The talk is of misconduct, match-fixing, potential bankruptcies and tour cancellations when after two weeks of blissful sunshine at the start of the season we expected to be discussing Jimmy’s rib, Jofra’s elbow, Jos in the IPL and Joe’s inability to consolidate an innings. (I was thinking of Denly but let’s toss in Root as well for a better headline.)
The cricket pages are scarcely recognisable with reports of clandestine meetings at Derby, phone calls from the Mumbai fixers and financial doom and gloom everywhere. Clearly these are important issues, worthy of pursuit, but for cricket fans such topics are a further source of despair. All they want is a good scorecard to pore over.
Even so it is remarkable that the England and Wales Cricket Board has recommended a new chairman without knowing more about his recent background at the Football League. Ian Watmore, destined to be the ECB’s first salaried chairman, could be an excellent appointment but surely a bit more should have been known about him.
An ECB spokesperson offered a standard forward defensive. “Ian Watmore was appointed following a rigorous research and selection process led by global executive research firm Odger Berndtson and a dedicated nominations committee.”
This response had a familiar ring to it. It was reminiscent of another government minister explaining how they were “following the scientific advice” when confronted with some awkward questions about past shortcomings. Given the current turmoil, an argument about Colin Graves’s successor is the last thing the ECB wants. Nor do the counties, who, like everyone else, are far more concerned with keeping afloat.
My guess is that with the circumstances surrounding his departure from the EFL likely to remain an unresolved case with differing opinions, Watmore’s nomination will stand and he may be capable of doing the job well in the most trying of circumstances. But it is not a good look.
Surrey’s chairman, Richard Thompson, meanwhile, says that “if we lose a county I don’t think it will be a small one”. It will not be Surrey either, who are less dependent on ECB contributions than any county.
His assessment is borne out by the situation at Somerset where Gordon Hollins, once of the ECB and now the chief executive at Taunton, has taken over in interesting times. He has hardly met anyone and has been catapulted into crisis management from the start. “I think the most difficult thing I’ve had to do is to tell 67 of our 76 staff that their services are not required at the moment.”
This was a financial necessity. The furlough system has become vital to the survival of our counties and the smaller ones can apply it to a higher percentage of their staff. Hollins also mentions a cost that cannot be quantified in pounds. “Attending a cricket match is not like going to a concert,” he says. “It is a social get-together; friendships are built there and it becomes a big part of our supporters’ lives.”
Uncertainty abounds over when professional cricket might resume and, yes, those overseeing this must “follow the scientific advice” about mass gatherings. Yet alongside the chaos there can also be moments of clarity. One little example came from Moeen Ali in a Q&A with Guardian readers. “If there was a Test match tomorrow and I got the call, I’d say ‘yes’‚” he said. “We’re all missing cricket right now and coronavirus makes you realise what you love.”
The pandemic has changed perspectives and that can apply on a broader scale as the ECB and counties try to plot a way forward.
John Carr and Alan Fordham of the ECB are locked away with their spreadsheets and their hypotheticals and a task which must make scoring runs for Middlesex and Northamptonshire respectively three or four decades ago seem like child’s play.
They start by trying to concoct an international schedule and then must attempt to figure out some sort of domestic programme. They have to embrace the concerns of so many people: the scientists, the politicians, the players at home and abroad, the umpires, the members, the gatemen and the Sky TV executives. Oh, and the press corps.
Too much speculation is pointless at this stage, but there may be no Championship cricket and no Hundred this summer, which could be both a source of despair and rejoicing to cricket lovers.
In fact whatever one’s view of the Hundred, it makes sense not to launch it with all the complications: the overseas “stars” may well be reluctant to come and even the ECB recognises that a major priority must be to give some succour to existing cricket fans rather than reaching out to the millions out there it hopes to attract to this funny, complicated old game. Understandably the focus will be to deliver the Blast.
There may be no better time to swerve and experiment. Two-match Test series with West Indies and Pakistan could only take place at the end of the summer. Perhaps in exceptional circumstances and with a shortage of time, four-day Tests could be tried.
In between them a completely different England side could fulfil ODI fixtures against Australia and Ireland. At domestic level there might be time for a rejuvenated 50-over competition for the counties alongside the Blast with a red ball and white clothing. Why? To offer the fans a full day’s entertainment and to discover if any batsmen can still cope when the red ball moves. The lie may be almost unplayable but we have to make the best of it.