How coronavirus has left cricket with an uncertain future – as told by the players

Vithushan Ehantharajah
The Independent

Friday’s announcement from the England & Wales Cricket Board that professional cricket would not start before 28 May offered some much-needed clarity to those associated with county cricket. But the ever-growing fears around the coronavirus pandemic means that clarity does not last very long.

With the ECB, Professional Cricketers’s Association, the 18 first-class counties and the MCC in constant talks over various different scenarios, players across the country have been trying to keep themselves busy. From daisy-chaining their favourite shots and wickets on Instagram (and tagging other players to do the same) and online gaming to pub quizzes over Zoom. All while continuing their pre-season work by any means necessary ahead of a prospective June, July or August start.

Yet as the days tick by, the fear of what a season without cricket might mean is slowly dawning on them. Even for those on decent salaries, cricket’s pre-existing uncertainties have been multiplied and the short and long-term worries have never been greater for the current crop.

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The prioritisation of international cricket, NatWest T20 Blast and The Hundred means some established county pros more aligned with first-class cricket may find themselves out of the loop even if cricket is played.

A number have already made use of the PCA’s 24-hour confidential helpline which provides mental health support from Sporting Chance. Some have looked at supplementing their regular income which may disappear entirely at the end of the summer. One established county pro with Championship titles under his belt has even signed up to be an Uber driver. In his words, “these are bleak times”.

Here, The Independent speaks to Sam Billings (Kent captain and England international with ambitions to break into the 2020 T20 World Cup squad), Tymal Mills (a white-ball-only cricketer for Sussex whose winter trips to T20 leagues form a key part of his income) and Alex Wakely (in his 14th year at Northamptonshire, a county who have punched above its weight with restricted finances) to gauge their views on the most uncertain period for English domestic cricketers since the war.

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Where were you when you first realised the scale of the coronavirus situation in the United Kingdom?

TYMAL MILLS: I was in Pakistan [playing for the Quetta Gladiators in the Pakistan Super League] for the entirety of the outbreak, really. Like everybody else we weren’t taking it too seriously. But every day you were checking and speaking to people back home and it seemed to be getting gradually worse. Myself and Jason Roy (Quetta teammate, England international) got wind of others talking about going home. We met with the officials from the PSL who gave everybody the option to fly home early.

SAM BILLINGS: Kent were in South Africa, in Potchefstroom for our pre-season training. Min Patel (Kent second XI coach) is big into his statistics and was updating us on the numbers when the coronavirus numbers in the UK started to escalate. Then the Sri Lanka tour got cancelled so we held a management meeting: our head of science and medicine talked us through everything and we came to the decision that if England saw fit to fly home then the last thing we want to do is have 25 guys out here all together. If the percentages were right, 18 out of the 25 would get sick.

ALEX WAKELY: During the build-up to our Singapore pre-season trip we knew there was a bit of uncertainty. We had various meetings as a team to determine whether we were going to go or not. The club made the call to go as at the time the Foreign Office had nothing advising against it. When we got there things were unbelievably safe. There was no panic, everything was really clean. We felt safer over there than we have being home this week.

What was going through your minds at the time? You obviously had friends and family in the UK while you were overseas.

TM: My wife’s pregnant so I wanted to get back and make sure she was OK. She’s doing alright but that was the main thing for a lot of guys. You didn’t want to be away from families and every day it seemed to be changing. There was chat of flights becoming restricted and you didn’t want to get stranded in another country. And if any of us were to get the virus you would rather be in your own home.

Sam Billings is hoping to break into England’s squad for the T20 World Cup in October this year (Getty)
Sam Billings is hoping to break into England’s squad for the T20 World Cup in October this year (Getty)

SB: Leaving South Africa wasn’t really a big decision. It just had to be done. Families were a concern for a few of the boys. We had to take that onboard. I haven’t gone to see my parents – they’re not quite in the high danger zone, I suppose – but it’s more about my grandmother.

AW: As soon as I began hearing stuff in England all I wanted to do was get back. With the eight hours time difference it was tricky speaking to those at the club back in England so Rob Keogh, who our PCA rep, and I, with the club’s blessing, went and got our flights out of Singapore change.

SB: My mum was going to meet her 70-year old friend the other day and I had to be like, “Seriously mum – what the hell are you doing?!” I think in the UK we’re very naive with things like this: we’re just like, oh yeah we’ll crack on. Sometimes that’s a great attitude to have. But actually, when it’s severe like this, it’s so much harder drilling home to people.

How have things been since you’ve been back, especially in terms of dialogue with your clubs and the PCA?

SB: There’s lots of information for anyone struggling physically and mentally, which has been great. All the players have been really diligent about preparing for when the season might get the green light in terms of fitness. The ground is on lockdown so no training there. We’ve tried to give everyone absolute clarity to ensure there are no grey areas.

