SPECIAL REPORT

Coronavirus and cricket: How Covid-19 has affected our game

Global pandemic and lockdown has left the sport in England and Wales counting the cost. So what happens next? And will we recover?
By SAM MORSHEAD
On March 23, everything stopped, and since then cricket has been counting the cost.

Over the past three weeks, The Cricketer has spoken to dozens of people at all levels of our sport - administrators, county chief executives, infectious disease experts, strength and conditioning coaches, agents, players, amateur club chairmen, groundstaff and junior coaches - to try to create as clear as possible a picture of the scale of the coronavirus’s effect on cricket, and the steps the game will need to take as it looks to move on from its worst summer in generations.

The story they tell is one of huge uncertainty: from the logistical nightmare facing the ECB as they try to salvage some sort of international season, to county penny-pushers trying to understand where losses will be made up, to a women’s game facing an intimidating challenge at just the point it was beginning to boom, to a recreational system swaying alarmingly in the disease’s wake.

It begins at the top, with the extraordinary effort being made to stage some behind-closed-doors cricket in less than two months’ time, and reaches down to the clubs reduced to online crowdfunding in their attempts to survive.

So what chance of cricket this year? How bad has this crisis hit us? And what will the future of our sport look like? 

Of all cricket in England and Wales, the men’s international game is by far the most likely to return soonest.

On Thursday, the ECB’s plans to get its players back training were released: one-on-one sessions at 11 county grounds, strictly abiding by the government’s “step one” guidelines for elite athletes. 

But this is just the start. The guidance for steps two and three, which relate to team training and then behind-closed-doors events, is still under wraps and will remain so until the government deems it safe. 

With that in mind, the ECB’s stated aim - to begin a Test series against West Indies on July 8 - still feels quite distant.

Is it a realistic goal? Or fanciful?

Sir Jeremy Farrar is one of the foremost infectious diseases specialists in the world.

A member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), he is part of a panel of experts who have collectively helped inform national strategy during the coronavirus crisis. 

A keen cricketer, Farrar’s position, insight and understanding of the sport make him a voice of authority in the debate over when cricket may be able to fully restart. And he believes the game, at international, county and recreational level, has every chance of returning in 2020.

“As the numbers of new cases of Covid-19 reduce – I hope over the coming weeks - and remain low, and (if) there was really good monitoring in place of the players and others involved, you could start to think about going back to having professional cricket played,” Farrar says.

“I think July 1 (the earliest date the ECB have currently yet to rule out for cricket this year) is optimistic for getting back. August 1 you could perhaps be in the position, with a lot of monitoring in place, to allow that to happen. But if you’re going to get professional sport back in action on August 1, you’re going to have to start planning now in terms of planning the logistics and training. 

“You can’t just turn on professional sport overnight, so you have to think back from August 1: what would we have to have in place by July 1 in terms of training schedules and logistics, and what would we have to have in place by June 1 to allow the season to kick off on, let’s say, August 1?”
Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the government's SAGE group, has told The Cricketer that he can see all cricket returning in August
Counties have been invited to make presentations to the ECB to host these matches, with venues which could be more easily made bio-secure standing out.

Emirates Old Trafford and the Ageas Bowl are the most appropriate venues. Both have on-site hotels and training facilities, as well as vast concourses to encourage social distancing. 

To achieve bio-security, a group of around 300 people - players, backroom staff, chefs, broadcasters and other key personnel - would need to be isolated within the chosen venue for a prolonged period.

Farrar argues that isolating everyone for a fortnight prior to the series starting would not be necessary - though incoming government regulations imposing 14-day quarantine on anyone coming into the country by air may pose an obstacle, with The Times reporting that sport is to lobby for those restrictions to be relaxed in certain instances.

Instead, Farrar would want to see a focus on education ahead of such an unprecedented event.

“A lot would need to be done. There’s no reason why anyone involved in the sport should understand the intricacies of how a virus is transmitted between people,” he says. 

“I would spend May, June and July planning all that: educating the players, umpires, groundspeople, broadcasters.
“If there are 300 people needed to stage a game, maybe they become a cohort of 300 people that do all of this. 

You may need to treat this as a group of 300 who are going to run the game at a national level for those six weeks and take time with them to explain what they can do to reduce their own risk, what they can do to help the monitoring take place, how the testing will work, so it’s not a surprise when it all rolls out on August 1. 

“That group of 300 may be best accommodated together for the season with limited locations to play the games and to reduce the risk of infections being brought into the group.”

In principle that could have meant no trips home for England’s players, for example. And certainly no physical contact with the outside world during the series.

But Ashley Giles, the managing director of England men’s cricket, is keen to ensure the players do not feel trapped or cut off from their families - the abandonment of the Sri Lanka tour in March was less down to the threat of Covid-19 and more the concerns among the travelling party about being detached from loved ones at a time of global crisis.

“While these guys are used to touring for three or four months, these aren’t normal conditions. With a pandemic going through the country, people are going to want to see their families and get home to see their kids. We’ve got to look at ways we can make that happen,” Giles says.
Cricket grounds have stayed empty so far this summer, due to the coronavirus pandemic
“It isn’t realistic to expect them to be in a bubble for 10 weeks. So we’re going to have to be smart about how we get them in and out of the environment - testing, tracing and tracking will probably have changed a hell of a lot by then and that should face us. Otherwise we’re going to have to be smart with selection as well.”

Could that mean leaving out players who have pressing personal matters? The Test captain, Joe Root, is expecting to become a father for the second time in July - right in the middle of the proposed West Indies series. What about Jack Leach, the left-arm spinner who suffers from Crohn’s disease and takes immunosuppressants to control his condition, potentially placing him in the extremely vulnerable category? Questions, yet more questions.

The practical implications of living within the bio-secure bubble are substantial.

Everyone should be tested every day, with anyone testing positive immediately being removed from the game. No one should leave, for risk of bringing back an infection. The Cricketer asks Farrar what would happen in the event of a positive test during a Test match. In football’s Premier League, according to The Guardian, a single positive Test could lead to an entire team being temporarily suspended from competition and quarantined. 

“I actually think, through really sensible, well thought-through planning, you can avoid that,” he says.

“You’re absolutely right to consider what would happen if a player was to test positive on day three but if you were able to create a closed community of the people involved, test everyone as they joined, and continued the the monitoring, logistics and organisation of the testing before and during the game the chances of that happening are small.”

Farrar suggests that the ECB should contract a private provider to conduct all testing on its behalf. It is unclear how much it would cost. Individual private tests are available for £149 upwards online, but this includes a substantial mark-up in price which for wholesale batches would be considerably smaller. There is a public relations issue, too, at a time when testing is still not being widely offered to key frontline workers, let alone the nation as a whole.
How a biosecure arena might work

Players, coaches and fans will see new cricketing lexicon enter the sport's dictionary when behind-closed-doors matches arrive later this summer.

A report in The Guardian has revealed the detailed plans being put together by the ECB to stage Tests against West Indies and Pakistan, which include a number of phrases which will be new to the cricketing world.

