By Richard Edwards
18th March 2021
The fervent hope of everyone involved in grassroots sport is that the arrival of March 29 will herald a full summer of sport – and the resumption of what effectively amounts to a ‘normal’ cricket season.
Fears, though, remain that the provision of facilities could scupper the plans of some clubs who rely on publicly-owned grounds, the preparation of which could be subject to the twin vagaries of monetary considerations and conflicts between cricket, football and rugby.
How far the football season – mothballed since December – encroaches into the cricket season still remains unclear, although anecdotally, some county boards are expecting a considerable overlap.
That eventuality could have a significant impact, not just on pitch quality but also on availability, and is clearly something that clubs are going to have to keep a close eye on in the coming weeks.
But while it’s easy to focus on the negatives after a tumultuous 12 months, Geoff Webb, the CEO of the Grounds Maintenance Association, believes there are reasons to be optimistic.
“The cricket season may start two or three weeks later than planned but the hope will obviously be that clubs can enjoy a much fuller season than they did last year,” he says.
“A lot of clubs that have had to navigate the uncertainty of the last 12 months will hopefully be in a much better place moving forward.
“But grassroots sports need help because it’s not going to be managed in the same way it would have been in the past as a result of local authority budgets being much, much tighter.
“We’re going to need local action and, really, local heroes are going to come to the rescue.”
There have been no shortages of those since the onset of the pandemic and there will need to be plenty more if research suggesting as many as 340,000 children will be deprived the opportunity to play sport over the next five years as a result of sub-standard pitches, become real, rather than hypothetical figures.
According to Webb, that would equate to over 5000 sports pitches being left with no-one to manage them effectively. A great many of those, it’s safe to surmise, would be dormant cricket pitches.
“We need governing bodies to elevate our sector, as much as they have done traditionally for sports coaches and officialdom,” he says. “We need to get more young people engaged. Recent research indicates that only two percent of young people would consider a career in grounds management and only nine percent would actively consider volunteering.
“We’ve obviously got to boost that figure.”
That’s particularly true given that the numbers only rose marginally when adults were posed the same question.
Whether those who began volunteering last year - many of whom were furloughed and so had additional time on their hands – continue in the same vein over the course of the summer remains to be seen.
Simon Prodger, the head of the National Cricket Conference, isn’t convinced that any comparison between pre-Covid volunteering levels and those seen last summer, is a valid one.
“Trying to identify any significant growth in volunteering from last year is probably creating a false picture – I’m not sure we can predict that any increase in volunteering last summer, when people had the time to do it, will be continued this time around,” he says.
What is clear, however, is that the importance of sport has once again been brought to the fore during the past year. As has the crucial role that local recreation grounds play.
“One thing that has come out of lockdown is that there a genuine love for the local facility again,” says Webb.
“With freedoms being taken away, the local park or the local sport’s club has really been missed.
“If councils can’t invest in them then I think local people will take over and take on the volunteering roles that we really do need. There’s a lot of pride in that.”
The investment announced for grassroots sport back in the first week in March aimed to go some way to ensuring that the shortfall suffered by cricket throughout the pandemic will be cushioned.
Although the long-term implications of the crisis will play out over a period stretching well beyond this summer.
Of more immediate concern is the potential conflict between the clamour to finish the grassroots football season at the same time as this summer’s cricket should be starting.
“I think the impact from that should be softer than last year,” says Webb. “If you go back to February last year, the weather had impacted on cricket wickets and the ability to plan that investment in the pitch for the coming season.
“Now I think a lot of that work has been done. It will come down to how different local authorities manage their own local community facilities. You usually see that on three levels. There are those which are really invested in it and see it as a worthwhile investment, because sport isn’t just about sport, it’s about mental health and physical well-being.
“You then get others that are in a halfway house – they want to do the right thing but maybe don’t have the budgets to do that. And you get others that look at it as a very simple way to cut facilities and that’s where you see Sport England and others getting involved to try and protect playing fields.
“Will cricket be disproportionately impacted in comparison to other sports? I think time will tell on that. Obviously, football seems to get the lion’s share of funding because it gets the biggest TV contracts.
“What we need is a measured approach to investment in every sport. It shouldn’t be a bun fight, it should be relevant to the sport’s needs and should see sports working hand-in-hand to ensure that they deliver on those facilities.”
For their part the GMA is providing a series of online modules for those looking to help at the grassroots level, providing the same kind of learning that would be available for those interested in becoming cricket coaches or umpires.
It’s the kind of innovative thinking that may open up the world of maintenance to a new generation of talent, young and old.
In the meantime, the hope must be that the enthusiasm for volunteering witnessed last summer continues to the same extent.
And that this summer's action remains uninterrupted.