As I am sure most of you County Cricket badgers are well aware, crowds will be allowed back to live cricket for the first time in England since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. The two grounds hosting the matches will be the Kia Oval and Edgbaston and the four counties involved will be Surrey and Middlesex on the 26th and 27th of July, and Warwickshire and Worcestershire on the 27th and 28th, respectively.
This is obviously fantastic news, not just for cricket, but for sport in the UK in general. These pilot fixtures will play a huge role in guiding us back to crowds being allowed back into stadiums on a more permanent basis.
Anyone who is a fan of County Cricket could understand why it has been chosen as the ideal candidate for this pilot scheme. I do not think the expression “two men and his dog” is a fair reflection of some County Championship crowds during the working week, but it also is not that far off.
Moreover, the County Championship does not have the same issues with ultra fan groups, which would likely cause issues with social distancing guidelines if they were applied to football stadiums. Basically, a combination of larger spaces occupied by smaller, more docile groups of fans has really played into the hands of County Cricket sides.
As it stands, the Oval will be allowing up to 500 people in on the first day of the two day match, and up to 1,000 on the second, with Edgbaston allowing up to 1,000 on each day – and it would seem that these tickets will all be sold if reports about ballot applications are to be believed.
This is a huge opportunity for County Cricket, and one that they look to be taking on fantastically. Again, if these pilots are a success it could create a path for crowds to be allowed into Blast games later this year, which would be a huge financial boost for all clubs involved.
The biggest issue there, however, is the Government’s current stance on crowds returning to sports fixtures. As it stands, Boris Johnson has stated that crowds will not be allowed back into stadiums until the start of October, with all changes being made in a ‘COVID-secure way’.
This does seem to be a huge blow to the hopes of Counties being allowed to populate their Blast games, but if this summer has proven anything to cricket fans, it is that no decision is unchangeable – I for one had a fantastic time turning out for my local side last weekend, not long after the Prime Minister called the cricket ball a ‘natural vector of disease’.
The key part of the Government’s stance is the changes being made in a ‘COVID-secure way’. Recreational cricket returned due to the ECB’s work with the government, and clubs’ willingness to take regular hygiene breaks and adopt social distancing guidelines.
I am not trying to be blasé about the risks this virus poses; the most important thing is always the health of the public. If these pilots prove that social distancing at cricket grounds is not possible, then I would be the first to say we need to be patient and wait for when it is safe.
However, my gut feeling is that crowds at cricket can be made ‘COVID-secure’ and if these pilots prove that to be the case, I am sure the Government would be more than willing to get crowds back into stadiums ahead of schedule. After all, they would be ecstatic to get a target fulfilled before their set deadline.
There is no promise that these pilots will be a success. There is no guarantee that having crowds in stadiums at the moment is ‘COVID-secure’. If they are not, we as a fan base must be patient and support our beloved counties from a distance.
On the other hand, it is possible these pilots will prove what many of us hope: that crowds at County Cricket can be safe. If this is the case, do not be surprised if we see the government U-turning about our sport once again. After all, I am sure they are just as keen for a success as we are.