University of Birmingham students led a mass pitch invasion at Edgbaston last night. At a time of rising COVID-19 cases, how did it come to this?

Written by Kit Shepard
Last updated

It certainly livened up a nondescript T20 Blast encounter.

After a Brooke Guest boundary secured victory for Derbyshire over Birmingham Bears in the T20 Blast on Thursday night, hundreds of delirious spectators descended onto the Edgbaston pitch.

The perpetrators, who could be facing lifetime bans from the stadium, came from the Hollies Stand where around 2,000 students were packed together as part of the ironically named ‘Invades’ promotional event.

The section consisted chiefly of University of Birmingham (UoB) students, but the event also included universities from Worcester, Harper Adams (Shropshire) and Warwick.

Though not purchased directly through universities, the event specifically targeted students. Contrary to some rumours on social media, no tickets were given away for free.

Current regulations limit capacity at sporting events to 25%, meaning there were only 6,000 in the ground in total. Social distancing must also be enforced.

As COVID-19 cases rise across the country, especially amongst the local student population, the scenes both in the stands and on the pitch could have concerning implications for public health and the future return of crowds to sporting events.

What’s Been Said

Stuart Cain, chief executive of Warwickshire CCC, labelled the scenes as ‘disgraceful’ in an official statement and attributed them to ‘the behaviour of a small number of students.’

Cain added: ‘The organiser behind their attendance was well aware of social distancing requirements and these were coordinated to everybody who bought a ticket.

‘Messages were repeatedly broadcast over the PA system and screens, and pitch invaders ejected. They will receive a life ban if identified.

‘I will not let this company or crowd come to Edgbaston again.’

‘[Pitch invaders] will receive a lifetime ban if identified’

In a statement seen by Redbrick, Invades said: ‘The actions and behaviour at Edgbaston last night were totally unacceptable.

‘We are working with the Edgbaston team to investigate this isolated, one-off incident, and shall be issuing lifetime bans to all those identified.

‘Having welcomed over 80,000 young people to 30 stadiums in 3 countries since our founding, we believe that introducing the next generation of fans is vital for the future of sport.’

‘We shall continue to work with the respective governing bodies, and our partners, to deliver safe sporting experiences that bring happiness and joy to thousands of young people.’

The University of Birmingham said: ‘There is no indication at present that those involved were University of Birmingham students’ but insisted that if there was ‘evidence of misconduct we will investigate and appropriate sanctions will be applied.’

‘We shall continue to work with the respective governing bodies, and our partners, to deliver safe sporting experiences’

From a health perspective, the damage may well have been done. The attendees, many donning fancy dress, appeared to be packed tightly into a section of the Hollies with plenty of alcohol and minimal social distancing.

So, as COVID cases continue to rise sharply, how did we end up with swathes of students storming onto one of cricket’s iconic playing surfaces? Why, a mere two weeks after Edgbaston earned rave reviews when welcoming 18,000 similarly rowdy fans to an England test match, is the ground now facing condemnation? And could anything, beyond demanding more common sense from the students, have been done to prevent the chaotic scenes?

Under the condition of anonymity, Redbrick spoke to students, other spectators and staff at Edgbaston to find out.

In the Crowd

From the moment students arrived at the ground, it was clear that COVID-19 regulations would be applied sporadically at best.

‘From queuing up outside to walking through the stadium, to being in the stand there was very little distancing,’ one UoB student told Redbrick. ‘The stewards tried to split people up and move people apart, my friends and I were asked to move, and did so, but within five minutes more people had sat around us so it was definitely hard to keep proper distance.’

Students were not allocated specific seats, making it easy for them to move around and difficult for social distancing to be enforced. ‘We walked up to a steward to show tickets and he just said “find a seat anywhere,”’ one said.

‘That was the worst ran sporting event I’ve been to,’ another student added. ‘There was zero social distancing, we were never asked to or even asked to wear a mask.’

Around the ground, there seemed to be little doubt that the students were pushing the regulations to the limit.

‘That was the worst ran sporting event I’ve been to’

‘I was at the far side of the Hollies avoiding the Invades lot,’ a student said. ‘The biggest concern was the lack of social distancing, despite alarming Covid rate among UoB students.’

In Selly Oak, where the majority of UoB students live, COVID-19 infections have increased by 791.7% in the past week. In the days before the game, the university’s popular student Facebook group Fab N Fresh was inundated by isolating students seeking to sell on tickets.

The lack of separation in the stand and the chaotic scenes on the pitch after the game mean that the event could spread the virus even more quickly.

‘If I don’t test positive by next week, we’ll know that the vaccine is working,’ a student said.

A UoB student working at Edgbaston during the game recalled: ‘It was loud and uncontrollable. You could tell from the beginning. The atmosphere wasn’t one of a normal cricket match. It felt like I was working at a club night, not a sports game.’

The impact stretched beyond the university crowd and could harm domestic cricket’s appeal to casual fans. A non-student spectator sitting in the South Stand said that their mum, attending a sporting event for the first time in several years ‘felt intimidated and it ruined the experience for her and she has already said she won’t go to another [T20].’

They also said: ‘My kids also were a little intimidated and have said they are unsure they would want to attend again.’

It should be emphasised, however, that the students largely felt safe in the crowd (though to other spectators, that could say it all about their apathy towards social distancing).

‘I felt completely safe,’ a student said. ‘The atmosphere was lively but at no point did I really feel it turned sour.’

‘The atmosphere was lively but at no point did I really feel it turned sour’

Another insisted: ‘Pitch invasions aside, it was ultimately harmless, it wasn’t as if there was loads of fighting or vandalism and stuff like that, so I think some of the outrage is out of proportion.’

A regular at Edgbaston, while expressing disappointment at how the event concluded, maintains that: ‘I am also glad it did go ahead as it was so much fun.’

