By Richard Edwards
26 April 2021
To borrow a cricket analogy, there used to be clear boundaries between a season ending in one sport and beginning in another.
Increasingly, though, that’s no longer the case, particularly when it comes to 2021 and the encroachment of the football season into almost unchartered territory.
Writing from personal experience, I’m now attempting to juggle cricket and football commitments for junior sides un both sports until the final weekend in June, which is a sentence I hadn’t anticipated writing until sport was given the all-clear to recommence at the tail-end of March.
The problem isn’t limited to junior cricket, with local authorities likely to come under significant pressure to prioritise the preparation of surfaces for one sport over another for the next two or three months.
In areas where the majority of cricket grounds are privately owned, the issue may primarily be one of individual availability rather than pitch preparation but as Gulfraz Riaz, chairman of the National Asian Cricket Council explains, that won’t the case everywhere.
“The authorities that prepare a lot of the municipal grounds are under an awful lot of pressure,” he says. “One element of the sporting community is saying these are cricket pitches, while the other wants football to continue.
“It’s a bizarre one. We’re going to have some of the longest established South Asian park leagues getting underway, but the goalposts are still up, they’re staying up for longer than they usually would do, and cricket is going to have to be played while that’s the case.
“It’s also the case that in the vast majority of cases, the squares are still very much open for the public to play football on. If you’re looking for a flat piece of grass for a kickaround, then a cricket square, unfortunately, is pretty much perfect.”
That will do little to help the quality of the playing surfaces while the two seasons continue in tandem, although the weather is playing its part in ensuring that cricket, rather than football, is still front and centre of many sporting minds.
“We haven’t heard of any issues over availability, although that may change once the season gets underway,” says Jim Ley, head of youth cricket at Sparsholt, a small village on the outskirts of Winchester.
“We ran a series of Easter camps, which were hugely popular, so we’re also hoping that the momentum we’ve built up from then will carry on into the season. There’s no guarantee that a child and their parents will decide to prioritise cricket over football but I think you have to give yourself the best opportunity of that being the case.”
Anecdotally, there is talk of conversations between local cricket leagues and their football equivalents over a shortening of the overlap between the two sports this summer – an eminently sensible compromise given the issues faced by both since the onset of the pandemic.
Last weekend, the Cheshire County Cricket League got underway in glorious sunshine – hopefully a portent of a trouble-free summer to follow – and Rob Sproston says that there was little evidence of players prioritising the nation’s winter sport over its summer equivalent.
“The cricketers who play football all played at the weekend,” he says. “Obviously not every league started last week so I can’t tell you that this was the case everywhere, but those who you expected to play were playing anyway.
“In terms of junior football, we’ve got used to that going on all summer anyway. It obviously depends on the age group but lots of junior football teams will play on a Sunday morning or a Sunday afternoon and those who play cricket will try and juggle their availability around that.”
On a more prosaic note, the really essential element of this is that youth cricketers are given the opportunity to play as many sports as they possibly can, which can clearly be an issue if they run concurrently for long periods of the year. Something has to give at some point, as Simon Prodger, managing director of the National Cricket Conference, explains.
“A lot of kids don’t make it because they fall out of love with the sport that they’re supposed to be very, very good at – they just get driven and driven and then reject it,” he says. “A lot of the kids who are good at cricket are good at football, they’re good at rugby, that has always been the case.
“It can’t be right that children are ring-fenced into one sport when they’re so young.”
Prodger also calls for more communication between the two sports to ensure that they can co-exist more harmoniously in the future.
“The football leagues and the cricket leagues need to talk to each other,” he says. “It’s the leagues that impose the fixtures and the timings. There’s certainly an argument to say, in this season in particular, perhaps with the support of local councils, leagues should be more flexible in terms of when they play their games.
“Is it really necessary for football to played on a Sunday during the cricket season? Can it be played midweek? Can it be played early evening and perhaps over a shorter period? As a sport we’re being asked to be creative to find a solution to some of the challenges we’re facing, maybe we should be asking leagues to be creative as well.”
With most leagues likely to be underway over the next couple of weeks, we’ll wait to see if there is a widespread impact for either sport, but Riaz strikes a positive note following the resumption of summer training.
“We’re still seeing the numbers coming in,” he says. “I think the attitude is, by and large, it’s summer, it’s time for cricket.”
Long may that prevail.