Recreational cricket restrictions cannot be relaxed, says prime minister Boris Johnson

The ECB has been involved in close dialogue with government over recent weeks, with attempts made to make allowances for the sport's return among its amateur ranks

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Current restrictions preventing the return of recreational cricket cannot be lifted yet, prime minister Boris Johnson has said.

The ECB has been involved in close dialogue with government over recent weeks, with attempts made to lay the foundations for the sport's return among its amateur ranks.

Over the weekend, leagues across the country began making contact with clubs preparing them for a possible resumption, with the governing body briefing that an early-July return was possible as late as Tuesday morning.

However, on the same day he announced the reopening of bars, restaurants, outdoor gyms and cinemas on July 4, Johnson responded to a question in the House of Commons by saying the limitations currently in place on cricket - a maximum of six people from separate households taking part in socially-distanced practice sessions - cannot yet be relaxed.

"The problem with cricket, as everyone understands, is that the ball is a natural vector of disease - potentially, at any rate," he said.

"We’ve been around it many times with our scientific friends. At the moment we’re still working on ways to make cricket more Covid-secure but we can’t change the guidance yet."

The Cricketer understands that the statement took the cricket development world in England and Wales by surprise, with some figures only being made aware of the content minutes before Johnson stood up in the Commons.

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Recreational cricketers in the UK will have to wait a little longer for a return to match action

The ECB gave a target date for recreational cricket's resumption for the first time, in a statement on Tuesday evening.

"The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) along with the nation’s cricket players are keen to see the imminent and safe return of our sport at recreational level and have been working hard with government to achieve this," the statement read,

"We believe that cricket is a non-contact sport, with very low risks of exposure, and that it can be played as safely as many other activities being currently permitted. It is our strong desire to work with government to see the return of recreational cricket on or around July 4, as they continue to lift other restrictions more broadly across society.

"We are heartened that the government has already permitted the return of other ball sports, including tennis and basketball, and we are sure that our interpretation of the risks around ball transmission is consistent with these other games.

"We can confirm that any guidance we share with the game will include directions on how to mitigate any risk from handling the ball as we continue to prioritise the health and safety of the cricket family in all our decision-making."

Several Premier Leagues across the country have already cancelled their formal calendars for 2020, while north of the border Scotland has abandoned all national league and cup competitions for the year.

Some leagues in England had retained hope of introducing an abbreivated season from mid-July, including relegation and promotion, but the prime minister's words on Tuesday give little hope that this will be possible.

In May, as part of The Cricketer's wide-ranging investigation into the effect of the coronavirus on the sport, Sir Jeremy Farrar - one of the world's foremost infectious disease experts, a member of the government's special advisory group SAGE and a keen amateur cricketer - suggested August was a viable return date for the recreational game.

Internal discussions between the ECB and its stakeholders have included proposals based around six and eight-a-side matches in July, in the event that restrictions do not cater for full 11-a-side cricket.

Simon Prodger, the managing director of the National Cricket Conference, told The Telegraph this week that clubs would be ready to resume as early as July 5 if circumstances allow.

He said: "It's a reasonable expectation to believe that we might be in a position to play some form of cricket in the next three weeks.

"There's nothing that the ECB can do about getting competitive cricket back on if the Government is not prepared to increase the size of the social bubbles that we can operate in and enable cricket to be played within the environment of the Covid pandemic."

Many clubs are suffering substantial losses from a summer without the recreational game, with membership subscriptions, bar and venue hire revenue, and junior coaching fees making up the majority of the financial hole.

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The ECB made available £20million in grants and loans in April, while Sport England, Sport Wales and local authority schemes have helped keep some clubs afloat. The ECB has not yet provided figures for the amount of money claimed from its programme, nor the number of clubs which have taken advantage.

There is a real danger that a cricket-less summer could result in many being unable to survive. Others, meanwhile, are more concerned with the repayment of debt in 2021, or how they will spread maintenance and renovation costs across two years. 

County cricket, which may well return to action in August, is subject to a different set of guidelines - relating to elite sport.

Worcestershire's players came off furlough this week to begin preparations for the season, while Yorkshire's will follow on Monday.

The Cricketer understands Somerset and Gloucestershire both have plans to bring their squads off the government's Job Retention Scheme on July 1.

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