A friend of mine once asked me for some very earnest and sombre advice. He’d been invited to Lord’s for his first ever day at the cricket, and needed a crash-course in Test match etiquette, or most specifically, how to watch it.
My answer? “Don’t.”
As in, don’t exhaust your eyeballs by trying to focus on a tiny red orb for seven hours a day. Just let the whole experience wash over you, and slowly but surely you’ll get the gist of what’s going off out there.
Read a book, do a crossword, talk to your neighbours, and listen to the aural clues all around you – the cracks of willow or the clicks of wicket, the oohs and aahs, and even “woahs!” that alert you to unfolding drama. If you stitch together enough of those moments over the course of a day, you’ll probably emerge with an innate understanding of what you’ve witnessed, even if the details remain a mystery.
It was advice that I was happy to reclaim for myself at the Kia Oval on Sunday, as Surrey opened its gates to spectators for the first time in this pandemic-wrecked season, for a two-day friendly against Middlesex that was as meaningless on the field as it was existentially significant off of it.
For the record, Will Jacks enhanced his burgeoning reputation with a sumptuously compiled 62, Scott Borthwick added a half-century of his own, while Middlesex rotated their way through their full stable of recently furloughed fast bowlers, all of whom were grateful for a gallop before these two sides meet again for slightly higher stakes in the Bob Willis Trophy next week.
But it simply didn’t matter who did what and when – or even that a dramatic downpour sent most of the punters packing on the stroke of 5 o’clock. The only thing that anyone cared for was the sense of returning normality that a day at the cricket was able to offer. And from the moment that that first familiar ripple of applause rang out across the ground at 10.55am, as the umpires walked out to the middle, there were enough Pavlovian moments to get even the most casual fans drooling.
“I have to admit, I felt a bit emotional when the gates opened this morning,” Richard Gould, Surrey’s chief executive, told ESPNcricinfo. “It feels like a long, long time since we’ve been able to do this.”
The homecoming was very much a part of the new normal, mind you. Socially distanced queuing outside the ground, facemasks mandatory in indoor spaces and covered concourses. Hand-sanitising stations dotted all around the ground, and a strict limit of 1000 spectators, who were spread out across five blocks of seating beneath the great gasometer, with every other row left vacant to create a maximum capacity of 30% – or 21% as it turned out, once a mandatory two-seat gap between bookings had been factored in.
Debbie Knight was one of those few – an Essex fan but a Surrey member, she had made some 22 of the 10,000 calls that Surrey’s hotline received in the first hour after the tickets went on sale on Wednesday morning. “Cricket is summer, as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “I’m just so glad to be back.”
The day’s most significant onlookers, however, were undoubtedly the representatives of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), whom Gould likened to Ofsted inspectors as they sat alongside the ECB at the top of the 1845 Stand. From there, they observed the day’s proceedings and set about fine-tuning the government’s aim of a permanent return of fans to live sport by October 1.
For Gould, however, as for many other county chief executives desperate to rescue their seasons from oblivion, that October date is the outer limit of their ambition. With the bottom line more visible than ever now that the financial tide has gone out, Gould warned that the loss-leading exercise that Surrey had been willing to put on this week could not be repeated in perpetuity.
“It’s a good start and we are delighted to be back but 30% [capacity] is not viable and, if it stayed at that for the next year or two, it would certainly not work,” he said. “You would need to be getting north of 60%. We need to be back to normal next summer. If not, the structure of not just our sport but all sports will need to significantly change.”
County cricket is no stranger to such doom-mongering pronouncements, but coming from Gould and Surrey, they carry an extra urgency. Certainly, the evidence presented by the test event is that the spectators not only feel comfortable with the safety measures put in place (“it’s really no different to going to the supermarket,” said one) but are actively yearning for the structure that such social gatherings provide in their lives. And yet, the longer such clubs are held back from declaring “business as usual”, the less likely that declaration will ever be.
“If you go back 120 years, you go back to a time where the chief executive is an unpaid honorary treasurer and the players are paid beer money,” Gould said. “We don’t want that to become normal. If we don’t get crowds back in at some stage, then maybe more clubs will become part-time organisations.”
