Sport is hardly a priority amid an unprecedented global crisis, but, while cricket grounds soak up some welcome spring sunshine in perfect isolation, there are ugly storm clouds circling. This is usually one of the busiest times of the year at club grounds up and down the country, as armies of volunteers and groundstaff prepare the outfield and wickets for the summer ahead.
This spring, though, has a very different feel. Excitement has been replaced by anxiety. Enthusiasm for the season ahead has been tempered with a realisation that, in the coming months, a great many clubs could face a grim fight to simply keep their heads above water.
It’s the last Friday in March and Torrisholme Cricket Club, on the border of Lancashire and Cumbria, should be preparing for their annual registration evening. It’s one of the highlights of the calendar and, in the minds of many members who attend, it marks the end of winter and the start of something altogether more appealing.
“It’s the first really big gathering of the juniors in particular and it’s a night when we take anything between £2,000 to £3,000 in subscriptions,” says club president, Mark Dinkall. “That kind of money is crucial in the early part of the season. It covers a lot of our costs for things like insurance costs and balls, which are big outlays in spring.” This season, though, the registration night will be spent like every other night: in lockdown. Shutting down the club’s finances at a time of year when club overheads are at their peak.
It’s a similar story at the other end of the country. Sparsholt Cricket Club, nestled on the outskirts of Winchester in Hampshire, has been playing cricket at its Lock’s Lane ground every summer since the 1930s. With all cricket in cold storage until the end of May at the earliest, however, the club’s chairman Andy Worth, is taking a realistic view of that long run being stopped in its tracks. And his concerns spread far beyond the field of play.
“Yes, there will be a huge hit for us financially as there will for every club in the country if this continues,” he says. “You also have to think about the mental health issues that this will cause too – not just for the players who base their summer around cricket but also for the supporters who come to watch us every week. A lot of those people are in their 70s and 80s so they’re in that ‘at risk’ age group. They have been in touch with me asking if there will be any restrictions on people just coming to watch cricket. At the moment we just don’t know. I don’t think anyone does.”
If there is one certainty amid the chaos, it’s uncertainty. For Simon Prodger, the head of the National Cricket Conference (NCC), the immediate concern is ensuring that clubs remain financially viable and able to exist as entities once all this is over. “The biggest concern for the club game right here and right now is the management of cash flow and the consequences of having zero income while having fixed overheads,” he says.
“Balls alone at this time of year cost cricket clubs over £4m. That’s a huge outlay when you have no idea when the season will start. We don’t know for how long we will not be able to play cricket, and clubs are going to have to manage those fixed costs. Whether that means pruning them to some degree or negotiating with local authorities over things such as rates. Perversely, this crisis may impact bigger clubs more than some of the smaller clubs in this country, particularly those that are multi-sports clubs. They will have fixed costs that they can’t possibly manage.”
Some clubs, such as Bexley CC in Kent, have asked members to pay a social membership fee of £35 to ensure that some cash is coming in. Others will hope that people’s generosity will extend to paying subscriptions when it still remains uncertain as to when the season or junior training will begin.
A loss of sponsorship from companies reluctant to commit funds during such uncertain economic times could also remove vital revenue streams. If club cricket is played for only one or two months at the tail end of the summer, then convincing firms to pay for a full season of support could be as tough an ask as bowling at Steve Smith in full flow.
Clubs will also have to address the issue of ground maintenance. Recent guidelines from the ECB for the upkeep of grounds have helped clarify some concerns, but the reality is that, with maintenance kept to a minimum to avoid human contact and with many groundstaff in the vulnerable age bracket, cricket grounds will not be ready to go at the drop of a hat.
“In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at four to six weeks to get anything that is remotely playable,” says Tony Leach, Kent county pitch advisor. “If the weather was kind, we would have to be looking at the very, very best, probably turning something around in two to three weeks.”
Another major worry, of course, is that all the momentum built by England’s heroics in the World Cup last summer will vanish and participation rates will drop. “The issue with starting later in the season is that football will impinge further than it normally would,” says Dinkall. “Committed cricketers will want to play but those on the fringes are likely not to. We were just building up a girls’ section at the club as well, with almost 20 signed up and playing. There was real momentum behind this. Now all that might ground to a halt.”
And therein lies perhaps the biggest threat beyond pounds and pence. The people who grew up with the game will continue to play, yet it will be more difficult to persuade cricketers who have just taken up the sport and may be juggling it with other activities. They could be lost to the sport, never to return. There are difficulties for the county and international game, but the situation facing the 7,000 amateur clubs up and down the country looks nigh-on impossible.
Whatever happens in the coming months, this will be be a season like no other. “Personally, I can’t see how any league in this country can have promotion or relegation this season because I don’t think we’re going to have enough credible cricket played and I don’t think any league should sanction a club for not being able to get a side out,” says Prodger. “No clubs should be penalised in these extreme circumstances. This is a time for everyone to pull together.”