"Contact clusters": Small social gatherings of players or staff 

"Functional area": A designated zone within a stadium

"Island site": A venue with all facilities, including accommodation and training, housed within a bio-secure area

"Circle of trust": Group responsibility to refrain from non-essential contact with others

During the upcoming training period, the governing body will not test its players for antibodies or Covid-19. Instead, temperature checks and symptom questionnaires will be required every time anyone enters a venue - the minimum requirement of the government’s step one protocol.

It is unclear at present whether that programme would be ramped up within a bio-secure stadium for a behind-closed-doors match or series, as per Farrar’s advice. It may be that the government’s step three guidance demands it.

On top of this, there is the not insubstantial dilemma of ensuring visiting players feel safe. 

There have been murmurs of uncertainty emanating from Cricket West Indies, who have already stated that players will not be obliged to travel, should a tour be confirmed. 
The Caribbean has seen comparatively few Covid-19 deaths than the 30,000-plus in the UK over recent weeks, so much so that St Vincent and the Grenadines are hosting a T10 tournament - open to the public - from May 22.

"We're all relatively safe from a coronavirus point of view," CWI chief executive Johnny Grave told Sky Sports.

"Just in terms of sheer numbers of deaths in the UK, obviously over 30,000 people is an enormous number but in population terms here in the Caribbean for people who are based and who have lived most of their lives on the smaller islands, you are talking about 40-50 per cent of the total populations.

"It is a very different mindset here in terms of going to what is seen as one of the eyes of the storm of this virus.

"So we're going to have to be very, very careful that first up we take the medical advice that the ECB give us and secondly that we're 100 per cent sure that we're not putting any player's health at risk before we can contemplate the tour taking place."

There is empathy in the England camp, and senior figures - ECB chief executive Tom Harrison, director of special projects Steve Elworthy and chief medical officer Professor Nick Peirce - are all in constant contact with their Windies counterparts to try to ease anxieties.

“I would be nervous, but I think we’re all nervous. I went shopping last week and it’s a really weird feeling at the moment: you go out and you almost feel threatened by anyone who comes near you. That’s my experience. But that will change over time,” Giles says.

“Would we travel to the States right now? Probably not. It can be quite scary. We’re trying to do everything we possibly can to answer all the West Indies’ questions, we’ll be speaking to Pakistan as well, and mitigating as much risk as we possibly can to get guys comfortable.”
On Friday, senior figures from the ECB and PCB held a conference call over Zoom during which details of their proposed tour in August were discussed.

The ECB outlined how travel and transport to the UK, the testing process, and bio-secure venues and hotels would work, as part of working towards a three-Test and three-T20I trip.

For that to take place, the Pakistanis would need to arrive in England in early July, serve two weeks in quarantine before embarking on two weeks of practice.

PCB chief executive Wasim Khan is a central figure in the negotiations.

“First and foremost, the health and safety of our players and support staff will come first, and we won’t be doing anything until we’re convinced that our players can travel and be in an environment for two months without it being detrimental to their health and wellbeing in any way,” he tells The Cricketer.

The PCB will not compel their players to tour, in the event that a trip to England is deemed viable - the same stance as the West Indies.

“This is a matter of life and death, it’s a matter of health, it’s a personal matter and certainly the choice will be there for players,” Khan says. 

“We won’t be forcing players to travel. We’ll be respecting whether they want to travel or not: they will obviously want to consult with their families, which is totally understandable.

“It won’t be held against them and we will respect whichever decision they decide to make.

Hurdles certainly remain, then, but there is undoubtedly a willingness across the game, and seemingly from government too, for the highest level of men’s cricket to return.
England will have a 30-strong training group ahead of a proposed three-Test series against West Indies
However, cricket is about so much more, affects so many more, and elsewhere the situation is much, much less clear.

As Farrar points out, the process that needs to be implemented for live professional sport to return has to begin weeks and weeks in advance of matchday.

While England players resume training at county grounds with individual coaches this week, for the counties the problem is more complicated.

Bar the squads of Lancashire and Surrey, the vast majority of county players are currently on the government’s job retention scheme until at least the end of May. For players to be able to work with their clubs’ coaching staff, they must come off the furloughing programme. Whether the counties feel confident of footing that bill when a guaranteed start date is not yet in place is both unclear and unlikely. Right now, that date cannot be given by the governing body with any form of confidence, particularly with the threat of a second spike in infections still lingering.

As, when and if it can be established, a second pre-season will need to be implemented, with players undergoing the typical fitness tests they would ordinarily be put through in January and February. Then needs to follow a roughly six-week lead-up to the start of a new campaign, to ensure there is not a spate of injuries when the action gets under way.

England’s back-to-training timescale - bowlers returning on May 18 ahead of a proposed July 8 start to the season - illustrates this perfectly.

This length of build-up is primarily for fast bowlers, but is also designed to avoid bone injuries in the hands.

“If you look at the injury data that the ECB put out, one of the things that flags up is early season hand fractures. Not much of that is really due to the reactions or hand-eye coordination, it’s often down to bone density. They’re still adapting,” Surrey strength and conditioning lead Darren Veness says.

“If we don’t want an epidemic of that we have to allow the time to increase loads so the bone recognises it’s being banged up and responds by getting stronger. We’ve been trying to keep on top of throwing and catching. With bowling, this becomes even more crucial as the potential lay-off is significantly higher.

“Bone injury is a big deal to all the guys in the science and medicine teams across the 18 counties because it’s such a big part of our injury stats.”

Veness has been lucky. He has been able to continue coaching his players remotely during the lockdown, receiving video of their sprint training and some velocity work. However, each member of the squad has distinctly different facilities to work with than the next.
County cricket has a lot to think about before it returns to action
Offspinner Amar Virdi has the benefit of a net at his family home. 

“We’ve got to hold him back; he’s bowling 30 overs a week at the moment. We’re trying to keep a lid on him,” Veness says.

Others have had to resort to sprinting up and down their streets (Conor McKerr), taking catching practice from their fiancee (Scott Borthwick) or bowling into bedsheets in their modest back gardens. 

“Some lads can’t let go of the ball, they’ve got such a small space.”

It is with this in mind that Harrison mentioned the lengthy preparation time required of cricket ahead of a new season during his DCMS select committee appearance. Mocked in some quarters for suggesting six weeks would be needed, Harrison’s comments pleased Veness.

“As a message coming out from him it is brilliant because it’s an awareness of what the science and medicine teams have been discussing and the concerns we have about getting up to speed.

“This is why we have such a protracted pre-season, to do exactly this.

“In a normal scenario, most of the lads begin bowling in earnest from January, that’s January to March. If we take that time to build layer upon layer and we can turn it around in three weeks now, that makes a mockery of what we’ve been doing up until now.”

The latest government advice permitting the one-on-one coaching of players is a large step towards a July resumption for international cricket. For the level below, there is much more to consider.

In addition to 16 counties having to decide at what time it is appropriate to bring their players off furlough, all training and match venues must be made into secure environments. Plans are afoot around the clubs for this to take place - the majority have invested in deep cleans, while Surrey have formulated plans to introduce a one-way system around The Oval for players to train with minimal contact with others.

