Skills and thrills

If you have ever wondered how to define the word befuddlement, a group of Italians watching British children honing their cricket skills on an Astroturf football pitch serves pretty well. I even overheard one of them muttering “confusionale”, which needed no translation, as former England captain Alec Stewart stood behind three yellow plastic stumps rolling a ball to his charges, and encouraging one to throw in hard while another backed up in case of a fumble. Confusionale, indeed.

Last year I took my 12-year-old son to the inaugural Super Skills Travel Rugby Academy, run by ex-England internationals Will Greenwood and Austin Healey, at the Forte Village resort in southern Sardinia. This Easter we went back for the unveiling of the same company’s Cricket Academy, which boasted a similarly illustrious set of coaches: alongside Stewart were former England wicket-keeper Paul Nixon, England’s former assistant coach and chief analyst Mark Garaway, and, the icing on the cake, 2005 Ashes-winning captain Michael Vaughan.

Speaking of icing the cake, it was Stewart’s 49th birthday on our day of arrival, which might not be worth mentioning except that one of the children, seven-year-old Sachin, was actually aware of the fact, so assiduously had he researched the man whose playing career had concluded two years before he, Sachin, was born.

Not every child was quite so clued up but all the dads and most of the mums knew they were in the presence of world-class sporting talent, which might have accounted for the slight frisson of nervousness at the welcoming drinks reception. It was dispelled by the engagingly irrepress­ible Nixon, who explained that he was anxious speaking in front of such a big audience, not being used to large crowds having played for Leicestershire for so many years. Laughter – the ice was broken.

The company was born two years ago, and Greenwood and Healey were unwitting midwives. Friends since the age of 16, they were holidaying together with their families at Forte Village and one evening stepped on to the stage in the resort’s central piazza to ask if anyone fancied bringing their kids to an informal coaching session the following day.

A fellow holidaymaker called Ed Rusling duly took his two children along and revelled in the spectacle of young Max and Isabella learning rugby skills from a World Cup winner (Greenwood) and, to Isabella's delight, a Strictly Come Dancing quarter-finalist (Healey). He asked if they’d thought of making a full-time enterprise out of the notion of top-class sports instruction for children as part of a family holiday? They hadn’t but, right there and then, they did. Within two days they had their articles of association. Arrangements were made with the Forte Village and Super Skills Travel, with Rusling, Greenwood and Healey as directors, was in business.

The concept stands or falls, of course, not just on the names and pulling power of the coaches but also on their chemistry with children both small and large (aged between five and 16). Greenwood and Healey, respectively fathers of three and four themselves, represent the ideal formula: fun, sometimes even indulgent, but authoritative. They duly looked for other recruits with the same skills, and the same sporting aura, and found them in Jason Robinson and Jason Leonard. This summer, more­over, none other than Martin Johnson (the former England captain, World Cup winner and manager) has been added to the rugby coaching team.

Not least of the attractions of these Super Skills Travel trips is that the “legends”, as the coaches are immodestly but not unreasonably called, are happy to engage with the kids and their parents at all hours. On Easter Monday I sat at the bar for half an hour in the early evening, discussing England’s recent test performances with Alec (“call me Stewie”) Stewart. If he yearned to be elsewhere, he showed no sign. Nixon, Garaway and Vaughan were no less approachable.

Michael Vaughan behind the wicket

As for their coaching methods; that was the most impressive thing of all. The children were divided into three groups according to age and ability, and it was clear from the outset that they were in the most practised of hands. Stewart took the older kids, including my son Jake and his friend Will, and among many other drills had them catching and throwing with the left eye closed, then the right. Stewart explained how Sherylle Calder, a South African former hockey international who has developed a vision training programme called Eye Think, had improved the England cricket team’s fielding by 30 per cent by strengthening their eye muscles. Her closed-eye routine gets their brains picking up depth and pace and it worked with the children too.

All the coaches applied and adapted their own coaching experiences with England, with Garaway, the analysis expert who was Kevin Pietersen's motivator-in-chief for four years and is now a cricket coach at Millfield School, forensically deconstructing batting and bowling techniques.

As yet there are no cricket nets at Forte Village but there are plans to install them, which will really give those befuddled Italians something to talk about. Rugby is not such a mystery to them and nor is golf, which is probably the next sport to get the Super Skills Travel treatment, with Irish former Ryder Cup player Paul McGinley at the top of the list of potential coaches. Football is not yet in the pipeline and, in any case, it is already covered at Forte Village. Roman Abramovich visited a few years ago and was so impressed that he established an annual Chelsea Soccer School there.

At the Cricket Academy, if anyone’s high spirits flagged, the charismatic Nixon was on hand to restore them. At the start of each coaching session he got the children into a group huddle – again, just like the England team – and it was marvellous to see 13-year-olds hunkering down with no whiff of teenage resentment at the indignity of consorting with seven-year-olds.

There are, too, plenty of unheralded bonuses for the watching parents (those who do watch, that is; inevitably, some use the coaching as a babysitting service). I came back with lots of new ideas for gingering up cricket in the garden with my sons, and also mindful of something Nixon said to me, as we watched a talented 10-year-old fizzing in to bowl. “The only thing that will stop them getting better is their parents, or their teachers, being too pushy or too critical.”

Brian Viner was a guest of Super Skills Travel. A week at the cricket academy at Forte Village costs from £4,599 for a family of four (three days full board, four days half board) including two hours coaching for two children on five mornings

SPORTING CHANCE: More tuition from the stars

Colin Montgomerie

The Colin Montgomerie Links Golf Academy runs year-round at Scotland’s Turnberry resort, offering coaching from professionals trained in the “Monty method”. Montgomerie himself also gives occasional clinics; the next will be from September 10-12.

Pat Cash

The 1987 Wimbledon champion coaches at Buccament Bay resort in St Vincent and the Grenadines. The next course will be in August (dates to be confirmed).

Craig Bellamy

The Liverpool striker and former Wales captain will be coaching at two four-day training camps for children in June at the Disney Soccer Academy, at Disney World, Florida.

Stephen Roche

Keen cyclists can ride alongside Stephen Roche (winner of the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and World Championship in 1987) at the HotChillee Alpine Challenge. The four-day event features timed rides over classic cols, and rolling road closures.

Graeme Le Saux

The former Chelsea and England footballer is running a week’s course for families on the Italian island of Elba. The course, run in conjunction with tour operator Powder Byrne, starts on June 2.

Gareth Southgate

The former England captain is one of several players who will teach children this year at the Liverpool FC Soccer School at Buccament Bay in St Vincent and the Grenadines. Southgate will coach from October 28 to November 4 2012;

Jeremy Bates

Starting on November 11, the Carlisle Bay hotel in Antigua will run a week’s tennis workshop for adults and teenagers led by former England number one Jeremy Bates.

Andrew Flintoff

The former England all-rounder now runs the Andrew Flintoff Cricket Academy, which runs courses at more than 40 UK venues during school holidays. Some are residential, using boarding school accommodation, others are for day visitors; all include a visit by Flintoff or another star player.

Lemma Shehadi

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