THE end of lockdown – maybe the pause in lockdown will prove a more accurate phrase – has precipitated many long-awaited reunions. Friends, lovers, families have all been reunited. It’s hard to say where the resumption of cricket rates compared to such events.
But it’s significant in many ways. Not least, it will go some way towards avoiding a financial meltdown in cricket in England and Wales. As things stand, it seems England have a better than even chance of fulfilling all their international fixtures for the 2020 summer.
From the situation in which they found themselves when the season was meant to start in April, this is a fine achievement. The fact that the highlights will be shown on the BBC also represents an opportunity. There’s never been too much wrong with our game; if we can get more people to see it, there’s no reason they should not fall in love with it.
The ECB – and Steve Elworthy, their events director, in particular – deserves a huge amount of credit for making this series a reality. Realising early that the cost of doing nothing would be far greater than the cost of drastic action, planes, grounds and hotels have been requisitioned. New protocols have been introduced to cover everything from training to eating to walking around stadiums.
The scope of the project is vast and would have seemed unimaginable as little as four months ago. A huge amount has been asked of many. Everyone has bought in. Most of the methods adopted by Elworthy and co. in recent weeks will provide a blueprint for governing bodies around the rest of the world. That, in turn, allows the sport to navigate its way through a crisis that could be with us for some time yet. Playing behind closed doors is nobody’s idea of perfect but, in the circumstances, most would have settled for this solution.
Elworthy already had an outstanding record in this area. He was tournament director of the World Cup last year and in 2013 organised a Champions Trophy that may well have saved the 50-over format. In pulling off this project, he deserves to be viewed, alongside the likes of Tony Greig, Andy Flower and Kevin Pietersen, among the most valuable southern African imports to the English game.
England owe a great deal to West Indies, too. Leaving a region that has been spared the worst of COVID-19 and travelling to one in its grip has taken a certain amount of courage and determination. Yes, CWI needed the tour to satisfy their sponsors – Sandals, the hotel chain, aims much of its marketing at the UK audience – but the players could easily have opted out. English cricket owes every one of them.
It’s not fair to conclude England would definitely not have toured had roles been reversed. There would have been doubts, of course. But England returned to India after the terrorist attacks in 2008 and went to Bangladesh, in 2016, at a time other teams were unwilling.
Even before recent events, there seemed every chance they would return to Pakistan in line with their obligations in the Future Tours Programme. Their understanding of their global responsibilities is better than is sometimes credited.
But this series, in particular, seems timely. It comes amid a renewed focus on racial equality and will feature a team of cricketers of Afro-Caribbean heritage answering England’s plea for help. It’s a reminder, perhaps, of how much England has gained from the Caribbean over the years. It needs to be acknowledged and respected.
Pakistan have been equally helpful to England. Their players are here already and seeing out their period of isolation in a Travelodge in Derby. Not every international team would do that. Again, an opponent who has had a chequered relationship with the ECB has answered their call for help. It would be nice to think this sense of cooperation will foster a new spirit among the cricketing community.
That it will remind all involved of our interdependence and shared interests, that it will lead to a new revenue model for international cricket which sees the biggest earners, like higher-rate taxpayers, contribute a little more, that those who run the ‘big three’ will understand that, eventually, without strong opponents the appeal of the international game will wither and their own business models will be compromised. It would be nice.
But the early evidence is not encouraging. The T20 World Cup, an event that would generate income for multiple cricket boards, is on the verge of being postponed for an event – the IPL – that will generate income for one. And while Australia look set to host a lucrative bilateral series against India, they seem less keen to host Zimbabwe.
Within eight months next year, England will play 10 Tests against India and then travel to Australia for an Ashes series. The obsession for the rich to play the rich is leaving the rest struggling for survival.
The shame of all this is that recent weeks have shown what can be achieved when the game works together. If England are truly grateful for the support of Pakistan and West Indies at a time they needed them most, they will ensure their words of gratitude are translated to more tangible rewards. Cricket can be stronger for this experience but we require more than warm words and gestures. We need change.
Maybe such issues can wait for a day or two. There will be a sense of joy at seeing the resumption of cricket over the next few days. A sense of relief, too, that we are finding a way back towards the normal life we will never take for granted again. Well, not for a while, anyway.
But amid the excitement, let’s not forget the debt owed to West Indies, Pakistan and Ireland too. And debts need to be repaid.