Spectators returned to Edgbaston Stadium on Thursday for the four-day LV= Insurance County Championship match between Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire.
Deep Extra Cover’s Terry Wright was there to observe them while they watched the cricket.
We had to wait until almost lunchtime on the second day of Warwickshire’s match against Nottinghamshire. Then came the moment when archetypal tail-ender Oliver Hannon-Dalby hit his second successive boundary at the end of the 110th over to earn the home side an extra batting bonus point. And a cry of “You Bears!” from spectators in Block 13 rang out over Edgbaston Stadium for the first time in almost two years.
Until that point, the 1800 or so spectators in the ground on each of the first two days had taken their pleasures quietly. Applause was regular but muted, in tune with the Warwickshire innings which had proceeded at a pace not exactly funereal but hardly likely to raise the heart rate.
Block 13 is at the sunny end of the ground opposite the pavilion. Club members choosing to book their allocated seats here clearly prefer the view from the far side. And although there were initially few outward signs that their return to watching in person had put them in a celebratory mood, random conversations told a different story. Comments included:
“Despite the masks, this is just like old times.”
“It’s great to be sitting here in the sunshine, talking with friends.”
“It’s been fantastic to have something to look forward to.”
“I thought this day was never going to arrive.”
Others praised the efficient way that the event had been organised and the low-key but effective stewarding.
Most of the spectators expressing these opinions were old enough to remember the Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi with the lines that might be taken as one of the themes of the pandemic:
Don’t it always seem to go, That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
The truth is that, far more than they could ever have imagined, spectators have missed coming to matches. And they are not alone. County administrators have felt the loss of members and their subscriptions. And players have missed the applause.
Warwickshire captain Will Rhodes confessed after the first day that the presence of spectators was partly the inspiration for his innings of 91 that took him out of a dismal run of form. Hearing the applause when he struck his first boundary was for him a magical moment. Liam Norwell, too, had no doubt about the role of the crowd in urging him and Hannon-Dalby on during their last wicket stand of 64.
He said: “The crowd got behind us and it’s one of those times when you realise you miss them.”
As for supporters, they have, it is true, welcomed the improvements to the online broadcasting of games. But there is a big difference between sitting in front of a computer screen with a lonely latte and being able to join friends at a game.
The ability to hold relaxed and leisurely conversations, not necessarily about the cricket, is a precious gift. Even better, it is possible for home side supporters to pontificate without interruption about the injustice of lbw decisions. “Terrible decision! Going down the leg side for sure!” the avid fan is free to proclaim. In Block 13, there is no fear of an instant replay suggesting that the ball was missing leg stump only because it was hitting middle.
In the interests of balance, it has to be said that there are some disadvantages to actually being at a match. Not long after the Hannon-Dalby moment, before the Notts innings had progressed too far, down came a light drizzle and the players left the field.
Viewers online will probably have logged out, made a cup of tea and watched another episode of Catfish. Spectators, on the other hand, had to decide between following the pre-match instructions that they should not leave their designated seat, which would result in their getting wet, or throwing caution to the winds by scurrying off to the shelter of the Hollies stand.
It is also true that, if you don’t like the online commentary, you can easily mute it. But sitting in your allotted seat in Block 13 once the rain has abated, the realisation dawns that you cannot tune out your fellow spectators’ random conversations.
There is little you can do when the group behind you maintains for about thirty minutes an in-depth discussion on the different options for a cooked breakfast. Should the fried bread be drenched in the juice from tinned tomatoes or not? What are the respective attractions of red and brown sauce?
These were matters to be explored in minute detail. And that was even before the debate about how much if any salt should be added to the eggs.
All the while, the cricket proceeded on without comment.
Never mind. Rain showers passed and discussions on whether breakfast bacon should be smoked or unsmoked also at last reached a natural end. And on the field, the unhurried story of a four-day match unfolded with as many twists and turns as a Game of Thrones box set.
Spectators are in little doubt that Joni Mitchell was right. You surely don’t miss what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
And that being so, the return of what you’ve missed is something truly to be savoured. Rapidly varying climatic conditions may expose you to risks of sunburn or skin cancer one minute and hypothermia the next.
But at the end of the day, those in block 13 are agreed. Announcing that “I saw it online” will never be the same as being able to say: “I was there!”