The secondment of some county coaches, such as Marcus Trescothick at Somerset and Richard Dawson at Gloucestershire, to the ECB to work with England’s players ahead of the proposed West Indies series also poses a logistical problem. 

"I don’t think you can expect domestic players just to go and play at Taunton or Kent or Worcester or Hove in a normal county ground setting when you’ve got international players quarantining for two weeks at a time and being put in these special bio-secure venues"

DARYL MITCHELL, PCA CHAIRMAN

As does the very simple matter of player safety.

While England’s men will enjoy the comfort and relative security of bio-domes in Manchester and Southampton, it would be unreasonable to expect those lower down the pyramid to accept anything less. Yet that comes at an expense which is neither affordable for the county game, nor practical given the fact no gate receipts, merchandise revenue or bar takings would be coming in.

A group of county chief executives, who together form the Professional Game Group, are still investigating the possibility of reduced crowds at a slimmed down T20 Blast starting in August, but indications are that the discussions are being held more in hope than expectation.

Simply put, without matchday income the running costs and practical implementation of 18 bio-secure county venues outweigh the benefits.

Professional Cricketers Association chairman Daryl Mitchell tells The Cricketer: “I’ve been on a couple of working parties and the resource and effort that has been put in around those bio-security protocols is a phenomenal piece of work. 

“It looks as if the government is starting to slowly ease the lockdown over the next couple of months. From a county cricket perspective, it’s very much still up in the air.

“I don’t think you can expect domestic players just to go and play at Taunton or Kent or Worcester or Hove in a normal county ground setting when you’ve got international players quarantining for two weeks at a time and being put in these special bio-secure venues. I think that’s probably not quite realistic.”

Government guidance emphasises that players must be given the option to opt in or out of new training protocols. It also states that “those continuing to live with anyone deemed clinically extremely vulnerable should not be engaged in the training environment”.

Taking all this into consideration, there is little surprise that of those players and officials spoken to by The Cricketer whose ties are to the county game, not one believes a return in July is likely. Several remain unconvinced there will be a domestic competition of any kind in 2020.
Turning county grounds into bio-secure venues is a costly venture
With so much attention placed on how international cricket could reasonably return behind closed doors for broadcast purposes, there has been little emphasis on the overwhelmingly more complex matter of 18 teams playing in multiple locations.

Some clubs, like Leicestershire, have begun working on plans to make their grounds bio-secure: staff at the Fischer County Ground will receive a document detailing return-to-work protocol, for example. But all this comes at yet more expense to teams who are already facing major revenue hits even if behind-closed-doors competition is allowed.

Whether the ECB, who themselves are facing a financial hole of between £100million and £380million this summer, will be able to fund the necessary cleaning, testing and bio-security measures required purely for training to resume is debatable. 

Furthermore, there is now less of a fiscal incentive after chancellor Rishi Sunak announced last Tuesday that the government’s job retention scheme will run until the end of October. Presuming that the state contribution to salaries applies across all sectors, that will mean counties being able to offload a significant cost instead of incurring the extra expense of creating and running bio-secure stadia on top of paying wages.

The county game’s obligations to the Sky Sports broadcast deal features just 24 T20 Blast matches a year, which could in theory be made up over the remainder of the five-year contract. And there is the added concern of some players not being comfortable about returning.

Mitchell says: “There is certainly an element that just want to get back and play. On the other end of the spectrum there are people who are very wary: people who live with vulnerable people, people who have children are slightly more wary than those who don’t have those worries at home. 

“The priority from a PCA perspective is health and wellbeing and that’s what we’ll be guided on, and put an element of faith in the ECB.”

Strikingly, the most common remark heard by The Cricketer during more than 50 conversations up and down the game, is that emerging unscathed through 2021 is a bigger concern than 2020.

“If you’re then carrying a big VAT bill into next year because you haven’t paid it this year because you’re taking advantage of government tax relief; or you’ve taken out a business loan for x million quid, it’s still money you owe,” Gloucestershire chief executive Will Brown says.

“Nothing is going to be quite the same again, let’s be honest.

There is a major concern already about: what will our crowd sizes be like next year?

What will our membership be like next year?

WILL BROWN, GLOUCESTERSHIRE CHIEF EXECUTIVE

“There is a point, which will come probably reasonably early towards the middle of next year where counties who have taken out loans will have to start repaying them. Because at some point banks will start charging interest again.”

With the government furloughing scheme now extended until the end of October, even with increased contributions from clubs, there is more wriggle room for the domestic structure to emerge through the summer intact.

Next year, however, money owed, combined with the potential for decreased gate receipts as a result of social distancing, and local and national economies emerging from recession, does not add up to a pretty picture.

“Nothing is going to be quite the same again, let’s be honest,” says Brown.

“There is a major concern already about: what will our crowd sizes be like next year? What will our membership be like next year?

“It would be churlish of us to think all of those would be at 100 per cent of the revenue we would hope to see. They will be a smaller percentage, and all of that means we would be looking at deficits across the game next year.”

“How quickly we can come back will depend on the will power and support of the businesses of Leicestershire,” says the Foxes’ incoming chief executive Sean Jarvis. “If they can support professional cricket in the county then I’m certain we will bounce back. There is evidence there is huge support out there, we have got to tap into it.”

Jarvis has been buoyed by the conversations he has had with senior figures in Leicester - broadcaster and alumnus Jonathan Agnew, Bishop of Leicester Martyn Snow, and the region’s chief constable Simon Cole among others - but so much of a recovery depends on stable economic forecasts that are simply unachievable right now, and may remain so for the rest of this year.
Yorkshire have had to reduce their wage bill by 20 per cent on a temporary basis
Jarvis will be watching the return of German football’s Bundesliga with huge interest, as will most involved with the running of all sports in the UK and around the world.

“If that doesn’t work, it doesn’t bode well,” one county official says.

Warwickshire chief executive Neil Snowball - soon bound for the ECB to take on the role of managing director of county cricket - echoes the sentiment.

“Already our focus is very much of 2021 because we’ll tread our way through 2020 whatever it looks like, we’re confident we’ll come out the other side - obviously cashflow takes a bit of a hit but we’re still in positive cashflow,” he says.

“The real concern is what might happen in 2021 and can we get back to sellout crowds and what we do best at Edgbaston. There’s a huge amount of uncertainty around that at the moment, depending on vaccines and government advice.”

Warwickshire’s financial year runs from October to September and the first quarter - the final quarter of this calendar year - will be critical for the club’s conference and events business.

“That’s all the Christmas parties, and we’re just hoping that by the time we get to the end of the year we might
be in a position to really ramp up the C and E,” Snowball says.

The government’s current advice is that sporting venues will remain closed to the public for the foreseeable future. Farrar does not expect to see crowds at matches in any sport until at least early 2021, and even then he points out that there will still be sociological and medical barriers that need to be jumped.

“I’ve said since the start of this in January and February, going into lockdowns and work practise restrictions - closing schools, stopping sporting events - seemed hard at the time but it was always going to be harder getting out of it,” he says.