Surrey’s particular sums are made all the more complex by the sheer size of their overheads. Gould said the club had been happy to go “over and above” in their bid to prove the safety of their sport, but with approximately 100 staff on duty for the benefit of just 1000 spectators, the day’s ten-to-one ratio will not last the distance, especially if next summer’s marquee Test against India were to take place with similar constraints. Unlike clubs of smaller stature, who derive 80% of their income from the ECB and Sky, and just 20% from paying customers, Surrey’s figures are almost the inverse, especially when you factor in their £6 million income from non-matchday events and conferencing.
For the time being, however, Gould is confident that the same patience that cricket as a whole has displayed in this most frustrating of summers will continue to sustain them. The club’s 13,500 members contribute an annual revenue of £3 million, which will keep them going into the winter, by which stage The Oval’s other operations also be back up and running.
But fundamentally, the sense endures that, at the very local level on which county cricket has to operate, everyone remains very much in this together.
“Sports clubs are families, and people feel they have come home today,” Gould said. “It makes them the most responsible people out there. They know they need to respect the rules, or they won’t be able to come again.”
Simon Taufel, Sachin Tendulkar, and a pair of lbw decisions
Simon Taufel won the ICC Umpire of the Year award for five years straight – from 2004 to 2008 – but to some India fans, he’ll always remain the umpire who denied Sachin Tendulkar a hundred during the 2007 Trent Bridge Test. Taufel has spoken in detail about that decision on an episode of the 22 Yarns podcast hosted by Gaurav Kapoor, and revealed how a frank chat with Tendulkar the next day helped them forge a relationship based on “mutual respect for each other and our abilities”.
Tendulkar was batting on 91 when he shouldered arms to a nip-baker from Paul Collingwood, and Taufel gave him out. Ball-tracking, however, suggested the ball would have gone on to miss the stumps.
“Well, I’m thinking, shouldered arms, so benefit of the doubt probably to the bowler, and I’ve given Sachin out after a bit of thought,” Taufel said. “Now, of course, Sachin’s not happy with the decision. It’s unusual for him to stand around, and he did stand there for a little bit of time, and then he went. I could see that he wasn’t happy.
“[…] Later on Hawkeye showed that the ball was predicted to miss the off stump by maybe an inch. And I just knew what the response was going to be like from world cricket; so I didn’t open Cricinfo, I didn’t read any newspapers, I knew that I was going to be – not the flavour of the month in the media.
“The following morning I happened to pass by Sachin on my normal morning walk out to the middle […] and I come across Sachin and I said, ‘look, yesterday I got it wrong, you know? I’ve looked at it, I got it wrong.’ He said, ‘look, Simon, I know.’ He said, ‘you’re a good umpire, you don’t often get many wrong, it’s okay, don’t worry about it.’
“And out of that sort of exchange, which wasn’t an apology for the sake of making him feel better or me feel better, it was just an acknowledgment that we were both out there doing our best. This is sport, and I wanted to acknowledge that I knew the fact that he was unhappy, and I was doing my best to make sure that that didn’t happen again. That was really the underlying message.
“[…] I’m a big believer that breakdowns lead to breakthroughs, and I think that was an example where Sachin and I had a moment that wasn’t particularly pleasant, and I wanted him to know that I took my job seriously and I was going to make sure that that didn’t happen again. And I think out of that exchange, that relationship bank account got a massive credit, because I think that breakdown moment did lead to a breakthrough.
“We have an ongoing mutual respect for each other and our abilities, because I’ve got Sachin wrong a number of times, not just on that one occasion. I’ve got the best in the world wrong. And I’ve learned from all those examples, but one thing that will always be with me, apart from those mistakes, is the respect and the trust and the integrity of our relationships as we go forward.”
Speaking of other occasions where he got decisions wrong, Taufel brought up one where Tendulkar was the beneficiary, during the 2005 Delhi Test against Sri Lanka, where he made his 35th Test century to go past Sunil Gavaskar’s then Test-record tally of hundreds.