‘It was one of the best nights in the Hollies.’

On the Pitch

While the scenes in the stands perhaps stunned students the most, it was the pitch invasion at the end of the game which drew the most attention to Edgbaston.

According to one non-student spectator, it had been coming. ‘There had been several breaches of the pitch throughout the last few overs […] so you could sort of see that it was possibly going to happen.’

Was a pitch invasion premeditated? Not according to students. ‘I doubt anyone turned up thinking a mass pitch invasion was going to happen,’ one said.

‘The first people that did do it obviously had it in their minds to do so, and when they didn’t really get taken down by the stewards and kind of ended up back in the stands I think it was obvious the stewarding wasn’t that effective.

‘I doubt anyone turned up thinking a mass pitch invasion was going to happen’

‘On a similar note, there weren’t that many stewards anyway, and they eventually got overpowered by the mass invasion.’

Another believed the stewards unwittingly encouraged the invasion by attempting to block the path to the pitch.

‘No one even thought of invading until the final minutes […] it was like you don’t want us to do, so we’re going to do it.’

‘It started with like five or six individuals but they [the stewards] could barely stop those, so I think then the crowd saw that and realised they’re not going be able to stop 50 or 100.’

It appears that while the stewards were overrun, the students gave them little chance of preserving order.

‘Ultimately, once a few people got on the pitch then the floodgates opened, I don’t really think Invades or anyone could have done anything about that really.’

What Now?

There is no single group or organisation responsible for the scenes at Edgbaston. The students came for a lawless party and the authorities, both from Edgbaston and Invades, provided them the conditions to fulfil this ambition. One student commented: ‘I’m not really sure what they expected when letting 2,000 students loose in a cricket ground.’

The students, however, are adults and must take responsibility for their actions. It was them, not the club or the organisers, that acted in such a rowdy manner and ran on to the pitch. Considering Selly Oak’s soaring coronavirus cases, there is no doubt that they should have behaved far more sensibly.

‘Other students from other stands were moving themselves into the Hollies as the game went on,’ a non-student spectator said. ‘You could see the other stands that had previously contained students emptying as they all moved to the Hollies.’

The students are, unsurprisingly, more hesitant to blame themselves, but there is at least an acknowledgement that the staff at Edgbaston had little chance of controlling them.

‘You could see the other stands that had previously contained students emptying as they all moved to the Hollies’

This was an experienced steward team that had operated so successfully during the recent test match, but controlling a wild crowd and enforcing social distancing proved a step too far.

A student said: ‘I don’t blame the stewards, they tried to make people distance but ultimately if no one’s going to listen what can they do?

‘Us students have got to take some responsibility, but ultimately there was nothing enforced [or] enforceable.’

On the other hand, students were more willing to criticise the event’s organisers, believing the lack of stewards reflected poorly on both Edgbaston and Invades.

‘Students are by no means blameless, but surely some common sense should’ve prevailed […] you can’t run an event like this with the numbers of staff they had, [it] felt very amateur.’

‘Us students have got to take some responsibility, but ultimately there was nothing enforced [or] enforceable’

Another added: It’s clear they probably needed double the amount of stewards, as surely this was predictable, [they] could’ve at least brought a line of stewards out in front of the stand closer to the end.’

Whether it is the stewards’ job to be prepared to break up huge crowds and thwart large-scale pitch invasions is perhaps the crux of establishing who was most at fault. As one student said, ‘no one’s expecting a mass pitch invasion at the cricket, so no wonder they weren’t prepared.’

Students were also critical of how the event was advertised. Though Invades’ (now-deleted) Facebook event announced that social distancing would be implemented, it promised ‘free flowing pints’ and seemed to promote the radical, uncontrolled atmosphere that materialised.

‘After seeing how the event was advertised by the organisers of the student event, I think a lot of blame lies with them,’ a spectator who does not attend UoB said.

A UoB student contended: ‘If the roadmap went ahead as planned then the whole mixing and no social distancing would have been allowed, and I think that’s how Invades sold it as.

‘Obviously the restrictions were kept in place and I didn’t see or hear a lot from Invades encouraging the keeping to the restrictions.

‘It seemed to be promoted as if it were an event in non-COVID times with no restrictions which obviously was a mistake.’

‘It seemed to be promoted as if it were an event in non-COVID times’

Meanwhile, Edgbaston will surely look to strike a better balance between encouraging famously lively atmosphere and creating an environment where all spectators feel comfortable. Considering that the ground is meant to host a One-Day International between England and Pakistan with increased capacity on 13 July, as part of the government’s Events Research Programme, this feels particularly important.

In a letter to members seen by Redbrick, Cain stated: ‘We will ensure that we do not cross that line between good-hearted entertainment and unacceptable behaviour in any part of the stadium, not just the Eric Hollies Stand.

‘As part of this we are conducting a full review of the evening, which in no way will kill the unique atmosphere of Edgbaston, but to protect it for those who love the club and the game.’

Nevertheless, to place the brunt of criticism on either Invades or Edgbaston would be as irresponsible as the students’ actions. This was a night where hundreds of young people, at the end of an academic year ravaged by the pandemic, took advantage of a precious chance to bend the rules and act how they pleased.

It is students’ fault for behaving in this way, regardless of the year they have had or the circumstances that permitted them to do so. Yet, Invades and Edgbaston have emerged from Thursday night with a mess to clean up and, while they did not directly encourage it, students’ testimonies suggest all parties could have done more to prevent any reputational damage.

‘I think the blame is shared,’ a student working at the ground asserted. ‘The management of Invades made a massive mistake. Edgbaston and Warwickshire should’ve seen this coming. The students should’ve been spread out and not put in a single stand.

‘The students were acting irresponsibly.’

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