“That’s for all sorts of reasons: fear - you think you’ve brought the epidemic under some sort of control and you don’t want to lose that, and you’ve changed society in a way already. There will be tremendous fear and there is still so much we do not know.

“Also new patterns of working, which people will be reluctant to leave over concerns that it may all come back again.

“Before there is a vaccine, ultimately, which we hope could start to be available towards the end of 2020, and one that is rolled out to much of the population, I just can’t see us going back to mass gatherings and sporting events as we knew them in 2020.”

Counties are already trying to predict what might be possible next year.

“All our financial modelling for the remainder of this year is worst-case scenario. If we know we can survive the worst-case scenario, anything that’s better than that is a bonus,” says Snowball. 

Next year is a “fallow year” for Warwickshire - Edgbaston is not due to host a Test match, with one ODI, one T20I and T20 Blast Finals Day the major showpieces - and money was already expected to be tighter.

“As we look to 2021, it will be a multi-layer budget which will effectively be still all cricket behind closed doors, or limited crowds, or getting back to fuller crowds. I fear that the scenes you’re used to seeing at Edgbaston - packed to the rafters, 24,000 people… it might be a while before we see that again, which is a shame for the game and a challenge for us as a business.”

Down in Bristol, the fears are the same.

“If social distancing does still exist, is a T20 sellout still thousands of people or is it half of that because you have to create space between them in an Easyjet style of missing seats,” says Brown. “We just don’t know.”

Clubs less reliant on diversification are likely to be able to weather the 2020 storm somewhat better than their larger counterparts.

Leicestershire, for example, might have lost two money-spinning concerts - Westlife and Little Mix - to the Covid-19 outbreak, but otherwise their income is primarily cricket-based. Incoming chief executive Jarvis anticipates a worst-case scenario whereby the club loses around £500,000 this year.

Gloucestershire have an on-site gym for over 1,000 members which currently sits inactive, and with no imminent signs of reopening.

Can the club survive a cricket-less 2020, The Cricketer asks Brown.

“It would all depend on the ECB,” he says.
Germany's Bundesliga returned behind closed doors at the weekend, and English cricket will be watching keenly
“The ECB have done a brilliant job of bringing a lot of cash forward early, which alongside sensible decisions made by the clubs has given us confidence. But there is a lot of funding which we’re waiting on for the second half of the financial year for the ECB, which is post-July.

“Fully appreciating the constraints and the demands that the ECB is under, that funding is significant, and different counties will feel it to greater and lesser extents. Some counties will have a far greater dependency on the ECB than we have and some will have a much lower dependency. Both of those are not particularly good scenarios to be in.”

Elsewhere, Warwickshire’s conferencing business has stood still though the pandemic. Snowball tells The Cricketer the cost of a cricket-less, event-less summer would be “in the millions” for a company which in 2018 reported a £17.3million turnover.

At the top of the scale, Yorkshire and Lancashire are bearing the costs of large-scale investment in hotels and conferencing facilities which are making no return for at least half a year.

On Friday, Yorkshire announced club-wide pay cuts equating to a 20 per cent reduction of the wage bill, implemented in an effort to combat the financial effect of the crisis. Chief executive Mark Arthur said: “We do not take decisions such as these lightly, but now is the time to take drastic steps.”

There is an expectation that more counties will be forced into similar action during June.

This is all financial, but there is a human cost to cricket during this crisis, too.
As we focus on when we might be able to watch cricket again, and groan about the continued absence of live sport from our TV screens, it is all too easy to gloss over the emotional effect on the players.

Among the men in the county system, 133 are out of contract at the end of this summer, and may not get the chance to show they deserve an extended stay at their current clubs.

The PCA expect to see a noticeable increase from the 40 to 50 who leave the game each year, either through retirement or after being released, and many face a winter weighing up whether to wait for the possibility of a new deal in the spring, or try to forge a career elsewhere.

Negotiations between the counties, the ECB and the PCA have resulted in some form of safety net: standard contracts are being extended by a single month until the end of October at 16 out of the 18 clubs, while players will be entitled to an extra two months’ pay when they leave the game, be that this autumn or in the future.

Rookie contracts will be allowed to be offered to 22-year-olds who otherwise would have been considered too old to receive one for 2021.

“Hopefully that might encourage counties to keep a couple of those guys on for an extra year so they can prove their worth down the line,” Mitchell says.

Furthermore, £1million in prize money has been reallocated into the PCA retirement fund for 2020, giving support to players while also eliminating the cost for counties of contributing 3 per cent of their wage bill as had previously been agreed as part of the County Partnership Agreement.

It is this united front that sets cricket apart from other prominent team games in the UK which have been riddled by very public bickering during the period of lockdown.

“The game so far seems to have worked together pretty well,” Mitchell says. 

“We’ve seen a lot of unrest in football and rugby but in cricket we’ve managed to stay together pretty well. There’s been a fairly collaborative approach and an understanding of where all sides are coming from.”

The PCA has retained all six of its player welfare managers over the course of the past two months, each looking after three counties, while a confidential 24-hour helpline has been kept open for any member suffering from hardship, mental health problems or other issues.

It has also encouraged more than 100 players to take up online courses, in an effort to prepare them for an alternative career at some point.

But none of this distracts from the very real possibility of players being lost to the game as counties are forced to make savings to their cricket budgets next year.
How have county contracts been changed to mitigate coronavirus impact?

The PCA worry that there will be a significant increase in the number of players who leave the game following the 2020 season.

Typically, between 40 and 50 are either released without a first-class county to go to, or choose to retire, at the end of each summer.

However, with clubs faced with the prospect of cutting costs in 2021, there are set to be more players vying for fewer contracts next year. And negotiations for renewals are currently on hold.

With that in mind, the PCA, counties and ECB have negotiated some alterations to standard contracts.

- Players at 16 counties will now see their existing deals expire on October 31, 2020 instead of September 30 every year going forward (two counties have January-December contracts, which remain)

- Two months' extra pay will be available for players when they leave the game, be that this summer or in the future

- The PCA and ECB have agreed to redistribute £1million in prize money to a retirement pot, and written off the counties' requirement to pay in 3% of their wage bills for 2020

- Rookie contracts will be allowed to be given to 22-year-olds in 2021

County cricketers are facing an uncertain summer
“The real disappointment for the game is the players that you’re just not sure about that you won’t be able to hang on to - the slightly later developer, or a so-called luxury player who just plays one format but is really good. We’re going to have to make some really tough choices,” says Snowball.

“Even during the really difficult financial times at Warwickshire we’ve always invested in our squad and we’ve always tried to challenge in all formats. We’d like to think we can continue to do that but there are going to be some difficult decisions which will affect people’s livelihoods.

“If you’ve normally got a squad of 25 players, you might only be able to afford a squad of 20 players but it might give opportunities to those academy players who maybe in the past haven’t had that chance and have spent the time playing 2nd XI cricket.

“I definitely think it will be smaller squads playing all formats.”

James Welch is a sports laywer and player agent with Quantum Sport, whose stable includes England internationals Mark Wood and David Willey.

He details conversations with players that paint a picture of widespread uncertainty.

