Kit Shepard speaks to UoB students and Warwickshire cricketers George Garrett and Robert Yates, as they begin the strangest county season in living memory
County cricket is back. Four months later than usual, an abbreviated first-class campaign began last weekend, with counties attempting to cram in as many matches as possible between now and October.
For the game’s administrators, the unfamiliar season is the result of months of meticulous planning and preparation, after the UK’s late-March lockdown came at the worse possible time for a sport that typically commences its season at the start of April.
For Robert Yates and George Garrett, two University of Birmingham (UoB) students that double as Warwickshire players, it is just a relief to get going.
‘It’s great to be back,’ Yates told Redbrick. A third-year English Language student who broke into the first XI last summer as a teenager, the assured top-order batsman already has 13 first-class appearances to his name and is establishing himself as a Warwickshire regular. ‘Everyone’s been pretty bored on their own [and] I have felt in pretty good nick since we got back.’
Yates certainly looked in solid form last weekend, scoring 88 in his first competitive innings of the summer against Northamptonshire. Opening for the inaugural time in his first-class career, the 20-year-old’s knock, which combined positivity and patience, helped Warwickshire recover from a shaky start to build a big lead, though a fightback from Northants’ in their second innings saw the match drawn.
The game was played without any spectators after the government scrapped its pilot events (which would have allowed a limited number of spectators into Edgbaston) 24 hours before the first ball, following fears over rising COVID-19 cases.
Though this decision was hugely disappointing for organisers and supporters alike, cricket must press on. The Bob Willis Trophy, held in place of the County Championship, gives each county five first-class matches and the prospect of a Lord’s final. There will also be a T20 Blast competition starting at the end of August, giving players plenty of game time after months of waiting.
Yet the doldrums of lockdown were not all doom, gloom, and intense home training regimes for Yates and Warwickshire.
‘From what I’ve seen [from] everyone in our team, a little bit of a break seems to have cleared the headspace,’ he reveals. ‘You don’t forget what you’ve practised and learned.’ The life of a county cricketer involves coping with plenty of time on the road and the pressure to perform, so it is little surprise that Yates considers the period away as a ‘restart button.’
Garrett, a fast bowler who also impressed after making his first-class debut last summer, shares the view that the long delay has had its silver linings. ‘I’ve never seen the squad so hungry to get going and eager to impress,’ he says. ‘The competition for places is extraordinary.’
Warwickshire’s depth in the bowling department, enhanced by a long break that has allowed injured bodies to recover, meant Garrett missed out on selection for the Northants game.
The omission was naturally ‘a bit frustrating’ for Garrett, who is heading into his third year of a history degree at UoB. ‘I’m bowling really well and I’ve put myself in a good place going into this season.’
His breakthrough last year was somewhat unexpected, but he certainly made the most of his opportunity, claiming eight wickets in his three Championship matches.
And though he will have to wait a little longer to increase that wicket tally, Garrett can see the positives in the situation too. ‘Last year, Warwickshire had their fair share of injury problems, so to have everyone fit is going from one of the worst-case scenarios to one of the best.’
Such is the competition for places due to the squad’s good health, Garrett believes ‘there will be a few guys that have been around England setups before that will end up playing club cricket.’
Nevertheless, the 20-year-old is optimistic that he will get plenty of chances to build on his success last year. Fast bowling is a huge physical effort at the best of times, let alone after being away for so long. ‘Hopefully, as the season goes on and the bowlers’ workloads spike and rotation is needed, I’ll get a go,’ Garrett says.
That opportunity may be just around the corner. Warwickshire lacked potency with the ball during the final day and a half against Northants, as the visitors amassed 507-6 to recover from a 227-run first-innings deficit and save the game.
This disappointing bowling performance could lead to a few changes to the attack, especially after opening quick Olly Stone bowled just three overs in Northants’ second innings due to a possible side injury.
When his time does come, Garrett will have to concentrate on more than his bowling. With hygiene breaks every six overs, no handshakes, and even instructions for players to bring their own snacks and suncream, cricket during a pandemic demands plenty of adaptation.
‘Some of them [the new regulations] are a bit tedious,’ admits Garrett. ‘Obviously, I can see why they’re happening and we’re happy to do them, but every six overs, washing the ball, I don’t really know how we’re going to pick up the virus in the outfield, but it’s better safe than sorry.’
Yates, who encountered the new measures against Northants, is finding them easy enough to follow. ‘They’re pretty simple. The umpires remind us after six overs: “lads, go wash your hands”, there are bottles at pretty regular intervals around the boundary and you literally run to the nearest one.’
Yates jokingly expressed concern that catches will come his way while his hands are still ‘soaking wet’ from the sanitiser, while Garrett is wary that he might have to bowl a couple of overs before he has the necessary resources to apply sweat to the ball (the traditional use of saliva is banned). Such frivolous concerns indicate that the returning players feel relaxed, safe, and focused on the cricket.
With the pair playing at the top level of the English domestic game and subject to such stringent measures, it can be easy to forget that they are also working towards a degree and trying to enjoy themselves at UoB as well.
Though their success at Warwickshire has made time for studying and socializing scarce, both have received plenty of support from the university. Facing the likes of Stuart Broad and Morne Morkel gave Yates a rather good excuse to miss some of his first-year exams last summer, something that his course leaders ‘were really comfortable with and helped me out.’
He also received plenty of support and assistance when deciding to split the final year of his degree into two. ‘[It] didn’t take me long at all, they’ve been really supportive [and I] don’t have a bad word to say about them.’
Likewise, Garrett rarely feels overwhelmed by the challenge of balancing his degree and professional commitments as he heads into his final year at UoB. In a self-assessment that plenty of students can relate to, he concedes ‘work-wise, of course it is difficult, and I probably could work a bit harder,’ but maintains with a smile that ‘I would like to think that I can pull it out the bag in my final year.’
As he enters the highly-pressurised environment of professional sport, Garrett is eager to appreciate university life. ‘It’s pretty healthy, you come back into a student house and have the life that a student lives.
‘Cricket’s one of those sports where you have a lot more bad days than good, so to get an escape from cricket is such a healthy thing to have.’
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