September 2019. Was there ever a better time to be a professional cricketer in England? The game was buzzing after the country’s World Cup victory, another preposterous win at Headingley against Australia and a massive television deal done and dusted (even though some of us were wary of the contents).
The players were overrun with options as their agents flitted from one T20 franchise to another to secure more lucrative deals. The Hundred offered English cricketers – and quite a few Kolpaks – an irresistible windfall. Famous coaches were hired from afar with no expense spared. By the standards of the past, the game was awash with money and a player could plot his own unique career path, which need not be so dependent on the old county system.
But now the corridors are packed with uncertainty. Pay cuts are on the horizon, as has been the case among Premiership rugby union clubs, and the T20 gigs are in doubt. So too are the international matches that have always been the lifeblood of the game.
Cricketers, we discover, are not key workers. In fact there has been an interesting recalibration of what constitutes a key worker. For some reason this does not extend to hedge fund managers, Premier League footballers, estate agents or even sports journalists.
For the moment our cricketers are in limbo, at least until 28 May, after Friday’s England and Wales Cricket Board announcement. The ECB must try to salvage something from the 2020 season, although it is a task way beyond its control. Yet the sport’s governing body is attempting to outline a variety of options that are dependent upon when the playing of cricket becomes a safe and acceptable activity again.
One option is to play county games – and Test matches, which are so much more important in terms of income – behind closed doors. This is not the time for wisecracks along the lines of: “Don’t they do that already?”
The situation is too grave and in any case that cliche of sparse crowds is not universally true. Going behind closed doors is a horrible option but in these times that does not necessarily mean it should be ruled out immediately.
How many people would have to be in the ground to allow such a match to proceed? At least 100 perhaps, even if we expel the annoying camera operator whose job is to follow the dismissed batsman off the field at close quarters? Would that figure be acceptable to the experts – or the players?
There may well be no red-ball cricket this summer at domestic level, such is the understandable eagerness to satisfy the TV companies. The grounds could be empty for months. Even if no cricket is permitted, might it be possible in our towns and cities for the open spaces of some of our grounds to be available as exercise areas, provided a safe distance is kept?
In fine weather could the big screens be used to provide open-air cinemas? It will be important for the clubs to remain relevant by engaging with their local communities. And they will want to generate some income.
For the counties the T20 Blast fills this function better than anything else and there is surely every chance this competition will be switched to the later part of the season. If there is no red-ball cricket it may be possible to experiment – or revert to – a knockout 50-over competition that would give county members something more substantial to watch.
And then, of course, there is The Hundred. As the overseas players become more hesitant or just more unavailable – the withdrawal of David Warner from Southern Brave (the team based in Southampton) may not be the last absentee among the Australians – there may be a case to postpone it until 2021, though some may prefer a permanent abandonment. A postponement will not happen unless the virus demolishes the entire season. The ECB has invested so much in this competition, which helps to explain why its reserves to deal with unforeseen events have slumped from £70m to around £10m, that it will be determined to proceed with it come what may. The TV deal dictates this is the case.
However the ECB may tacitly welcome an inbuilt excuse for a lukewarm start to its new competition. It can blame it on the pandemic. If The Hundred does take place, there will at least be an insatiable hunger for some live sport on our TV screens.
The challenges, as in every walk of life, are immense and it may be that cricket in England uses the hiatus to seek reform. Some may pursue a reduction in the number of first-class counties and a restructuring of championship cricket. Others may argue for a serious rethink of The Hundred; it may even be the 12-month contracts for county cricketers will be reconsidered. Amid the enforced pause there will be plenty of time for plotting a way forward in the next few months even if finding a consensus is tortuous.
Beyond the professional game we should spare a thought for all those recreational cricketers, the true devotees of the game, who will be denied their afternoons and evenings of competition and camaraderie. There is barely a silver lining in sight except that in the barren, stressful months ahead we may all come to appreciate with fresh clarity what we are missing.