“There is a realisation (among the players) that it is serious and there is going to be a long-term impact on the game. There is worry, understandably, about what it’s going to look like going forward, and because of that uncertainty there are a lot of rumours out there.

“Players have had the time to read, and everyone has got a different view.”

In a typical year, Welch would already be starting to discuss new contracts for those in their final year. This year, those conversations just aren’t happening.

“It is quite worrying. Counties are going to have to look at how they’re going to be able to reduce costs over the winter,” he says.

“County cricketers’ earnings are going to take a hit because there has to be a reduction somewhere. The problem is going to be with the younger players who don’t have the opportunity this year to show what they can do in terms of runs and wickets when it comes to negotiation time.”

Welch brings up the example of Tom Banton, the brilliant Somerset batsman whose devastating 2019 domestic campaign brought him England recognition and global paydays in the IPL, Big Bash and PSL.

“That’s the thing the ECB and counties need to safeguard against - ensuring that those sort of players don’t disappear from the game.”

England Under 19 head coach Jon Lewis is acutely aware of the generation of young cricketers who are at risk of being lost to the game, with more players than ever vying for fewer contracts in 2021.

He would have expected to bring through a new raft of youngsters over the course of the summer as the teenagers’ A Levels came to an end and 12 months of life as a professional beckoned.

Instead, the West Indies’ visit has been shelved, a question mark hangs over February’s tour of Australia, and Lewis himself has been furloughed back home in rural Wiltshire for the past eight weeks.

He worries for the future prospects of his younger charges.


“For the guys who are under 18 this year and would have been doing their A Levels, it’s a big miss,” he says.


“Those guys would have been looking for contracts at the end of this year, and they won’t have played any cricket. I don’t know how that is going to sit with county clubs.


“It’s a big risk. You’re taking a punt on a player, so there will be good players who miss out on the chance of getting county contracts because of this.


“It depends on every individual county’s finances and how they see the future of their club. Giving new contracts out will, I think, be quite low on the list.”

Could cricket lose the next Tom Banton to a summer of lockdown and a 2021 of cost-cutting?
Giving out new contracts was supposed to be the plan in the women’s game this spring.

The introduction of a new domestic structure - with eight regional hubs managing player development and competing against each other in a 50-over competition - would bring with it 40 new professional deals, the next hugely important step towards addressing the gender imbalance in the sport.

A hefty £20million had been pledged across 2020 and 2021 as part of the impressive women’s and girls’ action plan - £8million for investment in club facilities, £2million to county development pathways and £1million for the creation of club development officers. The intention was to spend £50million over five years.
Covid-19 was not part of that equation.

Now, the ECB are facing an unenviable challenge to push through the programme while making substantial losses. 

The 40 new contracts were due to come into effect on May 1 but had to be temporarily shelved. Instead, The Cricketer understands the plan is now to offer 13-month contracts from October 1 of this year. 

In a meeting with senior ECB figures via Zoom last Thursday, more than 300 domestic women’s cricketers were told the news.

In the interim, a retainer system is to be introduced. The players have yet to be told how many retainers, which are due to kick in on June 1, will be issued or how much money those who have one will earn. The Cricketer understands, however, that it will be less than the original new contracts.

Those in possession will be required to make up to four media commitments for their respective regional hubs, as well as undertake ECB-directed strength and conditioning courses and educational modules on subjects such as anti-corruption and anti-doping.

If any cricket is possible - and there has been suggestion that the promised 50-over competition may end up being swapped out for a T20 tournament - those involved will be paid to play.

Clare Connor, the ECB managing director of women’s cricket, reiterated the governing body’s desire to get some cricket on in a letter sent to domestic players last week.

“We are exploring a range of scenarios with the hope of playing as much cricket as possible this summer but, while it is not yet on the agenda, a postponement of the first year of new elite domestic structure fixtures is a scenario that may need to come under consideration,” she wrote.
How has women's cricket been impacted?

Women's cricket in England and Wales was supposed to change markedly in 2020. 

A £20million boost in funding would create eight regional hubs and 40 new professional players, in addition to those who hold central contracts.

The impact of Covid-19 means the entire project is on temporary hold.

- No contracts will be handed out until at least October 1

- Players will be offered retainers from June 1, though pay will be less than initially planned

- There is a chance the regional hub competition, planned for September, may not take place

- There have also been conversations about the tournament being 20 overs rather than 50

- In the current financial climate, the ECB are unable to ringfence £20m funding for women's cricket

- India and South Africa tours may not take place, though efforts are being made to rearrange

Women's cricket has taken a major hit at the hands of the coronavirus
Women’s county cricket, meanwhile, falls under the participation and growth department at the ECB, and as such involves a different decision-making process when it comes to a possible resumption.

For female cricketers, at the start of a summer which promised so much, the entire scenario has come as an almighty kick in the gut.

International women’s cricket may suffer too, with administrators set to focus on delivering a men’s schedule that is more commercially attractive. There is a suggestion of packing in six white-ball internationals against South Africa into little more than a week at a bio-secure venue in September, and some sources close to the national side remain optimistic about the possibility of matches taking place.

However,  those plans will have to come second to the delivery of men’s cricket - a business decision that leaves the ECB in a difficult and delicate quandary. 

Connor told a media conference earlier this month: “We have to be really realistic. If the international women's schedule can't be fulfilled in full but a large amount of the international men's programme can this summer, which is going to reduce that £380million hole, we have to be realistic about that.

“We've got these long-term ambitions for the game that extend beyond this summer and trying to protect as much investment as possible over the next five years, that is largely going to come down to how much international men's cricket can be staged this summer.

“I don’t think you can argue with the rationale and in order for the whole game to survive, the financial necessity rests upon many of those international men’s matches being fulfilled.”

The players are practical and appreciate the lie of the land, though some have been frustrated by the perceived lack of clarity over the weeks preceding the video conference on Thursday.

"My main message is that we remain fully committed to (the) plan and to everything that we set out to achieve through it, despite the repercussions of Covid-19"

EXTRACT OF LETTER FROM CLARE CONNOR, ECB MANAGING DIRECTOR OF WOMEN'S CRICKET, TO ALL FEMALE DOMESTIC CRICKETERS

During that meeting, four senior figures at the ECB spoke: Connor, Harrison, Jo Kirk - the head of women's domestic cricket, and The Hundred women’s lead Beth Barrett-Wild.

Harrison reiterated the governing body’s commitment to seeing the women’s game grow, though - as had been the case during his DCMS grilling - he said he was unable to ringfence the £20million earmarked for investment in clubs, facilities and players, and that no chief executive would currently be able to do so.

That suggestion has been privately queried by those who had seen a report in The Telegraph two days previously, claiming the RFU is to set aside the money required to pay its 28 professional women during the ongoing crisis. However, it should be noted that the ECB has ringfenced the central contracts of its international players - 21 in total - in a move that largely mirrors its rugby counterparts.

From the conversations The Cricketer has had with those involved in the women’s game, there is terrific sympathy towards the ECB, but genuine concern about the future.

