The doomsday clock ticked a little closer to midnight for cricket’s summer of 2020 when the England and Wales Cricket Board announced on Wednesday that all recreational cricket should be suspended indefinitely.
A letter from the chief executive, Tom Harrison, to county boards, clubs and leagues said the decision was based on medical guidance.
“Following the Government’s latest advice around social distancing, it is with sadness and reluctance that we recommend that all forms of recreational cricket are for now suspended.”
This will come as no surprise given the staged lockdown of all public activities. Earlier this week the Football Association advised that all levels of the amateur game be suspended. The Rugby Football Union has advised similar suspension in amateur and junior rugby. The ECB’s move is just further confirmation of the potentially disastrous state of amateur and grassroots sport in coming months.
The crisis is a visitation that extends far beyond sport, just as the decision to suspend non-professional cricket is unarguably the right course. The MCC’s 1901 touring party to South Africa may have played a Test series during a local outbreak of bubonic plague but the Covid-19 pandemic requires industrial scale micromanagement.
The question remains, though: what will be left when it passes? Club cricket in particular finds itself in considerable peril, placed directly in the path of the coming lockdown. This is a sport where the annual revenue stream runs from April to September, where mid-season will coincide with the planned peak-infection period in England.
Much of the hand-wringing over sporting cancellations has focused on how industries that are essentially drowning in money will fulfil their televised fixtures. In the shadow of this, community sports club that fill the role of social hub, physical activity centre and entry point to children’s sport are set to lose their sole source of income.
It is extremely likely many will be forced to close if no alternative can be found. Most clubs rely on the standard input of match fees, fundraisers, annual membership and the club bar, with junior cricket in particular a regular source of cash and new members.
At the same time iIt seems inevitable school sport will also now be suspended. Following the ECB’s advice would mean the English Schools Cricket Association’s entire summer fixture list is affected. All county age group, borough and district cricket is in peril. The Bunbury festival must be looking on anxiously.
The potential loss should be judged not just in revenue to clubs but in those who will support, play and watch the game in the future. One club committee member said: “Since the ECB announcement I have been inundated with concerned messages from clubs and community facilities used by clubs. They all face financial ruin without cricket income. These are pillars of the community and we cannot forget those low-income seasonal workers who rely entirely on the income from coaching and ground work over the summer.”
“Clubs were telling me they were planning on doing numerous one-to-one and small group coaching activities. With the message to cease all cricket related activities, all bets are off. What troubles me most is that junior cricket, the financial life blood of the game, could be salvaged with some imagination.”
Who will stand against this? The obvious first port of call is the ECB, whose articles of association state that its role is to “be responsible for the organisation, promotion and fostering of cricket” and “to support and assist the recreational game”.
The ECB acknowledged the importance of clubs in its statement on Wednesday and announced some understandably vague plans to “support some levels of physical activity in communities – particularly at junior levels.”
“We understand that countless hours of work from thousands of volunteers have already gone into getting ready for the 2020 season and we know how disappointing this will be. We are thankful for the huge role that volunteers play in local cricket, to ensure the game remains at the heart of communities.
“We know that you and your clubs can play an important role in bringing your community together once we get past this period of time.”
Notably absent from these warm words is any promise of financial support in the form of emergency grants or loans. More worryingly still, this is also understandable.
The ECB has made much of its commitment to investing in grassroots cricket. To date its most profound investment has been in the Hundred, a new competition designed for an as-yet undiscovered audience, which now finds itself threatened with a disastrous cancellation in its first season.
The ECB was criticised by some for accumulating large reserves of cash and sitting on them. It was criticised by others for spending that cash on the gaudy new investment. As clubs up and down the country contemplate a future with no obvious income source, that expense starts to look like a doomed high-stakes gamble at the most unfortunate of times.