Club cricket returns in England but will participation be a problem?

Cricket groundsman
Local cricket clubs in England are preparing to return on Saturday

An early Sunday evening in mid-July 2019 and up and down England, recreational cricket matches have come to a standstill.

Players of all abilities are united in their decision to halt play to watch and share in one historic moment - England's dramatic super over World Cup final victory against New Zealand.

Almost a year later, the grassroots game has once again had to pause for events beyond the boundary. But a global pandemic rather than a global sporting moment has been the cause this time around. At one stage it threatened to cancel an entire season.

But on Saturday, after hurried and detailed activity and lobbying behind the scenes from administrators, ex-players, community coaches and volunteers, the recreational game has been given government approval to return to village greens, sports clubs and playing fields.

From Perranporth to Peterlee, players and clubs will have to adapt to a new set of playing conditions.

Stage four of the five-stage return to play will see 11-a-side matches with no mandated number of overs, but many other restrictions will be in place.

So are players, clubs and the game ready to resume?

"The guidelines are complex and might take a bit to get your head around, but it's about keeping people safe," England and Wales Cricket Board chief executive Tom Harrison told BBC Test Match Special.

"People may take a bit longer to get ready before they're happy to resume, but it's a huge opportunity in a shortened season and hopefully some clubs will still be playing in early October and there's even talk some schools will be playing when the term resumes in September."

The new guidelines

  • Matches to be limited to a maximum of 30 people, including players, officials and coaches.
  • Players will have to maintain social distancing at wicket celebrations - wicketkeepers and slip fielders can observe one metre plus instead.
  • Regular hygiene breaks will be needed to sanitise participants' hands and the ball (every six overs or 20 minutes).
  • Players should minimise their contact with the ball - including passing it straight back to the bowler after each delivery and no use of saliva to shine the ball at any time.
  • Batters will need to run between the wickets in distinct running lanes to ensure they keep their distance from both the bowler and their batting partner.
  • Sharing of equipment is discouraged, with batters and wicketkeepers advised to sanitise their bats and their gloves after leaving the field of play.

No teas & rain breaks in the car

Another big change to tradition will be the absence of teas and shared drinks breaks while separate restrictions continue on the use of communal facilities, such as clubhouse bars.

Racing off during a rain delay to the shelter of your own car instead of the changing room will become a more familiar sight as will players turning up to a game already changed into their whites.

Despite these restrictions, will the game still be able to thrive and survive?

"Cricket's not just about playing the game but the social aspect that comes with it too," Kent community cricket director Andy Griffifths told BBC Sport.

"It's what you do in those two or so hours at a game when you're not actually on the field as well as on it.

"Having a chat with team-mates, catching up with people who are spectating - those things we haven't actually been able to do in person for the past four months.

"They're the sort of interactions that can really help people's mental health."

Will people want to play?

But while many clubs will be "champing at the bit" to return to playing others may find they face the challenge of retaining members and raising teams as people adapt to either being comfortable with returning to playing or having the time to play.

"I think there's a great opportunity with cricket being the first team sport allowed to return," said Chevy Green, Surrey CCC participation manager.

"We've got to try and take advantage of that and capitalise on it. We're a summer sport after all and if the sun shines, parents and guardians will I'm sure be keen to get their children outdoors exercising and interacting with other people after the past four months."

Net practise
It is hoped some seasons may continue until early October

Chevy also looks after the growing the recreational game in south London through community coaching programmes such as Street Cricket and Cage Cricket, supported by the likes of Chance To Shine. He hopes England's current Test series against West Indies will be another positive factor.

"People can now see the highlights again on terrestrial television," he said. "It's the only international sport currently taking place in this country, so I hope that will drive them to find out where and how they can play it."

Another feeling abounds that the grassroots game also has a chance to adapt its league structures and playing conditions to cater for players with constraints on their time and ability to travel.

"Clubs need to try and give everyone a game as much as possible and the opportunity to play the kind of format they have time for," Griffifths added. "The challenge may come in retaining players next season rather than this season.

"That's why we're focusing on promoting indoor competitions for this winter for clubs who play in them as a way to retain interest as well as women's softball."

Player loan schemes, regionalised divisions and double-headed playing weekends with games on both Saturdays and Sundays are other initiatives being trialled.

All that's left to hope for now is that the weather plays ball and the game can go some way to matching the magic of 2019 during what remains of 2020.

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