Most have already written off this season - “it’s just a bizarre situation… if I was Harrison I’d can it all and start again next year,” one player, who wished to remain nameless, says - and many have had little time to dwell, as they figure out how to plug the hole in their finances this summer.

There is still a conviction at the governing body to continue to push the women’s game - Barrett-Wild told the players in their Zoom meeting that the ECB want to emulate and exceed the WBBL’s profile with The Hundred, while Connor wrote in her letter to players that “our long-term commitment to this plan is unaffected” - but of all its departments, it is here where the governing body may face its biggest challenge.
The postponement of The Hundred comes at a major cost to players
For both male and female pros in England and Wales, 2020 was set to be a gamechanging year thanks to the introduction of The Hundred.

Hugely inflated salaries, substantial central investment, free-to-air television and enormous exposure promised so much for the players and, while the tournament has received substantial criticism, the ECB claimed that no cricket event in this country had sold tickets at a faster rate, with the exception of the men’s World Cup. 

Earlier this month, however, its launch was pushed back 12 months, contracts were cancelled as the governing body exercised a force majeure clause, and players have been left in limbo. 

The Cricketer has been told of houses being bought off the back of the draft in October last year. One player spent much of the 5 per cent received in advance of the competition celebrating their selection with friends. 

Now, that 5 per cent is all the players are getting. And, while the 12.5 per cent of their county contract that they previously would have had to repay to their clubs will no longer be due in 2020, there is not yet a guarantee that those picked for this year’s competition will automatically get a place in 2021.

The PCA is in the process of canvassing its members on the situation, before feeding back to the ECB.

“As you can imagine, there are guys with the contracts - 96 domestic players - and the majority of the membership without one, and opinion is split,” Mitchell says.

“A lot of it depends on how much cricket is played this year. A lot of the concern is around a squad picked in October 2019 competing in July 2021; there are concerns from players in the competition who have lost out on a significant amount of money; there are lots of angles on this.”

A report in the Daily Mail claimed the ECB are proposing a 20 per cent salary cut to keep the draft in its present form. But there are more complexities at play.
The dilemma is accentuated by the UK’s exit from the European Union. As it stands, the transition period expires on December 31, at which point the Cotonou Agreement - which facilitates the application of the Kolpak ruling in English cricket - will no longer apply.

Players drafted as Kolpaks in The Hundred for 2020 will no longer be eligible.

Dane Vilas, the South African wicketkeeper-batsman, was picked in the £125,000 bracket by Manchester Originals in October.

“I've gone from having my best year ever in financial terms, with a really nice contract, to nothing,” he says.

“On that side it is tough, a hard pill to swallow but there are bigger issues around the world - people have lost and will lose a huge amount more, so you can't really look at yourself on an individual basis.

“In sport, it's never yours until it's in your account, or you have played the tournament and as players we need to be responsible. If we want to look after this game, which has given us so much, we need to make sure we save as much money as we can for its future.”

Vilas is hoping to eventually achieve settled status in the UK, taking advantage of his wife’s ancestral visa, but is only two years into a five-year process. That means that, in the event the UK does exit the transition period as planned, and if the initial Hundred draft is allowed to stand, he would not be able to take his place in the Manchester squad.

“If it all goes according to plan, it might have been a bit complicated for next year,” he says.

“I’m unsure about the Kolpak situation and what happens if it rolls over. It’s two debates and to try to figure it out in your own mind you can go crazy at times and come up with eight or 10 different theories.”

Then there is the matter of private investment. ECB chief executive Harrison recently floated the idea during a Sky Sports interview, and it immediately gained traction among some prominent franchise owners.

Venky Mysore, the chief executive of Kolkata Knight Riders, and Multan Sultans co-owner Ali Tareen both showed interest in buying into the competition, though Mysore insisted his organisation would want a controlling stake while Tareen proposed a 10 per cent share.

Given the counties and MCC hold a power of veto over private investment, it may all be a moot point. But even if it was given the green light - and in a post-Covid world, the ECB could not be criticised for seeking additional revenue streams to underwrite their 2020 losses - there would still be complications.
Bat-makers counting the cost of Covid-19
For independent bat-makers, for whom Christmas normally comes in late spring and early summer, the phone has stopped ringing.

“For this time of the year, it would normally be my busiest time, but it has turned probably into one of our quietest times ever,” says Ed Garrard, who owns Garrard and Flack.

Worst-case scenarios vary, often dependent on overheads, meaning that those operating from a home workshop are generally better placed to deal with the inevitable nosedive in enquiries.

The worry, as for so many, is of next year. If no cricket is played in 2020, what will interest look like? If bats have not broken this summer, how will the market look in 12 months’ time?

The reliance on pads and gloves being shipped in from India adds another layer of complexity, as does the inevitable rollover of stickers and labels made up for this season’s range.

And for companies whose USP is centred on building to order and bringing customers to the workshop to choose their wood first-hand, the way in which they do business is being tested, given social distancing measures. Zoom appointments are an option to retain a sense of bespoke service.

NICK FRIEND
It remains unclear whether the 2019 draft will stand in 2021
“I know players have questions around external investments in teams and want assurances around that,” one source with knowledge of the discussions told The Cricketer.

“There would be some discontent if players agreed deductions then there was private investment.”

As it stands, The Hundred will take place for the first time in a four-week slot in July and August 2021.

Although there have been calls for the ECB to abandon the competition, Harrison is adamant it remains integral to the future growth of cricket in England and Wales. Under am-dram scrutiny by the DCMS select committee, he returned to the soundbite that The Hundred is a “profit centre” for the sport.

I wouldn't categorise The Hundred as a gamble, Harrison told the committee’s chair, Julian Knight. 

“It's a profit centre for cricket as has been demonstrated. It was going to bring in £11 million of profit to the game this year. It carries with it an extra dividend to the counties, which is critical revenue to them.

“At a time like this, when we are facing enormous pressure on finances, it seems to me even more important we focus on the areas of the game which are going to generate interest, audience and commercial revenue.

Especially with the weight of evidence we had behind the Hundred in terms of the ticket sales, in terms of traction the competition was getting in the very audience we were setting out to get.”

That £11million profit in 2020 remains a hotly debated topic, given the ECB’s calculations do not include as costs the £1.3million payments made by the governing body to each county. Instead, the accounts treat that £24million outlay as dividends. 

“It is not linked to P&L (profit and loss),” Harrison told MPs.

Even without the costs associated with payments to counties, the ECB’s total expenditure on the inaugural running of the new competition in 2020, according to a spokesperson speaking to Cricinfo, was forecast to be £38.9million.

That figure will of course need to be found again next year, alongside the ECB’s attempts to prop up the rest of the game financially.

Yet the tournament is absolutely fundamental to the women’s action plan, with the regional hubs lining up with the eight franchises, and prize money - if not salaries - being equal across genders.

It was with that in mind that Katie Levick, the Yorkshire veteran spinner, criticised those who celebrated its postponement.

"It was more money than I'd ever earned for cricket,” she said. “I bought my first home at the end of last year, so knowing that then I signed my contract for The Hundred, you had plans, that money was going to be able to help me do up my house and maybe have a holiday once in my life.

