Sir Ian Botham is free to take up his rod and lure unsuspecting river trout to their doom. Kevin Pietersen, Nasser Hussain and Viv Richards may once again stride through fairways and across greens, garbed in outfits that glam rock band Slade would have rejected for lack of taste. AB de Villiers can head to the tennis courts at last and have a hit, but none of them, and more pertinently none of the approximately 292,000 amateurs in England can yet play the game that really defines the English summer, cricket.
Last Friday, after extensive consultation with the Government, The England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) issued its guidelines for recreational cricket clubs. Practice may resume in outdoor nets only, and with the provisos that only two people occupy the net at any time and adjoining nets are left empty (those river trout are in the wrong game). Sweat and saliva cannot be used to polish the ball. Clubhouses and changing rooms must remain closed.
In the teeth of a global pandemic, the Government and ECB are adopting an unashamedly safety first approach to the resumption of team sports, and while no sane individual really blames them, the prospect of waiting another year before donning whites, pads and helmets in earnest is mortifying to enthusiasts up and down the country.
Being a fanatical amateur cricketer is difficult at the best of times. Dedication and a touching eagerness to play the game tends to occur in inverse correlation with cricketing ability, for a start, which makes disappointment a constant companion. Although it does reward noble attributes like resilience, and team spirit.
In Summer you are routinely accused of being an antisocial home wrecker who prioritises standing in a near-empty field every weekend, demonstrating a near-complete absence of skill, over spending time with friends and family.
The remaining seven months are spent yearning for Spring and the opportunity to fuel sincerely held and charming delusions of forthcoming glory. Those seven months are set to be extended to 19, and now, to cap it all, golf will steal the remaining decent players who give your team a patina of respectability and actually can hit a ball, but are difficult enough to coax onto a cricket field at the best of times.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Cricket, unlike football, rugby and hockey, is a rare team sport that almost fits the criteria for social distancing. With a few modifications to the playing conditions might we yet convince the authorities to set the least competent among us free?
The batsman and bowler are separated by 22 yards of turf. Most fielders, apart from the slips, are positioned well over two metres apart. At the level I and countless other cricket tragics play, a slip catch hasn’t been taken in this country since Decimalisation, so we can dispense with them. The 64-year-old, slightly portly wicket-keeper will need to stand back a touch, but frankly that will give him more time to get a fingertip to the ball.
Bowlers do get within an inch or two of the umpire at the non-striker’s end but the solution is simple. Umpires in social cricket tend to be derived from the batting side, changing every 10 overs. They, quite correctly, never uphold an opposition bowler’s appeal. Simply move this umpire so they stand square of the wicket, only checking the bowler’s front foot for no balls.
This might result in a return to old fashioned virtues, like walking when you know you’ve edged it. (The last time I walked was four years ago when playing against The Church of England, Pascal’s Wager being foremost in my thoughts.)
Shining the ball remains a problem but only in the fanciful imagination of bowlers who think they’re good enough to swing the ball. As luck would have it, they mostly aren’t.
I spent 20 years captaining amateur cricket teams. In no other area of my life did I encounter such innocent passion and guileless glee. It was a labour of love which my wife often likened to Care In The Community; a care that is needed now more than ever. If we promise to embrace our general ineptitude, instead of striving for unattainable heights of imagined competence, might they just give us our ball back?