On Friday 14 March 2020 COVID-19 made its first impact on international cricket, and we had our first, decidedly untantalising taste of the immediate and perhaps not so immediate future.
The one-day international between Australia and New Zealand at the Sydney Cricket Ground was played behind closed doors. It was announced that the ongoing series between India and South Africa would be postponed. Then it was announced that the Test series between Sri Lanka and England, due to start on 19 March, would be rescheduled; the ongoing four-day match in Colombo was abandoned forthwith so that the England players could fly home on Saturday morning. On that Saturday it was announced that the Australia-New Zealand series would be abandoned: the New Zealand players had to return home following new border restrictions announced by the New Zealand Government. (Kiwi fast bowler Lockie Ferguson had been tested for corona virus on 13 March.)
It is the cancellation of the Sri Lanka-England series is the most interesting. (The fact that your humble correspondent was planning to watch the Galle Test and had media accreditation to do so has no relevance to a y of this.) It was the England and Wales Cricket Board who wanted the series cancelled – er, rescheduled; Sri Lanka Cricket, who will inevitably lose out financially, agreed with reluctance. The England players had been in Sri Lanka for a fortnight; the only story about corona virus was a statement that there would be no handshakes during the series. There appear to be very few cases in Sri Lanka (how much testing is going on is another matter. The Galle International Stadium is a beautifully located ground. “Stadium” is perhaps a bit of a misnomer. Temporary stands are erected when the Barmy Army are in town. There might have been a crowd of, say, 3,500 a day. 3,000 would have flown in from England.
That doesn’t seem to be the main motive for the rescheduling. Almost anywhere in the world today, where adults are gathered together – offices, shops, bars, restaurants, bus stops – it doesn’t take three guesses to work out what they are talking about. Why should the England cricket touring party be any different? This wasn’t siege mentality. Some of these players spend as much as two hundred nights away from home; they needed to be there.
But it raises serious questions. The most immediate one is a simple economic one. The staging of an England Test match in a place like Galle is a very big deal for local commerce. Travel companies, hotels, bars and restaurants, tuk-tuk and taxi drivers will all miss out. These problems are going to be replicated all over the sporting world.
As indicated earlier, the series has been “rescheduled”. To when, exactly? It is of course impossible to say. There is talk of January 2021 before the five-Test series in India. That will probably coincide with the Big Bash League in Australia, which some England players will doubtless want to play in. The fact is that the cricket schedule is barely manageable as it is. The hugely popular and influential Indian Premier League (“IPL”) is also going to have to be rescheduled.
And when will the England team be playing next? West Indies are due to arrive in England at the end of May. The expert predictions are that COVID-19 will reach its peak in the UK three months from now. It has been more or less accepted that the West Indies series will not take place. Supposing there is no international cricket at all between now and September? How will the winter touring teams be selected? How long can James Anderson postpone his farewell series?
We are in unchartered waters. Of course there have been ‘flu epidemics before, but globalisation – together with its extreme transmissibility – has put this one on a different scale altogether. As Ian Chappell has observed on ESPNcricinfo, the only realistic comparison has been with the two world wars. That may seem an extreme comparison but nothing else comes to mind.
In terms of attendances, domestic cricket in England at the top level can hardly be compared with football. But can domestic cricket in England carry on in the wake of this crisis? The four-day county championship is due to start in April. Domestic cricket in India and West Indies, which few people seem to watch, has been suspended.
The county championship actually generates a large amount of interest, but it has to be said that it is not actually watched by huge numbers of people. It is a moot point whether the “crowd” at a day’s play between Leicestershire and Derbyshire at Grace Road would constitute what the Government deems a “mass gathering”. It would definitely constitute a gathering of indeterminate size, of the demographic group thought to be at the highest risk, white males aged seventy and over. Championship matches could well be played behind closed doors but with the “herd immunity” system in operation it is only a matter of time before players, constantly travelling around the country, start getting the virus in significant numbers if the competition is not suspended.
There is no doubt that the ECB’s main preoccupation, outside the international schedule, will be its new, exciting if incomprehensible, city-based, non-privately-owned, short form tournament, The Hundred. This is scheduled to start in late July, when the UK might be in the clear. (So, England might be able to host the Test series scheduled against Pakistan in August and September.) But it might not be. The real issue for sport at this sort of level is not the danger of the virus per se. The mortality rate seems strangely variable; to date, there have been no deaths in Singapore, one of the countries that was affected by the virus at a very early stage. The problem is as much a logistical one because of the sudden implementation of border controls. Like the IPL, The Hundred is dependent for its appeal on overseas players and overseas coaches. If these people can’t travel, or are reluctant to, there will be real problems. The same is true of the existing, quite successful, domestic T20 competition, the Vitality Blast. If there is a scheduling roadblock at the end of the season, which seems likely, the championship is bound to suffer.
Notwithstanding the dreadful slaughter and bloodshed, and the appalling harshness of life at home, during the years of the two world wars, the impact on the structure of domestic cricket in England and Wales was minimal. It could truly be said that not only was the county game reasonably similar in 1919 to what it had been in 1914; it had barely changed by 1946. (A new county, Glamorgan, was added in 1921.) Things could be different once COVID-19 has had its way. It is the economic consequences that are most alarming. It is clear that small and medium sized enterprises in the entertainment sector are going to be badly affected. Many county cricket clubs are barely viable from a strictly commercial perspective. What keeps them going is the annual handout from the ECB which is funded largely by the lucrative TV deal. But what happens if there is no cricket to be televised?
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