As with so much in the world right now, uncertainty is the prevailing mood in English cricketing circles. Normally at this time of year, excitement is building towards the looming domestic season, a comforting and regular presence on the sporting landscape. Cricket Betting Tips But not this year. Instead, the Coronavirus pandemic has changed all that, unsettling the established order of things. As with everything else, who knows what will happen next.
"It's unprecedented," Sam Cook, Essex's fast-bowler, told Cricbuzz from his home after the club cancelled all training this week. "At the moment, nobody knows what's going on. But no matter what line of work you are in, everyone has got to keep themselves safe, keep the vulnerable safe and do the right thing.
"You are raring to go to try and stake your claim for spots so it's come at an inconvenient time but I'm sure the ECB and powers that be will put everyone's health and well-being first. Who knows what's going to happen with the season but we just have to wait and see to hear over the next few days."
Gloucestershire did train on Monday (March 18) but James Bracey, their wicket-keeper batsman, admitted that people's minds weren't particularly focused. "The pre-season games are supposed to start in two weeks' time but nobody is sure what's going on," he told Cricbuzz. "It's hard. We went in yesterday and everyone seemed to be heads everywhere. It's hard to know what to do."
The first-class domestic season is supposed to begin in four weeks' time but that will almost certainly be postponed given the UK government's advice that the pandemic will probably only peak in this country in May. Citizens have been told to expect social distancing measures to be in place for a while which makes any prospect of cricket taking place, even behind closed doors, unlikely for the foreseeable future. England's Test series against West Indies in early June must be in doubt too.
The question that then follows is what happens to the season, one that has not yet begun and might never get started? Even if it does take place at some point, it will certainly be heavily curtailed and amended. There are a number of possibilities, including extending the season into October and scrapping some competitions, but given the rapidly shifting situation, making any concrete decisions is extremely difficult. The ECB find themselves in an unenviable situation.
Sensibly, they do not want to rush into things. They have a large number of stakeholders to consult - not just the 18 first-class counties - and given there are no competitive fixtures scheduled until April 12, there has been no particular necessity to make urgent decisions. Time will run away quickly though, and there is a need for all stakeholders to have as much certainty as possible to help them navigate this crisis. Aside from the cricket, there are jobs and livelihoods to think of.
The ECB are currently working with each of the 18 first-class counties to gather financial information, individual circumstances and logistics insights. A meeting was held on Tuesday morning (March 17) between county chiefs and the ECB and there will be a further meeting on Thursday where decisions can start to be made about the coming season. Some decisions may need to be escalated to the ECB Board for sign-off. The uncertainty is set to remain for some time yet.
At this stage, neither the ECB or PCA are providing guidance to counties as to whether they should send staff and players home. Instead, they are leaving that up to the individual counties to manage. The ECB are, however, providing advice as necessary and Dr Nick Pierce, the ECB's Chief Medical Officer, is in regular contact with all the county CMOs. The PCA's Chief Executive Tony Irish is on the ECB's Health Advisory Group to represent the players' point of view.
Nevertheless, individual counties are making their own choices. A raft of pre-season tours have been cancelled over the past few days with some counties pulling out before their squad had departed, as Gloucestershire did when opting not to travel to La Manga in Spain this weekend. Others, such as Durham and Derbyshire who both returned from Zimbabwe, cut short trips they had already begun.
The plan for most of those counties who curtailed or cancelled trips was to carry on with pre-season training at home instead, using indoor facilities or tents over outdoor pitches. However, with Monday's announcement by the government requesting people limit social contact as much as possible, a number of first-class counties, including Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Essex and Gloucestershire, have told their players to stay at home for the rest of the week.
Surrey are one county who has continued with training as normal, however. That is despite six of their players, so far unnamed, having self-isolated as a precaution after potentially coming into contact with someone who has Coronavirus symptoms. Nottinghamshire's Alex Hales confirmed on Tuesday that he wasalso self-isolating after developing a fever and cough on his return from the Pakistan Super League.
A number of counties have also cancelled upcoming events at their grounds. Middlesex, whose squad returned from their tour of Oman on Tuesday morning, have cancelled their AGM as well as a Members' and Players' Quiz evening which was planned for next week. Worcestershire have also cancelled their AGM which was due to be held on 31st March as well as a Chairman's Lunch, due to take place on April 3.
What happens next week, or the week after, remains to be seen. Warwickshire's players returned from Spain on Saturday night, cutting their pre-season trip short by a week, and have been given time off to spend with their families. Plans are being worked through as to what their schedule will be after this weekend. Similarly, the Essex and Gloucestershire squads do not yet know what is happening next week.
Given the social distancing measures now in place, and the potential for stricter measures to be brought in, it is hard to see how normal pre-season training can carry on although one option for counties is to continue on a limited basis with players practising in smaller groups of say four or five on a shift pattern to reduce contact. Otherwise, preparations may have to stop completely.
For now, Gloucestershire's players have been given training programmes to carry out at home, involving bodyweight exercises. The current government advice is that going out for a run is acceptable so Cook headed out this morning while he awaits a more formal programme from the Essex strength and conditioning staff. Working on physical fitness is one thing but the inability to prepare technically will have an effect if and when the season gets underway.
Cook reckons he would need a minimum two week preparation period to be ready. "I've never gone from a position where you will be doing no bowling to having to potentially start a season within a week or two weeks," he said. "Normally, it's a gradual build-up. You'd need at least a couple of weeks of solid training before playing but if that isn't the case, all teams will be in the same boat and you'll have to work harder in a shorter period of time. You'll feel fresh that's for sure."