In some countries it has been weeks, in others it’s getting to be months, but almost everywhere in the world, the lockdown forced by the Coronavirus pandemic has extended far beyond anyone hoped it would. The impact this has had on sport, with events across disciplines being cancelled or postponed has been massive, and cricket has born the brunt of this, with the summer season in large parts of the cricketing world being all but wiped out.
The best players from around the world would have been in India at this time of year, taking part in the Indian Premier League. But, with there being no chance of holding that competition, it has been suspended for the moment, with no clear pathway on when it might return or in what form.
A cancellation of the year’s edition of the tournament would result in losses to the Board of Control for Cricket in India, as the television rights holder and broadcaster would obviously not pay for a tournament that was not conducted. To this end, the hope is that this edition of the tournament can be conducted within the life of the existing media rights cycle, which would work like a postponement rather than a cancellation.
The Hundred pushed back
But, even as the Indian Premier League is waiting and watching, holding its breath for when the action might resume, the first major blow has been felt in England. The England and Wales Cricket Board was building up to the launch of The Hundred, a tournament where matches would be played in a short, snappy format, featuring city-based franchises, primarily with a view to attracting new audiences to cricket.
With that being impossible, there was little choice but to cancel. Tom Harrison, the chief executive of the ECB, laid out exactly why this course of action had to be taken, given that the only possibility of cricket returning was without audiences present at grounds. “I think people are now understanding that it is behind closed doors – that is probably our only option this year, with respect to putting cricket on,” said Harrison. “I think the thought of returning to a scenario where we have crowds watching live cricket in this country this summer is not something that is realistic in the context of the public health crisis that we’re going through.”
The ECB has worked closely with authorities to try and work out what might be possible, before they came to the eventual conclusion. “Having said all that, all the right conversations are going on with government – and they need to be with government guidelines across the whole sports sector that give us the right guidelines to ensure that we can keep people safe. That is our number one priority through this crisis – and it’s how we’re dealing with everything. Those priorities are public safety and making sure our players, our staff, our management are all safe and well throughout this crisis.”
A preview of cricket behind closed doors
Just before the world went into full lockdown, Australia and New Zealand were on the verge of completing a OneDay International series. As it turned out, the final match they played, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, would be the last international before sporting teams and codes were grounded. On that occasion, there was no option but to play the match in an empty stadium, as Australia was just coming to terms with what a lockdown might look like.
Ross Taylor, the New Zealand player, recalled what the experience was like. “It was quite strange leading into the game. There were lots of whispers about the game being cancelled and everything happened very quickly. In the context of the match, turning up the preparation felt a bit strange,” Taylor recalls. “To me it felt like a warm-up game, didn’t feel like a true international match but I guess once you get into it it’s no different to if you are playing a competitive game of backyard cricket or a club game, you give it your all.”
While conceding the professional sportspersons would have to adapt to the new normal, Taylor was candid in his assessment. “I’m not going to lie, it did feel very strange. At the same time there could be a few games like that so I’m sure as players we’ll have to adjust to that and get used to it. The cricket can definitely be played at a high level. The guys were all professional in how they went about their business. It is odd, though, and creating your own atmosphere, I don’t think you can ever quite create what a full house might do when there’s simply no one there and all you hear is the crack of a cricket bat.”
Taylor, however, pointed out that this could well be a reality that everyone would have to come to terms with, even if temporarily. “You have to adapt and that may well be something players will have to get their head around to allow them to be back on the park. When something is taken away from you, you are often more than happy to compromise to get back to some sort of normality and do what you love doing and that’s play cricket.”
Easier said than done
Even as Taylor accepted that sport would have to make the most of a bad hand, there were others who advocated a slightly different approach. Suzie Bates, the New Zealand allrounder, pointed to the challenges ahead. In the aftermath of the massive success of the Women’s Twenty20 World Cup in Australia earlier in the year, it was widely expected that women’s cricket would take off on a big way. Then Coronavirus struck.
Bates points this out with obvious dismay. “To play the World Cup early next year without crowds would be a huge disappointment especially with how far the women’s game has come,” she said. “I think if you’d asked me five years ago I’d have said it wouldn’t have been too much different. Growing up, most of my cricket felt like it was played behind closed doors but nowadays with the attention we are getting and being at home (in New Zealand) it would be a huge shame if it had to be played like that.”
Bates suggested not rushing a return to cricket. “I’d personally rather wait until we can do it as normal when this has all cleared up, teams are able to travel and we are allowed crowds in the ground,” said Bates. “I feel like New Zealand Cricket is now in a position where they realise how important this World Cup is to cricket in New Zealand, not just women’s cricket but cricket in general, and I feel like they are really excited about the opportunity to see how many people they can get into grounds around the country. Obviously, it’s on TV but it’s about the atmosphere they can create so I think they’ll be doing everything they can to make sure they can host it as normal. If there have to be changes made I have faith they’ll do their best to have it with crowds.”
Men’s Twenty20 World Cup without crowds?
The men’s Twenty20 World Cup, scheduled to start in October, in Australia, is yet to be formally postponed, but it is becoming increasingly clear that hosting it in a business as usual manner will be impossible. The suggestion that it went ahead in front of empty stands has not been well received.
“When you started off playing cricket, when you were under age, there’s no crowds there. Maybe your mum and dad came and watched, or your brother and sister were bored and playing on the swings somewhere else,” said Justin Langer, Australia’s coach. “You played it because you loved playing the game, you loved playing with your mates and you loved playing the game. The Australian cricket team are so fortunate to play in front of big crowds every time we play.
“For the love of the game, and for still being able to entertain people through TV sets or radio, then there’s value in (playing behind closed doors). Yes it’s different, but we’ll never, ever, ever take for granted how lucky we are ever again.”
For Allan Border, a former World Cup winner, there was no dilemma. “I just can’t imagine playing the T20 World Cup at empty stadiums … it defies belief. Having teams, support staff and everyone else associated with the game wandering around the country, playing games of cricket, but you can’t let people into the grounds. I just can’t see it happening. It’s either you play it and everyone just gets on with the job and we’re past this pandemic. Or it just has to be cancelled and you try to fit it in somewhere else.”
It’s clear that authorities have a lot of thinking to do in dealing with this unprecedented situation. For the moment, though, it’s all hypothetical as the sporting world waits in limbo.