanding bills in excess of $2 million. “We are paying little by little,” he said then.

According to Davis the 2023 cricket programme cost May Day High a “minimum $5 million”.

A forthright Barnes said the dwindling number of participating schools and a relatively short season means that for those without expectation of winning a trophy and without players with real prospects of advancement in the sport, playing cricket can end up as a pointless expense.

“Yuh can’t ask a school to play maybe only four games, spend nearly $2 million, and then they get knocked out… season done. That makes no sense,” said the Manchester High coach.

Intriguingly, checks by the Sunday
Observer suggest urban schools have far less of a financial burden – largely because of the relatively short distances to play games. That means transportation costs are a fraction of their rural counterparts. Also, for many urban schools a short trip home, means there is no need for players to board or overnight on school campuses.

Patrick Kidd, cricket manager and senior fundraiser at Wolmer’s Boys’, which won the urban Grace Shield as well as the all-island T20 competition, identified coach’s fees and gear among that school’s cricket programme’s biggest costs.

Kidd also underlined transportation costs, revealing that “a trip to the country (by Wolmer’s) for a practice match can cost you $30,000”.

Obviously, children whose parents fall in middle to higher income segments are in a far better position to play cricket. But even then the cost of gear is a turnoff.

A check with sports goods stores in August showed prices for cricket bats ranging from an extreme low of just under $20,000 to in excess of $40,000 for higher-end brands. A pair of pads cost in excess of $7,000 at a minimum, a pair of gloves $5,000. Helmets were priced at between $6,500 and $8,500 each.

Sponsorship helps. However, the rapid decline of cricket both in terms of participation and spectator interest has dimmed enthusiasm in the business community.

Senator Don Wehby, a longstanding friend of cricket and head of the Grace Kennedy conglomerate which has sponsored schools’ sport, including cricket, for decades, told the Sunday Observer that falloff in sponsorship support is directly related to the dire state of cricket in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.

“West Indies, and may I say, Jamaica cricket, is at an all-time low. I think this has contributed to the (relatively low) support of schoolboy cricket,” Wehby said in a WhatsApp exchange.

Like others, including Wellington, Wehby said failure by the news media – both print and electronic – to properly cover schools’ cricket is a serious damper.

For Grace Kennedy, continuing sponsorship support for schools’ cricket is seen “as an investment in our youth and schools”, Wehby said.

Back in 2020, a task force led by Wehby produced the Wehby Report, which reviewed and made recommendations regarding governance in West Indies cricket.

The Jamaica Cricket Association (JCA), the over arching body for the sport, partners with ISSA by providing clothing for all schools playing competitive cricket.

“We outfit all participating schools with 20 pairs of white clothes – shirts and pants …” Kerry Scott, a JCA executive, who liases with ISSA, told the Sunday
Observer by telephone.

Yet, in the aftermath of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which devastated cricket, Scott said the “focus” is now on primary schools in order to restore the “feeder” for high schools and by extension senior levels.

Junior Bennett, chairman of selectors for Jamaica cricket and a highly respected former senior Jamaica and under-19 national coach, is now the point man for a primary school development programme which targets boys and girls. The programme, ongoing for some time, was recently launched by Sport Minister Olivia Grange.

It’s a partnership of the JCA and Government agencies Institute of Sport (INSPORT) and the Sports Development Foundation (SDF).

Bennett and Ledgister, both of whom manage the primary school programme at an operational level, have been travelling the country delivering children-focused kits containing soft balls, junior bats and stumps, et al, to schools. They also work with school leaders, teachers and students, imparting the basics of the game.

For Bennett, who coached cricket at STETHS for much of the 1980s, the 1990s and the early 2000s, the primary school programme has been eye-opening.

“When COVID touched down, children now in Grade Five were in Grade Two. Since then there has been very little guidance and what we find now is that they have bad habits… many are batting lap-hand, with a cross-hand grip. We have to be correcting such things,” he said.

Bennett is applauding primary school leaders “everywhere” for what he describes as a “welcoming and very cooperative” demeanour.

“They really want to play cricket”, he said.

He has very high praise for INSPORT national sports coordinator, Dawn Heron, for driving the programme – inclusive of camps for children.

He told how after a post-COVID “talent scout”, Heron said to him “so Junior, yuh find talent now, what yuh going to do with it? … yuh can’t stop”.

“She [Heron] has been a tower of strength,” said Bennett.

High school leaders and coaches are embracing the primary school development programme because of its potential for encouraging participation at an early age and expanding the talent pool.