ESPNcricinfo’s report of the first day’s play says Tendulkar survived “two perilous lbw appeals” before getting to his hundred – one against Dilhara Fernando on 24, the other against Muttiah Muralitharan on 38. Taufel didn’t specify which one he was referring to.
“I was doing a Test match at Feroz Shah Kotla between India and Sri Lanka, and Sachin does get hit on the pads early on in the innings, and I’ve given it not out,” Taufel said. “He goes on to score a hundred, which I think was his record-breaking hundred at that period of time, but no one’s talking about that. No one remembers that, that’s not on YouTube anywhere.
“They’re all talking about Sachin being robbed on 91 [at Trent Bridge], they don’t talk about the not-out where he goes on to score a hundred. Tom Moody, who was the [then] Sri Lankan coach, wasn’t particularly happy with me, because of [that decision].”
On MS Dhoni’s sense of humour
Speaking about the various characters he interacted with during his umpiring career, Taufel picked out MS Dhoni for his sense of humour.
“MS Dhoni, I find him amazing. He’s got one of the best cricket brains I’ve ever come across – [him,] Darren Lehmann and Shane Warne would be the top three cricket brains that I’ve been fortunate to come across. MS Dhoni is so calm – he’s so relaxed – but he’s also got a sense of humour that most people wouldn’t get to see.
“I remember sitting down in a change room at Durban with him. We’d just come off a Test match in Cape Town. Sreesanth had bowled in that previous game, [there were] over rate challenges because Sree takes a long time to bowl his overs, and we’d sat down in these leather chairs in the umpires’ room in Durban.
[Taufel may have mixed up the venues, because the only Test series in which Dhoni captained Sreesanth in South Africa was in 2010-11, where the second Test was in Durban and the third – in which Taufel officiated – was in Cape Town.]
“We’re just having an informal chat, and MS is looking at these black leather chairs in the umpires’ room, and he says, “these chairs are okay, they’re pretty good, and I was thinking, how can I get a couple of these, I wouldn’t mind buying some of these and taking them home.” I’m thinking, I’m trying to have a serious discussion with you about over rates and you’re worried about these leather chairs.
“And I said, ‘MS, you’ve now been done for over rates in Cape Town, and if you’ve got the same problems here in Durban, we’re talking about suspension territory.’ He’s almost rubbed his hands together, and [said], ‘suspension? I wouldn’t mind a game off, because I’m playing a lot of cricket at the moment’, and it just blew me away. I thought, this is something different that I haven’t seen before. But that’s the sense of humour and the relaxed nature of the character and you develop good relationships [with such people].
“Makhaya Ntini, another great one, as a fast bowler. What a character! He scored many centuries as a bowler on difficult pitches, and occasionally he’d come to me and say, ‘Simon, what do you think I should do now? Where should I bowl this one?’ And I said, mate, ‘I’ve got my own challenges, I’m worrying about my own game! Bowl where you want to bowl, and do what you have to do!'”
ICC Board set to discuss fate of next three World tournaments
The fate of the women’s ODI World Cup in 2021 and the choice of venues for the next two men’s T20 World Cups are the two key issues that the ICC’s Board is set to discuss on Friday.
This is the second time the ICC Board is meeting in the past three weeks, having given the nod on July 20 to defer the men’s T20 World Cup, which was originally scheduled for October-November 2020 in Australia.
At that meeting the ICC Board agreed to fresh windows for three men’s events: T20 World Cups in October-November 2021 and October-November 2022, and the ODI World Cup in October-November 2023, pushed back from its original March-April window.
The ICC Board, though, did not announce who would host the next two editions of the T20 World Cup: would it be India in 2021, as per the original schedule, or Australia who were forced to hold back the 2020 event due to the Covid-19 pandemic?
After the July 20 meeting, the ICC said it would take in the “rapidly changing” environment during the pandemic and would take a “considered decision” before determining the hosts for the next two editions of the T20 World Cup.
It is understood that although there is no cut-off point, the ICC is under pressure to not delay the decision on the host venues for two reasons: taking a quick decision would provide clarity to all commercial partners including the host broadcasters who would be planning their budgets for the next calendar year, and it would also allow member boards to plan windows for bilateral cricket.
