The ECB have confirmed a further delay of the domestic season until after 1 August but do so with renewed optimism that county cricket will take place this summer.
The Professional Game Group, an advisory committee on domestic cricket, has devised plans to play meaningful red and white ball matches at first class grounds. Once finalised, they will be presented to the ECB board in June.
These include reworking the County Championship and T20 Blast into regions – traditionally the split is two divisions, and North and South groups respectively – with showpiece finals. For the County Championship, that would be a fixture played at Lord’s between the top two sides emerging from those regions.
At the time of writing, those matches are being worked towards with a view to taking place behind closed doors, however the prospect of supporters being present, while adhering to social distancing, is being kept open. On Wednesday, Surrey chief executive Richard Gould said the club are looking into the possibility of safely letting in as many as 6,000 through the gates of the Oval, which has a capacity of 25,500. Matches not scheduled for broadcast could also be streamed.
However a further delay will increase the anxiety among county cricketers, particularly around 130 on deals which expire at the end of the season. A lack of playing time means less of a chance of earning another contract, both where they are and elsewhere. With clubs looking to reduce the size of squads to cut costs given the losses already incurred this summer, some players could leave professional cricket altogether.
What has been particularly frustrating has been a lack of outdoor training.
From last week 18 England bowlers began training individually across seven county grounds, with batsmen and wicketkeepers allowed to do similar from next Monday (1 June) across 11 venues. This is with a view to regaining match fitness ahead of a Test series against West Indies with a prospective start date of 8 July.
While the ECB are enlisting the help of domestic coaches to assist with training, many of those same coaches are unable to work with their own players because of the restrictions around furloughing of staff. Lancashire and Surrey are the only two of the 18 clubs who have not used the government’s job retention scheme.
Recreational cricketers have been permitted use of outdoor nets and pitches for the last two weeks, however club cricket remains suspended until further notice. The ECB say progress discussions with UK government will include mapping out a return with junior cricket expected to come back first.
ECB chief executive officer, Tom Harrison, said: “Naturally we want to see cricket being played at every level. We remain hopeful of seeing both domestic and recreational cricket this season and planning with the PGG has allowed us to map a number of potential scenarios for domestic play. Whilst traditional formats of our competitions are the preference, we are not against exploring the unorthodox to ensure that we can return our players to the field.
“That can only happen though when it is safe, and we have said throughout this crisis that the safety and well-being of everyone involved in the game is our key priority.
“We have learned a lot and continue to learn about the safety protocols that would need to be in place to stage international cricket behind closed doors in this environment and those protocols will also need to apply to the domestic game.
“Across the recreational game it has been heart-warming to hear of clubs where players have returned to the nets. As children start returning to school in the coming weeks, we look forward to exploring how those guidelines and learnings can be deployed for cricket. This can then see the recreational game continue its phased return as soon as we have government approval.”