"So as daft as it sounds that you never had the money, you do make plans for it because of course you do, you're only human and it does help you keep going."

Lancashire offspinner Alex Hartley lost her central contract last year, and - with a mortgage to consider - told BBC Sport she might be found “stacking shelves in Tescos” by the end of the summer.

Those whose relief from stacking shelves has previously been a weekend knock at their local club are in a troubling position, too. 
Club cricket is being heavily hit by the lockdown
At recreational level, cricket is trembling - muddling through, as it always has, only now blindfolded, with arms and legs bound.

On Friday, the ECB released new guidelines relating to the possible reopening of net facilities - two individuals from different households being permitted to practise together - which have given some of the amateur community hope for 2020.

SAGE member Farrar, himself a keen amateur cricketer with Steeple Aston CC in Oxfordshire, offers a positive message, too. Club cricket, he believes, stands a chance of avoiding a total washout. 

“Cricket lends itself to this better than many other sports. If you take a cricket game and think sensibly, how can we still have a game which respects some of the physical distancing measures that make sense: hand-washing between overs, not spitting on the ball, using umpires from the teams to reduce the number of people, changing at home and going to the ground,” he says.

“You can think through a game from early in the morning to stumps and come up logically with a plan in the context of physical distancing which wouldn’t ruin the game. 

“I think you could do that and have games potentially played in July and August.

“Exercise, playing in and watching sport is such an important part of our lives and our culture, we have to find ways to allow them to restart to some extent.

“Could you go and play recreational cricket during the summer months? I suspect you will be able to, yes, I hope so.

“It’ll be a slightly bizarre environment, where some people will probably wear masks during a cricket game!”

The fear within the recreational game is that by August, much of the damage will already have been done. 

Club sponsorship is hard enough to come by at the happiest of times, with revenues often generated by connections of members. So Old Elizabethans, in Barnet, north London, were delighted when they signed up two new partners to agreements worth a total of £5,000 just before the Covid-19 outbreak.

“We worked really closely with a new sponsor this year, but just as we were getting to the point of sign-off - front of shirts, logos on covers - they ran a mile. Nobody blames them,” committee member Matt Holland says.

Old Elizabethans have a £15,000-per-year rent to pay - discussions are ongoing with the landlords over the possibility of deferral or discount - and the elimination of most of the junior season also presents a major financial challenge.

“We’ve gone from a colts set-up of 60 to 160, over 10 years,” Holland says. “Across the winter, the nets for colts are always a challenge and we took our numbers to 55 per hour from 35 in 2018-19. We had 110 colts training on a Wednesday night and we were really looking forward to the season. Their subs help float the club.”

Fortunately, Old Elizabethans are not edging towards a financial precipice. But that is solely down to the forward-thinking of club president Tristan Smith.
It's not as simple as telling club cricketers they can play again...

For those amateur players who aren't closely involved with the running of a club, the slight relaxation of lockdown restrictions will have given a huge amount of hope.

But before the recreational game can return in any way, there is an abundance of complicated work for the volunteer taskforce which runs the grassroots of our sport.

It isn't as simple as just picking up a bat and ball, and going back to the nets: someone from every club has to be responsible for opening facilities, monitoring sessions in person, sourcing sanitiser, organising booking systems (let alone successfully implementing them), and updating the ground with relevant signage.

It isn't as simple as playing matches when the green light is shown: who has kept the pitch and outfield in check in the interim? Has enough cash come in to fix the faulty mower? Is there a member willing to keep toilets to high hygiene standards? How are players going to get to the ground if they are unable to car share, do not own their own vehicle or do not have a licence, and abide by advice not to use public transport?

It isn't as simple as saying 'let's get on with the game', when debts have spiralled, maintenance work has been postponed, income has plummeted, and - with bars and clubhouses locked shut - the cost of putting matches on threatens to outweigh their financial benefit. 

Club cricket, more than ever, is relying on the benevolence of its own community to survive - be that in actions or in hard cash. Tough decisions are having to be made every day by men and women who have nothing invested but their emotions. If you can offer a pair of hands, or a small donation, to keep your club afloat, please think about the difference you could make.

SAM MORSHEAD

“We spent a lot of time over the past 10 years trying to get a one-year running cost as surplus in the bank in case something happened. We all laughed and joked that nothing would ever happen but then this comes and bites you,” Holland says.


“The president, who was the treasurer at the time, is sitting there looking rather smug. He’s very pleased with himself.”


Other clubs are not in quite as comfortable a position, through no fault of their own.


Twelve miles around the M25, at North Enfield CC, the situation has been much more precarious. 


Towards the end of April, there were real concerns that this 134-year-old club would run out of money as soon as the middle of May.


North Enfield were initially turned down for a government grant but an appeal, supported by Middlesex, overturned that ruling and secured a vital £10,000 in funds. A further £2,000 grant from Sport England will also help cover costs, which include £3,000 a year in rent, plus the associated maintenance, insurance and security bills.


The club is on course to miss out on around £5,000 - roughly a third of its annual income - through the cancellation of events staged at its clubhouse and using its bar facilities.


“Without those two grants we would have lost everything,” chairman David Malleson says. “We would have had to have gone to our landlords and said we can’t pay the rent and asked them for a rent waiver for the rest of the year.


“Assuming nothing else catastrophic, we should cover our skeleton running costs.”


An application has also gone into the ECB for a £5,000 loan.


“The plan is to stick it in an account and not touch it,” Malleson says. “We’ve assumed the worst-case scenario that there is no sport, and any fundraising event will also not happen anywhere the extent it usually would.”

North Enfield’s story highlights the fragility of community cricket. The club has two Saturday teams in the Hertfordshire League, a Sunday friendly XI and four junior teams, in addition to providing non-competitive sessions for children under eight.


Had they become extinct, more than 100 playing members would have lost their club.


Wherever you look, there are financial holes being driven into cricket communities.


Guildford CC have lost three money-spinning Surrey matches and a beer festival - their main sources of annual income. Weston-super-Mare CC have had to cancel a beer and cider festival over the late-May bank holiday weekend which would typically raise around £4,000, having already been forced to abandon their Bonfire Night event in November because of adverse weather conditions, at a cost of around £10,000. 


In Ilkley, West Yorkshire, there is concern at Olicanian CC, who had hoped to rebuild their pavilion this summer, following an arson attack in August last year.


They need around £70,000 in funding and previously pledged contributions from the local community to get the project moving; now neither appear guaranteed.


“When we had the fire, there was such a shock locally that we had countless offers to help with the rebuild - plasterers, electricians, curtain manufacturers. We don’t know whether they will still be able to offer help,” says Mark Brewster.


“The ECB have been terrific and they’ve been very supportive. There is quite a big sum that the ECB was due to be able to put out to clubs in April and May. They may have to look again, with so many clubs in need of help.”

It may be a long time before club cricket returns to normal

The governing body has been active in its support of the grassroots game but there has been some criticism of its Return To Cricket grants scheme, which is accessible only by clubs with annual turnovers of £15,000 or less. Beyond that, a loans system has been established as part of a £21million relief package.