While Cricket Australia had raised concerns over its inability to host the event this year, its chairman Earl Eddings had written recently to the ICC, proposing that India swap hosting rights with Australia for the 2021 edition. Doing that, Eddings suggested, would financially help all members. If not, Eddings said it would be “detrimental to cricket” in case the “cancellation” of the World Cup in Australia this year was “replaced by award of” the tournament in October-November 2022.
CA has reiterated at ICC meetings that it was halfway through creating the structure for the event, so it would be easier for them to complete the process if they get the rights for the 2021 edition.
The BCCI has not revealed its position. Board president Sourav Ganguly has been attending ICC Board calls since March, and is understood to have empathised with CA during ICC Board meetings. Internally, however, the BCCI is understood to still be keen on retaining its right to host the T20 World Cup in 2021. At least that was the BCCI position at the July 20 meeting.
One key determining factor, an intangible, would be how the host country has dealt with the pandemic. Currently both Australia and India remain seriously affected, with the latter among the top five countries in terms of official number of cases, which as on Thursday was approaching 2 million, with over 40,000 dead.
Doubts linger over Women’s World Cup
The women’s event, comprising eight countries, is currently scheduled between February 6 and March 7 in New Zealand, a country that has kept Covid-19 cases in check. The New Zealand government was also the first to remove restrictions on spectators at sporting events.
Greg Barclay, the New Zealand Cricket chairman, recently said a final decision on whether the Women’s World Cup would go ahead as scheduled was imminent. Qualifiers for the event, however, have not been conducted yet. It is understood that if the World Cup is given the go-ahead, the plan will be to stage the qualifiers in the UAE at the end of November.
Currently New Zealand has kept its borders closed – anyone entering the country would need to undergo a two-week quarantine. It is understood that teams would not be allowed to train if that norm remains in place and would need to isolate in their hotel rooms. Add to that a week-long preparation period which would mean at least 21 days before the event starts. It is understood that the ICC is also concerned about who would bear the costs. The member boards would assume it would be the ICC, since it is a global event.
Since the 2017 World Cup in England, women’s cricket has gradually gained global recognition with the T20 World Cup final in March 2020, between Australia and India, witnessed by a record crowd of 86,000-plus at the MCG. Commercially, though, women’s cricket does not fetch ICC big money.
Either way the ICC Board will be hard pressed to make a decision sooner rather than later. If it postpones the Women’s World Cup, the ICC would go without organising a global event for 18 months until the men’s T20 World Cup in October 2021.
Kyle Abbott misses 2020 season amid travel difficulties
Hampshire have confirmed that Kyle Abbott will not play for the club in 2020, but will return next year as an overseas player.
Abbott, who played 11 Tests for South Africa between 2013 and 2017, has been at home in KwaZulu-Natal throughout lockdown, and with the Covid-19 pandemic restricting international travel and causing visa difficulties, he agreed with the club that he would miss the curtailed county season, which began last week.
Abbott signed for Hampshire on a Kolpak deal in 2017, and agreed a new three-year contract last year. This included a clause that meant he would become an overseas player after the UK’s transition period with the European Union ends on December 31, one of two permitted in all formats next season.
“The window for Kyle’s return to the UK has narrowed significantly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the difficulties with visa delays and quarantine restrictions that have followed subsequently,” Giles White, Hampshire’s director of cricket, said.
“We’ve had excellent dialogue with Kyle throughout this period, and with everything considered, we all felt the best course of action was for him to remain in South Africa in readiness for the 2021 season.”
Abbott is the second Kolpak player to confirm he will not be playing for Hampshire this season, after Fidel Edwards last week. Brad Wheal, the young Scotland seamer, is also unavailable as he is not in the country.
Several counties were without their Kolpak players during the first round of Bob Willis Trophy fixtures. Surrey remain hopeful that it will be possible for Morne Morkel to come over from Australia at some stage this season, but Hashim Amla is unlikely to feature. Yorkshire have confirmed that Duanne Olivier will be available for their second game of the season.
Durham are optimistic about the chances of Farhaan Behardien, who signed a Kolpak deal with the club in January, being available at some stage this season, though his arrival has been held up by visa difficulties.
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