Sport writer Jasper Watkin reflects on a remarkable summer of cricket and assesses the challenges the game faces at all levels amid the pandemic
Cricket has always been a sport I felt I could look to when seeking to place where I was in my life. Whether that be from my first memories of school, which coincided with the historic 2005 Ashes victory, or watching England win the World Cup ‘by the barest of margins’ whilst I was (supposed to be) working on Brighton Pier. This process I have of aligning cricket with my own life events means that the 2020 summer of cricket will be a memorable one, played in the context of a global pandemic, with repercussions that we may see for years to come at every level of the game.
The impact of the pandemic at the highest level is where we can see the most explicit differences to the game. The most obvious point is the absence of fans in grounds, which is an issue that is taking its toll on most, if not all sports. The influence of the supporters’ roar is undeniable. I’m not sure we would’ve seen and heard Ben Stokes drag England to that victory at Headingly in 2019 without almost 20,000 fans right there behind him. Having seen the impact of spectators in the past, their absence seems now even more striking – despite the efforts of Sky to layer in artificial sound with pictures of empty seats, creating an odd scene.
Living inside a bio-secure bubble is not too far short of something from a Sci-Fi film, but it has been the reality of the players this summer. Given the mental capacity required to play Test cricket, the added intensity of the bubbles seemed to induce a range of reactions from players. A clear example of this is in the frustration clearly on show from Australia’s David Warner this summer, who struggled to score fluidly and has been dismissed by England’s Jofra Archer alone seven times in just 61 deliveries since the 2019 World Cup. On the other side of the coin, there were massive runs for Zak Crawley against Pakistan, as he scored a sensational 267 in the final test match of the summer.
The impact of the COVID-19 measures varies depending on the level of cricket, but there are fears that the county game could seriously struggle. The loss of revenue for some county teams has been the biggest issue, leading to the shedding of staff and players taking wage cuts. In this context, the upcoming proposition of The Hundred competition is a massive risk. It would not be totally unreasonable to suggest the tournament is a lose-lose situation for the counties. If it is a failure, then it has been a waste of already COVID-stretched funds and wages. Success, on the other hand, may lead to more attention and money being drawn away from the perennially shunned County Championship game.
The area in which the impact of COVID-19 may be felt the most, however, is at the amateur level and its junior grassroots cricket. David Brook, an amateur player and commentator for Guerrilla Cricket told Redbrick that he feels the biggest gap between professional and grassroots cricket regarding COVID-19 is that the regulations and restrictions for recreational cricket have ‘not been as onerous as the top level.’ The rise in members wanting to play has therefore been ‘huge’ since the restart of the season – likely down to the ‘pent-up demand,’ Brook explained. In terms of help from the top-down, although Brook was satisfied that ‘the ECB had been pro-active in helping’ through measures such as grants for clubs who have struggled, he fears that the impact, particularly at the junior level, ‘may not be felt for a few years, but doesn’t augur well.’
If, or when, the devasting ramifications that COVID-19 has wreaked on the world will be felt as harmfully in cricket remains to be seen. It is easy to fear for junior cricket and children being put off the game at a crucial, developing age. However, there are positive signs at the top level following a successful summer of cricket and adult grassroots players are seemingly itching to play the game, so the sport is hopefully heading in the right direction.
Like this? Check out more from Redbrick Sport: