Covid-19 is testing the spirit of English cricket

Can it really be an English summer without even village cricket?

May 14, 2020
Cricket on Village Green, Frampton on Severn, Gloucestershire 1996 Credit: Ray Bird/Creative Commons
Cricket on Village Green, Frampton on Severn, Gloucestershire 1996 Credit: Ray Bird/Creative Commons

“There can be no summer in this land without cricket,” wrote the sportswriter Neville Cardus. This year his maxim might be put to the test. 

The coronavirus, which struck like a mystery spinner against an unsuspecting batsman, could bring a season with fewer fixtures then during either of the world wars. Although there were no first-class county matches from 1915-18 or 1940-44, there were still school matches and local cricket. A summer without any at all would be unprecedented since the game's inception. 

Lockdown began in late March, a month before the beginning of the English season, the time when eager youngsters and veterans alike knock-in a new bat or turn their arm over in the garden. Early summer sunshine and warm weather may be a blessing; but for cricketers, the bright skies are sure to bring with them a sense of “what if.” For their clubs, starved of membership dues and takings at the bar, the crisis is financial. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has been forced to provide £20m to support the country’s recreational clubs. 

As well as funding grassroots cricket, the ECB is also spending £40m to prop up professional counties. Although it will recoup some money from insurance, the ECB estimates that, in the worst-case scenario, the pandemic will cost £380m. Ironically, the ECB’s new commercially-driven tournament The Hundred—which traditionalists argue will kill cricket as we know it—is now needed to resuscitate it. But even The Hundred has not been spared the fallout from Covid-19. In April, the ECB announced that the introduction of its flagship innovation would be postponed until 2021. 

This year there will be no cricket until 1st July at the earliest—a week past Midsummer’s Day—and nearly three months after the scheduled start of the season. There is a strong chance that fixtures involving the England women’s team may be sacrificed to prioritise more lucrative matches played by the men. Even these matches may have to take place behind closed doors. Empty stands would severely undercut the game’s finances, but would at least allow the ECB to charge for the broadcasting rights that currently provide three-quarters of its revenue.

Last week, England fast bowler Mark Wood said the team would be willing to go into quarantine in order to play. To help matters, two grounds, Manchester’s Old Trafford and Southampton’s Ageas Bowl, have hotels on site that could safely accommodate players, staff and media personnel. 

If matches are staged, players will have to get accustomed to certain restrictions. Some, such as banning huddles, high fives or passing the ball around the field, are trivial. More significantly, players will not be allowed to use saliva to shine the ball—the traditional technique that helps bowlers such as Wood move the ball laterally through the air. To preserve the sporting balance between batsman and bowler, the International Cricket Council is considering temporarily relaxing laws governing ball-tampering to permit other methods of polishing. One option, developed by the Australian ball manufacturer Kookaburra, is a wax applicator. Even then, the process of shining the ball may have to be overseen by an umpire. 

Cricket is a generally socially-distanced sport, but two important questions remain. Will there be any restrictions on fielders’ proximity to each other or to the batsman, and how can the bowler maintain social distance from the umpire?  

Even if Wood and company do take the field, what will the quality be like? We can't expect a quick return to the high standard set by last year’s World Cup and Ashes series. 

England fans and cricket lovers must be grateful the coronavirus hit this year, and not last. A pandemic a year ago, and England’s careful preparation for a home World Cup might have gone to waste; the forces that generated a thrilling Ashes series might not have materialised. And who knows then if cricket could have made the front as well as the back page of the newspapers. 

It’s tempting to wonder what Cardus, who lived through two world wars and the Great Depression, would have made of today’s predicament. The old romantic was not being literal when he maintained that the English summer was contingent on cricket, but no pastime is more evocative of the season.

Away from the bright lights of test cricket, the village game, so long a part of the rhythm of the English summer, is unlikely to be back soon.

Challow and Childrey Cricket Club is nestled in a corner of south-west Oxfordshire, four miles from Berkshire and 10 from Wiltshire. The ground looks out onto the Berkshire Downs, the Vale of the White Horse and the Ridgeway. Thanks to the B4507, it isn’t quite postcard-perfect, but it’s close.

Challow is my old club and, as I know from my 10 years of membership, it’s impeccably run. It has few overheads and relies on the generosity of volunteers such as groundstaff and coaches. One such stalwart is fixture secretary Stefan Pilcher. Pilcher has been part of the club “man and boy” for 40 years. From player and captain to chairman and barman, there’s hardly a role he hasn’t filled. 

“I think we’re capable of riding out the storm,” he says. “We’re not spending any money, but we’re not making any money.”

“The bigger problem,” says Pilcher, “is what happens to youth cricket. At the moment, all our junior fixtures have been cancelled; and if you lose the kids for a year, the question is, will they come back?” 

Last summer it was an unimaginable prospect. Challow’s youth numbers have been rising for years, and with England crowned World Champions, the country gripped by the miracle of Headingley, and Ben Stokes voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year, 2020 was the ideal season to capitalise on cricket’s resurgence. 

On a usual Friday night, Challow would welcome 130 boys and girls, from four-year-olds to 15-year-olds, for coaching. Afterwards there would be a barbecue for juniors, parents and social members—set against the hills of Berkshire. These gatherings are a reminder that the loss of local cricket doesn’t just affect players. Many groundskeepers up and down the land are pensioners. Many volunteers and social members are in the at-risk category. For them, the local cricket club is part of their community, their weekly routine. “There would have been something going on every day of the week, every night of the week,” laments Pilcher. “We’ve had the perfect weather, and the place is empty.”

There will still be a summer, but without cricket it will be one we could never have imagined.