The ECB’s position is that “loans - rather than grants - are offered as they are the most sustainable way for ECB to support the whole game. The use of loans allows money to be recycled throughout the sport.”


“Across an unpredictable period – during which we remain unsure when cricket will return – loans enable ECB to provide support over a longer time frame, which is key.”


The ECB say 40 per cent of recreational clubs in England and Wales are eligible for local authority funding of up to £10,000, and that around 500 clubs have already taken advantage of Sport England or Sport Wales grants totalling some £1.5million. The governing body were unable to provide details when asked about the number of loans and grants handed out since the emergency measures were announced in March.


Loans by themselves will not be all-healing. There is some reticence among committees, particularly in troubling economic times and with the country dipping into recession, to shoulder the responsibility of borrowing loans in the event their club folds.


Moreover, clubs are distinctly aware that paying those sums of money back while also underwriting running costs in 2021 may end up being even harder than the financial tumult of this summer, a concern shared with the county game.


The message from the ECB is that further cash will be made available to those who need it most in due course.


“We anticipate that clubs will still need financial support on the other side of COVID-19, our aim currently is to provide a safety net to those clubs in need while ensuring there will be capital grants available in 2021 for those clubs that wish to develop their facilities,” the statement continued.

“Kids like to get a hobby, and if it works they maintain their attention span for a long time. 


"If they don’t play that hobby for two years, are we going to see the same numbers?” 


MATT HOLLAND, OLD ELIZABETHANS CC

Some problems generated by the coronavirus crisis simply can’t be solved by money, however.


Just like the professional game, there is serious concern about cricket’s landscape in 2021. 


The retention of players, particularly youngsters, is a major worry among most amateur sides. This year was meant to be prolific for youth cricket, with the ECB’s Inspiring Generations plan and newly-launched Dynamos initiative following up on the sudden profile boost given to the sport by the manic summer of 2019. 


”It’s hard enough in the modern world to keep the juniors interested in the longer formats of the game,” says Peter Dobson of Leadgate CC in County Durham.


“You just hope that they haven’t lost interest by the time the following season or winter nets come around.”


Holland at Old Elizabethans says: “Kids like to get a hobby, and if it works they maintain their attention span for a long time. If they don’t play that hobby for two years, are we going to see the same numbers?” 


Clubs are trying to get as inventive as possible to keep their younger members engaged - ECB research reported 61 per cent of parents saying sport has helped the physical and mental wellbeing of their families during lockdown - but quizzes, coaching classes and trivia online it is not the long-term solution.


“We tried a Zoom thing and eight of them ended up staring into space,” Weston-super-Mare head coach Sam Trego says.


Sport England figures published on May 5 said that during the nationwide lockdown, 44 per cent of children have been doing no activity or less than the recommended 30 minutes, up from 33 percent before the crisis.


Re-energising those young people will be hard enough; re-engaging them with cricket at a time when every sport will be fighting for their attention will be doubly difficult.


And there is yet more for club cricket to think about.


Renovations to pavilions, the servicing of ground equipment and the ordering of new kit will all have to be put back by at least 12 months. Dilapidations that might otherwise have been remedied will go unrepaired. 


“The floor in our teahut has rotted away and if we don’t fix that in the next couple of months we could lose the whole thing, plus our outfield mower probably won’t last until the end of the month,” says Rich James of the tiny Temple Grafton CC in Warwickshire.

Clubs have reported massive concerns about their financial obligations in 2021

The club estimates it needs £2,000 for repairs, and has dipped into the JustGiving pool to try to help raise the money.


A brief search of popular crowdfunding website illustrates the scale of the problem facing clubs across the country.


Tap in “cricket” and dozens of pages appear, all with a similar message. 


“Keep us operating”. “Worst-case scenario”. “Secure the future”. “Help us pay utility bills”. “Help us recover”. “Help us survive”.


Over the months and years that follow this initial pandemic - and the government’s scientific advice outlines the possibility of further outbreaks in the future - fundraising that would previously have gone into improving facilities will instead achieve basic survival. There is a risk that the grassroots of the sport could fall stagnant.


For those who stick by their clubs, what might recreational cricket look like in 2020?


Well, be prepared for masks underneath helmets, sanitiser at each end of the wicket, hand-washing between overs, no high fives in celebration, no beers at stumps or teas in the pavilion, and certainly no shining the ball with saliva.


“You can imagine a scenario where you can get back to some cricket with players doubling up as umpires rather than people in high-risk age categories,” Farrar adds. 


“You can imagine that there being regulations and additional guidance – covering a cricket ball with saliva to get shine will be a thing of the past.


“There are all sorts of things that you could do that could encourage physical distancing, keeping your hands clean during a game, and in the end the nature of cricket being played on a very big pitch with 22 players is probably at the lower end the risk.  


“With common sense and some new guidelines, I would love to see some cricket played this summer and I hope to play in some myself for Steeple Aston Cricket Club!


“And it would be great to get junior cricket going again over the summer, six a side, or other modifications but children have missed out so much through the lockdown, it would be great to give them the chance to get back into sport.”


The return of children’s coaching will not be without its own unique challenges. In some briefings, coaches have already been warned that each child would likely need to bring their own ball, any shared bat surfaces would have to be wiped down between use, and face masks would need to be widely used.


As one concerned coach told The Cricketer: “How would you go about convincing kids this was the game for them in these circumstances?”


And the deeper you go, more nagging issues.


Trego is head groundsman at Weston-super-Mare alongside his coaching responsibilities. He points out that any pitch that is played on in the remaining weeks of the season will need to be relaid in the summer, at a cost of roughly £200 per strip.


With pavilion bars closed - most clubs’ primary matchday revenue driver - will games make enough money to justify the expense? And will grounds have been looked after well enough over the preceding months?


“Where I think it will fall down is people not preparing their grounds properly,” says Adam Gardener at Rosedale CC in Hertfordshire.


“A lot of the bigger clubs pay groundsmen good money, and with no money coming in you can’t afford to keep them.”


Even if restrictions are lifted enough for some recreational cricket to be played, and clubs have the finances in place to operate, and players adhere to social distancing rules, there will still be many who cannot take part.


Kev Baker is the vice-captain of the Shropshire Disability Cricket squad, some of whose members may need to remain in isolation in late summer, given how dangerous Covid-19 is to those with underlying medical conditions.


He is concerned not only about the physical impact of this long period of lockdown.


“The mental health aspect is big - this is probably the one release, they can’t play their major sport,” Baker says. “And there’s the uncertainty of when things are going to change. A lot of the guys rely on routine, knowing fixtures are coming up. Those of us who are a bit more in the mainstream are trying to help them along.


“In four weeks time we could be looking to play again, it might be this time next year. We’re making it our business to check on the squad fairly regularly.”


The amateur game remains remarkably resilient through this, its biggest challenge ever. Stoic even. 


But the forecast is so gloomy, and the horizon so obscured by the unknown, that right now club cricket’s community spirit - indeed the famous spirit of cricket in general, from superstar internationals to those who coach our kids and mow our outfields - is being tested to breaking point.


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