Sian Kelly: English coach in Argentina taking women's cricket to new audiences

By James LawBBC Sport
Sian Kelly: Argentina head coach on inspiring next generation

"I want to make sure girls over here have the same sporting opportunities I was lucky enough to have in England."

Less than three years ago Sian Kelly stumbled on an advert that would change her life and take her to countries she had never dreamed of visiting.

It sounds like the beginnings of a gap year - a student travelling the world to 'find themselves' - but her journey is far from that stereotype.

Sian, 23, is the first female head coach of the Argentina women's cricket side and has even revived Chile's national team - all while introducing young girls to the game.

BBC Sport went to Buenos Aires to find out how a Spanish speaker from Solihull is spreading the message of a sport she did not previously know existed in the continent.

'I was scared to leave my flat' - making the move

Despite bringing together her passions for cricket, languages and women's sport, Sian, who has represented Warwickshire's women's team as wicketkeeper, had doubts from the moment the coaching opportunity came to her attention.

"I had looked at the job originally and thought 'I don't know if I'll go for it because they'll want a guy to do the role," she told BBC Sport.

"Of course as a young female moving 7,000 miles from home there were some reservations, but I think with this sort of thing you just have to go for it."

Having never set foot outside Europe, she found herself plonked in the middle of Argentina's capital city, Buenos Aires, as the then 20-year-old embarked on a year abroad as part of her Spanish degree.

Living with four fellow fresh-faced overseas coaches softened the blow, but the early stages were tough.

"Going from Solihull to the centre of Buenos Aires was a massive culture shock," said Sian. "I didn't really leave my flat for the first couple days or weeks, I was a bit scared to leave."

Sian Kelly dancing tango
From coaching to being coached - Sian takes tango tips from a local in Buenos Aires

Fast-forward two and a half years and Sian is the only one of the five still in the country - with a consultancy job alongside her demanding coaching duties - and has even come around to the slower-paced tempo of living.

"The laid-back culture over here, I definitely didn't like it at the start," she said. "As a coach I was a bit more rigid in my structure.

"But you soon learn in Argentina that you have to be able to go with the flow, and to be honest I think that's made me a much better coach. I think Buenos Aires is a great city."

Cricketing culture is something the country lacks - it falls below football, hockey and rugby union - and there is a reliance on expatriates like Sian to get locals on board.

"It's very difficult to tell a Latin person that a game can last five days," confirms Hernan Pereira, president of Cricket Argentina.

"Even one day - they don't understand how you can be playing a sport for six hours."

There are, however, some occasional, unexpected, home comforts. A planned match for the national women's team, known as the Flamingos, is rained off during our visit - at the peak of the usually-searing South American summer.

"I guess that's cricket for you, the Argentines are getting an authentic cricketing experience," joked Sian, who perhaps hoped travelling 7,000 miles would guarantee better weather.

When play is possible, there is a familiar foe - Brazil.

Argentina were beaten by their rivals in the final of the South American Cricket Championships, but their response to the setback provides Sian with her proudest coaching moment.

"The girls were gutted, so we actually invited Brazil over for a series and ended up winning," she says.

"It was just really nice as a coach to see the transformation the girls had made, and the work they'd put in paying off, and seeing that sort of tangible change in a short amount of time."

A role model, close friend and 'one of us'

Players have a team talk
A series victory against Brazil is Sian's standout memory of her time in charge so far

To the surprise of many, Argentina inherited cricket before football from the English in the 19th century.

Whether it is bowling tennis balls to kids in playgrounds, coaching, umpiring or occasionally playing, Sian is giving her all to Argentine cricket, but what impact is she having?

"Having these very talented players knowing cricket tactics and bringing the cricket culture for us, it doesn't have a value. It's one of the most important things that we have, so we have to be very grateful," said Argentina women's captain Veronica Vasquez.

"Sian's the coach, obviously, and she has the power and authority, but when we finish our training or matches she's one of us."

The squad travel together annually to compete in the continental championships, which will be in Peru this year.

Changes to how the game's governing body, the International Cricket Council, distributes funding means the team have to pay out of their own pocket to compete in their only major tournament of the year, but team spirit binds them together.

"Sian's the female coach that for a long time we didn't have - she came and it was really surprising," all-rounder Mariana Martinez said.

"We were changing a lot of the coaches so constantly. When she stayed for a couple of years she put so much trust in us as a team - that's one of the things I will thank Sian for."

Batsman Martina Del Valle added: "Now I know her as a person she's one of my closest friends in cricket. We go out many times, we share many moments."

However, it is Sian's work introducing young girls to the game that could be her lasting legacy.

