A couple of months ago, the prospect of any cricket being played this year looked remote. The virus which had brought the country, the economy and sport to a virtual standstill appeared almost certain to render cricket impossible across England and Wales. The season in Scotland was cancelled as early as May 13.
Against the most unpromising backdrop imaginable, the ECB delivered a series of measures aimed at ensuring the ongoing viability of club sides from Cornwall to Cumbria.
The suspension of loan payments, the issuing of grants and a series of other measures were part of a package that totalled £25.5m for the recreational game. That went a fair way to easing some of the pain caused by a lockdown that has made the summer of 2020 a summer like no other.
Now, though, this weekend will see the return of figures bedecked in white on grounds that have missed them. And although league seasons as we know them won’t return until 2021 – all things being well – the fact that we have cricket at all is reason enough for celebration.
And the consequences of no cricket? In the eyes of Rob Sproston, the chairman of the National Cricket Conference, that doesn’t bear thinking about.
“No cricket would have been unprecedented,” he says. “In my eyes, it would have been an absolute disaster. Look at 2021 - how many clubs would have survived? I think it could have been catastrophic.
“I think most leagues will start on the 18th, some on the 25th. I don’t think every league has decided at this stage. Now they have got the go-ahead, they have to agree the fixtures, the format and work out the best way of moving forward.
“I think umpiring might be an issue but the most important thing is that club cricket will be played this summer. I don’t think we can under-estimate just how significant that is.”
Since the return was given the green light, leagues have been communicating constantly with clubs, with one over-riding message – follow the ECB guidelines and don’t deviate.
Take the Shepherd Neame League in Essex as just one example. A message on the league’s website is unambiguously clear. “....if clubs do not act on the guidance listed by the ECB and Government then they of course will not be able to participate in the league this season.”
In short, yes, there are plenty of things that clubs would rather not have to adhere to, but now is not the time to kick up a fuss or start doing things differently. Now, more than ever, is the time to do exactly as they have been asked.
“The ECB have done a great job under exceedingly difficult circumstances,” says Sproston. "It was totally out of their hands – there were a lot of hoops to jump through.
“For us to move from phase three to phrase four, there was always going to be some very strict guidelines. The plus side is that the games are going to be 11-a-side and there’s no limit on overs.
“The majority of things that are written in the document are fine. We knew we were not going to have changing facilities, we knew we weren’t going to have teas, these things weren’t a surprise.
“The lines that batsman are going to have run in was perhaps something that people weren’t expecting and will create some additional work for groundsman but all these things have been put in place to protect the players.
“We need to do everything we can to make sure that clubs follow the guidance and that the return of the recreational game is a success.”
Sproston is a man who remembers the golden era of club cricket, when 300 or 400 people would pour through the gates at his home club of Nantwich, and plenty more when Crewe arrived to play in the derby.
It’s quite possible that crowds will be up to levels not seen in a generation this summer, as people look for entertainment and do their best to support the local institutions which have taken on greater significance during this time of national crisis.
We may also see those club cricketers who were thinking twice about continuing their recreational careers, strapping their pads on with renewed enthusiasm. And more families realising that on a Saturday afternoon in summer, there are few better places to visit than the local cricket ground.
Whether that happens in reality only time will tell, but there is a certain sense of renewal as the club game prepares for its return.
“You would hope that was the case,” he says.
“There are a lot of ifs and buts at the moment.