By Richard Edwards
6 April 2020
In our recent newsletter we extensively covered the potential consequences of a decimated summer of cricket up and down the country.
Financial issues, mental health problems for those who play and watch the club game during the summer months, to the worry that some players would be lost to the sport completely, the picture painted was a bleak one, albeit one with a potential silver lining when it came to bringing the sport and communities together.
One area that we neglected to mention, however, was the impact that the Covid-19 crisis could have on perhaps the most fundemantal element of any cricket club – its playing surface.
This omission was elequently pointed out by Kent County Pitch Advisor, Tony Leach, who detailed the potentially catastrophic impact that a summer of inactivity could bring to grounds across a country now entering its second week of lockdown.
Since our initial conversation, the Government has issued fresh guidance to groundstaff in a bid to ensure that facilities are not completely neglected during this unprecedented period of turmoil. While that delivered some form of clarity, it has also become clear that not all clubs will be in a position to provide quality wickets and outfields if and when that season begins. Through no fault of their own.
This week the ECB has announced a welcome financial rescue package for the recreational game in a bid to ensure that the grassroots of English cricket remain healthy, despite the storm enveloping it.
But the issues facing groundstaff goes well beyond pounds and pence. The demographic of those who look after the fabled 22-yard strips and outfields are very much within what the Department of Health and Social Care would term the most ‘high risk’ group when it comes to the coronavirus infection. The other major headache is one of time. And it’s clear from discussions with key people within the game that that’s another element that is working against club cricket in 2020.
Whether it’s time at the ground during lockdown or time to prepare wickets when cricket is given the green light to return, there is no magic bullet to solve this particular problem.
“For an awful lot of clubs this is going to be devastating,” says Leach. “For some, the machinery available to help them look after their grounds is absolutely minimal – and if they can’t get to the ground for a sufficient amount of time, then their existing equipment is not going to be up to the job of cutting long grass.
“If you have outfields that get to eight or ten inches long then you’re going to have to start either hiring in suitable equipment or getting contractors involved. And given the current situation, for a lot of clubs that’s not going to be an option.
It’s fair to say that those cricket clubs who play on local authority facilities will be a fairly long way down the list of priorities once the lockdown ends and some kind of normality gradually returns.
Those clubs who can’t afford to maintain their grounds meanwhile, could find themselves as attractive propositions for developers on the look out for land.
“If that’s the case then these grounds will be lost,” says Leach. “And they’re never going to come back once lost, for example, to housing.”
That’s a worst case scenario but a prospect that isn’t beyond the bounds of probability as the crisis continues to develop and escalate. With the whole country being instructed to embrace social distancing and with many self-isolating with the symptoms of a virus that has pretty much ground the entire world to a halt, an army of groundstaff and volunteers find themselves in cold storage at the very time they would usually be working full pelt to prepare pitches for the new season.
“An awful lot of the volunteers will certainly be over 50, some will be over 60 and some will be over 70,” says Leach, who works closely with his colleagues, Peter Robinson and Peter Aylott, both of whom are also in the age bracket identified by the government as being at risk or most vulnerable.
“Cricket grounds are extremely dependent on our volunteer workforce as well. And the danger is that once sites are lost then the volunteer workforce will be lost to the game as well.”
These issues, of course, are on top of dealing with the practicalities of actually getting surfaces ready for what looks like being one of cricket’s strangest ever seasons. If the weather is kind, and if groundstaff are able to spend sufficient time at grounds in the intervening period, then it might be possible to get pitches playable in something like two to three weeks.
Without sunshine, though, it could take considerably longer – and that’s without taking into account the work that would need to be done on public authority pitches which, in all likelihood, won’t receive the same kind of care and attention as the surfaces at clubs which own their grounds.
The ECB has promised to move heaven and earth to ensure the viability of club cricket’s future. Whether it’s enough remains to be seen.