Briefly there was the possibility England’s cricketers may provide a semblance of normality given Sri Lanka has so far managed to avoid having many coronavirus cases. In such extraordinary times there just might have been the reassurance of waking up in the morning to news of an England batting collapse on foreign soil and everyone could conclude that all was well with the world. Life was going on as usual. But on Friday cricket bowed to the inevitable.

Covid-19 has caused an upheaval to the schedules in a manner way beyond anything the terrorists have ever managed. England, following the lead of their rugby team at the height of the troubles in Ireland (“We may not be very good but at least we turn up,” said the captain, John Pullin, at the post-match dinner in Dublin in 1972 after England had been soundly beaten), have often brazened it out when tours have been under threat. In India in 1984‑85 they stayed on despite the civil unrest following the assassination of Indira Gandhi; they travelled – well, most of them did – to India in 2001 and 2008 when there were security concerns, and also to Bangladesh in 2016.

But the current threat is beyond the realm of Reg Dickson, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s cheerfully ubiquitous security officer. Like all of us the players must have been concerned they were now in uncharted territory. Sri Lanka is almost virus-free but the yearning to be alongside one’s family in such uncertain times is easy to understand. Moreover, the notion of playing in front of empty stadiums (even though that already happens too often in Test cricket, especially when England are not involved) is unpalatable.

We are all losers here. Sri Lanka is a wonderful place to tour and in different circumstances there would have been thousands of England supporters there to enjoy the cricket and add to the atmosphere. Among the players, Matt Parkinson probably deserves more sympathy than any of the others. On his third tour of the winter there was just a chance that he would make his Test debut in Galle, where the ball always turns. But will there ever be another chance for him? Not next summer for a variety of reasons; just possibly next winter in India or indeed in Sri Lanka if the postponed tour is somehow rescheduled in between England’s already taxing commitments. Will he have to bounce grandchildren on his knee and explain to them wistfully the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic for his career?

Like every other sphere of life the immediate future of the game is shrouded with uncertainty, which may have been reflected by the words of Tom Harrison, the chief executive of the ECB. “Our main priorities are to ensure we scope out the landscape for financial, logistical and scheduling implications.”

That landscape is starting to look barren. The series against West Indies, due to begin at the Oval on 4 June, must be in deep jeopardy. I have heard the neat suggestion that the series could be played in the Caribbean instead (as I write Barbados has no cases of the virus and Antigua one) but why would any nation there welcome an influx of cricketers and supporters from the UK in the next few months? It is not going to happen, especially since on Saturday when the West Indies Board, acting on the advice of their medical advisory committee, suspended all its tournaments and face-to-face group meetings from Monday onwards for a minimum of 30 days. They are determined to act “with an abundance of caution”.

The series of white-ball fixtures against Australia must also be in doubt. These matches produce vital income, especially when the ECB’s emergency budget has been diminished. The second half of the summer should contain a three-Test series against Pakistan beginning on 30 July, followed by more one-day matches. The landscape in August and September also takes some scoping out.

The uncertainty applies to domestic cricket as well. The T20 Blast, the most reliable source of revenue for the counties, is due to start on 29 May, when we are told that the virus is likely to be at its peak. Perhaps that competition will be shunted to the end of the season. Meanwhile, the Hundred is scheduled to begin on 18 July. There may be cynics out there who think I would welcome disruption to the Hundred, but this is not the case. Instead, my hunch is that the advocates of the Hundred – like some ardent Brexiters – will be quick to point out: “It would have been a great success but for the virus.” Alternatively, if the Hundred is able to take place, sports fans might then be so desperate for some live action on their screens after being denied for so long that they might tune in in their millions. We are in straw‑clutching territory.

What of the championship? There is an argument, though it is unlikely to prevail, that a four-day match at the majority of venues would allow the spectators to self-isolate in the stands without any difficulty, although this would not be the case at Scarborough and occasionally at Taunton or Chelmsford, small grounds that often attract relatively large crowds. Nor would a championship match require too many resources that might be urgently needed elsewhere to oversee the event.

Perhaps this is a fanciful notion but there could at least be a debate over the viability of allowing county cricket to continue, with those nervous of attending ending up watching the ever-improving streaming of matches. And at the end of the debate we would, of course, “follow the science”.

Source Article