She coaches and puts on events for the so-called 'Mini Flamingos', inviting children from disadvantaged backgrounds for a taste of a sport which had been reserved for the higher classes.

"Sian's very funny and you like cricket when she's the coach," said 10-year-old Tessie.

Sian Kelly coaching
Sian is at the forefront of Cricket Argentina's aim to get more girls playing the sport

Arguably her most impressive talent is a can-do attitude to spot a problem and put it right, shown by what she achieved during four months studying in Chile.

Sian was downhearted when Chile's team folded before the 2016 continental championship, meaning only three countries contested the women's tournament.

"It made the competition really rubbish, playing against the same two teams all the time," she said.

"I ended up speaking to people and finding out what had happened - it was basically a fall out - so I thought 'I've got a lot of free time, why don't I try and put this back together'."

That was precisely what she did, locating new players to join some of the returning old guard, and helping find sponsorship to get the team back up and running.

"All it did was get them back together, get somebody to say 'let's put these differences aside and start a new team and attract some new players'," Sian added.

"It's a credit to them really, I just gave them a little push in the right direction."

Mixing with the men to help women

It is only as an adult that Sian has appreciated how fortunate she was to have spent her sporting childhood, playing alongside twin sister Marie - now captain of Warwickshire - at Earlswood Cricket Club.

"As a young girl starting to play I don't think I realised the extent of how few girls were playing," she said.

"I've always played men's cricket as a female back home and I love that competitive edge."

'Competitive' is a word many use to describe Sian, even when it came to winning the 50p bag of sweets on offer in catching competitions as a child.

She and her sister were first coached by John Snipe and Phil McGovern, who runs a charitable foundation which has helped fund her Argentina flights.

"Something that's really special to both of us is they were so good with inviting us and welcoming us as girls in the club," she said.

"Whilst that should be the case in all the clubs, it's not."

Earlswood girls team photo
Sian (back row, second from left) played alongside twin sister Marie (front, centre) in their club's first-ever girls' team

The former Oxford student has excelled as a player, hitting three centuries in Varsity matches against university rivals Cambridge and playing for her county.

And she has been able to draw on these experiences in Argentina, where the women's game is not as prevalent and finding local female opposition for the Flamingos is near-impossible.

"Men don't get to see a wide variety of women playing cricket, so perceptions might be slightly different to in England," she said.

"When you have a team of young girls it's sometimes a bit uncomfortable to put them against older males, and likewise if you've got older, more experienced, women you don't want to put them against under-13 boys."

This is something they are starting to tackle, with Sian at the heart of a long-term development strategy which they hope will one day earn Argentina Test status.

What next? And advice for aspiring coaches

Having returned to England this month to visit family and friends, Sian will take up a new job with Cricket Argentina on her return to Buenos Aires.

She has been promoted to women's development officer, a more strategic role which will see her spend at least another year overseas, organising tournaments and ensuring that clubs not only get girls playing but provide coaching to help them improve.

"It's time now to step up a little bit, learn how to put in some development pathways and properly learn how to make a lasting change," she said. "That's really exciting."

It will involve less hands-on coaching but carries extra responsibility, which should increase her chances of a successful future career in cricket.

"I'd love my job to be to spread cricket - not just in England, it could be in any country - just to try to expand the base of people that get to know the sport and receive all the benefits I have from it," she added.

"It's just about trying to give girls an opportunity to play an amazing sport that can really help them in life, jobs, making friendships and travelling all over the world."

Her boss, Cricket Argentina chief executive Esteban McDermott, puts no ceiling on what she can achieve.

"I think the sky's the limit - she could have a good role back home at some point, because all the experience she's gathering is easy to replicate," he said.

"We'll do our best to keep her, but we understand it's a normal progression in the profession to go back home and try to get bigger roles in a cricketing country."

Cricket group shot
Belgrano Cricket Club in Buenos Aires hosts most of Sian's national team and children's sessions

Sian started coaching at the age of 16, doing the occasional Friday night at her local club, and four years later was leading a national team, her job also taking her to Brazil and Mexico.

"I do have to pinch myself sometimes," she said. "I've managed to travel the world doing cricket and make a job out of a hobby and sport I love, so it's really changed my life."

So what would she say to any budding female coaches thinking of gaining experience abroad?

"Look for positions that might interest you and don't doubt yourself - think 'why not' and just go for it," she added.

"I think female coaches are more in demand than people think.

"Seeing these little girls' faces when they take a catch for the first time, or hit their first four or six - or even when they answer a question, when I say 'what's a wide ball' and you see their eyes light up and they say 'I know, I know' - that's the most exciting and rewarding thing for me."