As explained by Kirkland Bailey, coach at Excelsior High, each year before COVID-19 he would find several newly arrived 12-and 13-year-old students with good, basic cricket knowledge. Nowadays, he is only seeing “one or two”, he said.

Observers have said that the Jamaica Government’s controversial decision to not bid to host games for next year’s ICC T20 World Cup in the Caribbean has had one positive spin-off.

In explaining the decision, Grange committed the Government to spending $100-million over five years on cricket development. It’s felt in cricket circles that high schools must inevitably benefit from any such programme.

All agree that whatever happens from here, the decline of Jamaican high school cricket – a strong feeder for West Indies teams since Wolmerian RK Nunes, who became the very first captain in the regional team’s debut Test match in 1928 – cannot be allowed to continue.

“We can’t do without high school cricket,” said former Jamaica cricketer Terrence Corke, who coached the Jamaica Under-19 team to historic red-ball and white-ball trophies in regional age-group competitions in July and August.

Six of those players – Adrian Weir (Vere Technical), Steve Wedderburn (Kingston College), Jordan Johnson (Wolmer’s), Reon Edwards (May Day High), Deshawn James (STETHS) and Tamarie Redwood (Excelsior) – would later travel as part of a West Indies team on a development tour of Sri Lanka in September.

School leaders and coaches say incentives – such as an age-group cricket tournament set for Florida next month in which Excelsior High, May Day High, and Tacky High are scheduled to participate – can help to encourage enthusiasm for the sport among students.

“This [tournament] is the best thing since sliced bread for the boys,” said Sheldon Pryce, coach of Tacky High, based in Gayle, western St Mary.

Also, a passion for cricket at leadership level helps.

Dr Donovan Bennett, vice-president of the Jamaica Cricket Association and a Cricket West Indies board director, was pivotal – first as coach and then as manager – to the evolution of STETHS as a force in schools’ cricket going back more than four decades.

He recalled that John Pottinger, school principal in the 1970s and early 80s, did “everything in his power” to encourage cricket.

STETHS won its first Headley Cup in 1979. However, 10 years earlier, the eight-year-old school – skippered by current Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett and coached by Steve Bucknor, who later became an International Cricket Council (ICC) elite umpire – reached the all-rural final against Vere Technical.

Today, the passion showed by Pottinger is perhaps best exemplified by Davis, the May Day principal, who insists “that any school I lead has to play cricket”.

According to Davis, when he arrived at May Day High in 2009, there were no cricket facilities.

It took nearly a decade, but a turf pitch and concrete practice pitches were built eventually, and a coach (Oral Simpson) contracted. Today, cricket is so popular at May Day High that “10-20 children in every class want to play…” claimed Davis.

He is pleased that apart from reaching the all-rural final this year, his school has produced high-quality players that show the potential to reach the top.

Davis said he cried “tears of joy” when the news reached him earlier this year that two of his players, Edwards, a left-arm fast bowling allrounder, and right-arm fast bowler, Nashane Meade, had made the Jamaica Under-19 team. Edwards later made the West Indies tour to Sri Lanka.

Davis’s advice to others is that while a cricket programme is difficult and expensive, it is immeasurably valuable in building character.

“…At my school, our cricketers are among the most disciplined students. They do everything for themselves. They prepare the pitch – except cutting the grass – they mark the pitch. And they know that if they are not disciplined, the coach is not going to allow them to play,” said Davis.

“I would encourage schools to start a programme even at the Under-14 level, we know it’s expensive but if you start somewhere you will get somewhere. If each parent assists their child it makes it easier… parents have it difficult but everybody in Jamaica has somebody abroad and if they say my ‘child is playing cricket and need some assistance’ for gear and so forth, they will get help. So start there,” he said.

Davis said he lives by what he calls the Moses principle.

“What do you have in your hand? He [the Biblical Moses] had his rod, he used it. So whatever you have, use it…,” he said.

Cricket watchers believe that May Day High’s story should be an inspiration for other schools.

Businessman Cosmo Brooks, who played cricket for the Manning’s School in Westmoreland and later Excelsior High in the early 1970s, was shocked when he discovered earlier this year that Manning’s hadn’t played competitive cricket in years.

He told the Sunday Observer in mid-year that he and other past students were determined to correct the situation. He said substantial material support had already been provided and there were talks with the leadership at Manning’s to revive cricket there. The Manning’s School nurtured Chester Watson, the West Indies and Jamaica fast bowler of the early 1960s.

Brooks envisions restarting a programme at a junior level with “first and second formers…”

When told of May Day High’s experience, an enthused Brooks declared, “If they [May Day High] can do it, we can too…”