IN LATE September 2019, groups of good-natured folk – most strolling, some shuffling – made their egress from a familiar haunt. Nestled in their bags, the accoutrements of their beloved pastime: empty tea-flask, newspaper, binoculars, scorecard. At the wrought-iron gates, fond farewells to summer-long companions (a tad less fraternally to hawk-eyed stewards) filled the early autumnal air. ‘Splendid game, wasn’t it?’ ‘Enjoy the winter’. ‘See you next year’. All rather civilised, understated and – if the good people of Glamorganshire will allow – quintessentially English.
A similar scene had played out annually since 1890, save for interludes deriving from two world wars; you can even make a case for 1709, since when only the Seven Years’ War and Napoleonic Wars interrupted the ritual. I refer to the last rites, for its staunch followers, of the county cricket season (in my example at Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens).
More than eighteen months on, and to the dismay and increasing bewilderment of many of these supporters those gates remain firmly shut. Covid restrictions barred the public from all cricket grounds in 2020, and the same obtains so far in 2021, with the season already a month old. Things may change with Step 3 of the government’s ‘roadmap out of lockdown’, but ‘no earlier than May 17’, which probably means a good deal later, if at all. In the meantime devotees of the first-class game are denied entry to grounds lest they transmit or contract a virus which in many parts of the country has statistically disappeared. This, to boot, in cavernous open-air stadia in which – for the longer format of the game, at least – social distancing of five metres, never mind two, usually constitutes a bumper crowd. This logic-in-remission, all in the name of ‘keeping each other safe’, has extended even to early-season friendly matches, when the players invariably outnumber spectators. Additionally, most counties have already cancelled fixtures scheduled at their beautiful out-grounds – that is, away from HQ – in 2021, ostensibly owing to logistical hurdles in making them ‘Covid-compliant’.
Needless to say, in the broader scheme of things – cancer patients ignored by the NHS, redundancies soaring, care-home residents effectively incarcerated – exclusion from cricket matches barely registers a blip on the Richter scale of lockdown consequences. Even compared with inconvenienced attendees (not forgetting participants) of other cultural events – sporting, religious, artistic – cricket-watchers don’t appear to merit, and certainly don’t seek, special consideration.
Yet their plight is not without its own particular pathos. It’s easy, of course, to over-sentimentalise the national sport, to calcify it in a golden era of Brylcreem, fair play and chocolate cakes in the Test Match Special commentary box. Times have changed. The cake-gorging remains, but, not unconnected with the injection of Sky TV money, on-field behaviour has coarsened, with an alarming increase in ‘sledging’ of opponents and verbal abuse of umpires which has percolated, with depressing predictability, down to the grass roots, mercifully excepting the flourishing girls’ and women’s game. Moreover, like many other corporate sports, cricket appears to be going ‘full woke’ with the diversity and equality cult inveigling its way into the boardroom and BLM jostling menacingly for attention with LBW.
Notwithstanding, attendance at county grounds has until the present debacle remained a convention – and retained a sense of pilgrimage – for many discerning cricket supporters, and there are sound reasons why. The majority are ‘members’, conferring limited agency over the running and scrutiny of their club, as well as admittance to that hallowed inner sanctum, the pavilion, and – for those whose bladders still allow – its post-prandial liquid refreshment. More fundamentally, membership bespeaks commitment to season-long attendance: the fixture list reassuringly maps out the summer’s recreation, vouchsafing the company of like-minded friends and acquaintances, not to mention the absorptions of regular cricketing combat, the evocative thwack of leather on willow (or bamboo?!) which no ‘livestream’ can faithfully transmit.
The diurnal rhythms of the one- and four-day game are perhaps what most hold the gaze – the ebb and flow of ascendancy, the patience, strategising, misfortune and triumph, peppered with polite applause and the occasional caustic witticism from the gallery. No other sport demands from its adherents such sustained attention, nor rewards it so handsomely. For the purist, the slap and tickle of 20-20 cricket has its place, but is as a burger to the gourmet meal of the longer game. I sometimes wonder what consolations these hardy cricket-watchers have found this past couple of hollowed-out seasons; which is to say how, even whether, they’ve coped without what is for some the pleasantest diversion and others – not excluding a social misfit or two – a refuge. Their gentle stoicism, baked into the sport they cherish, will hopefully see them through. But this occlusion of the most luminous days in their calendar, as unwelcome as it is unjustified, will likely have knocked a good few of them for six.