TM: The rest of the Sussex boys flew home on Friday night and arriving back on Saturday. Our coach, Jason Gillespie, went back to Australia to be with his family. Everybody’s got to stay away from the ground for a week or so and the club will get it properly cleaned – the indoor school, changing room, things like that – just with a view that when we do get back everything will be good for us to use in theory.

AW: I’m quite lucky – my cousin is quite high up in the Foreign Office so he tries to give me as much information as possible. We had a week in isolation as a precaution. Our chief executive and the club doctor have started a WhatsApp group to keep us updated. We’re also reporting to the club every morning with our temperature and any symptoms so they can monitor it.

Prioritising international cricket, T20 Blast and The Hundred affects you three and your respective counties differently. What are your thoughts on this and the issues you and your clubs might encounter if no cricket was played at all?

TM: It’s a tricky one. With the injuries I’ve had over the last few years my contract with Sussex has been moved onto “pay as you play”. So if I don’t end up playing Blast games that impacts me financially. With The Hundred as well, if the tournament got cancelled, I don’t believe any of our contracts will be valid. Guys have insurance but that’s only personal injury, I don’t believe it covers the tournament as a whole. Just looking at the next five months or so, that is a bit of a worry.

SB: For me, The Hundred in terms of the TV deal and the huge amount of money going into the game, it makes sense to prioritise that and the T20. Also there’s a huge cost involved. I did wonder if they would go back to the idea they had a couple of years ago of playing some rounds of the County Championship overseas in October and November. I’d be very open to that – a bit more sun!

Northamptonshire veteran Alex Wakely fears the impact suspension could have on county sides (Getty)
Northamptonshire veteran Alex Wakely fears the impact suspension could have on county sides (Getty)

AW: My worry is with The Hundred and with the money promised from the TV companies to each county – if it doesn’t happen, do they still get that money? I don’t know. Most counties are relying on that money. Most of have budgeted for it, some have already spent it. Factor in each club upping their salary cap in line with the new PCA directives around minimum wage – suddenly where do those paycheques come from?

Playing matches behind closed doors presents an interesting quandary. While it works for getting games on, it does not quite work for counties, such as your three, who make a lot of their money on walk-up gate receipts, concession stands and corporate hospitality.

TM: If push comes to shove you’d rather play behind closed doors than not at all. We all want to play cricket – it’s our profession. Journalists included, you want to cover cricket. But it would be a massive shame if the crowds weren’t involved. The pull of T20 cricket, night time games, under lights – that’s something we down at Hove are really fortunate with. We’ve not got the biggest ground but we sell it out pretty much every game. If you remove that it does take the edge off the cricket. There isn’t the same adrenaline or buzz. Obviously from a fans point of view, it takes away from them and therefore the club not being able to generate any ticket sales. It’s not what anybody wants but it is better than nothing.

AW: I would say you need the crowds. Playing in front of no fans is tough. Imagine going to some of the bigger stadiums, like Edgbaston – it’d feel like a ghost town. It would be detrimental to the game to try and do that. Yes, we are professionals and we have to get on with it. But I don’t think it would be in the best interests of the game, personally. Ultimately it’ll come down to finances. If the clubs feel it’ll be beneficial to play then we’ll have to do that.

SB: I’ve been following this a bit. Various athletes around the world have come out and said they refuse to play if the fans aren’t there. We get paid to play and if we get told to play it behind closed doors we do that.

Then, though, there’s also the issue that the reason these matches are behind closed doors is that it’s still not totally safe. Would you feel comfortable playing with that fear still hanging in the air?

TM: I think I would but it’s a funny one. If the virus is still relatively prominent still, from what I understand all it could take was someone from your team to go down with it in the middle of the tournament and then it’ll affect the whole squad because they’ll have been in the changing room or on the bus with their teammates. Do the team go into quarantine then? Logistically and scientifically there are a lot of variables that we simply don’t know.

SB: Yeah, as has been said, if one member gets ill we’re all quarantined. I don’t really get the logic. It’s not like athletes are immune to it. I just don’t see how it would work if the virus is still about. I genuinely believe we need to get it under control first and worry about sport second.

AW: We at Northants have put ourselves in decent financial position but that’s going to be tested. And think about it: if we can’t play in front of crowds because its groups of peoples then that means weddings, parties and other events won’t be able to take place at Wantage Road. For smaller clubs like Northants, it’s not just the cricket that brings in the money. So it’ll mean those events won’t happen either and the financial impact will be drastic.

Tymal Mills is unsure of what will happen when his and many other players’ contracts expire this year (Getty)
Tymal Mills is unsure of what will happen when his and many other players’ contracts expire this year (Getty)

What are your short-term worries?

TM: My contract actually expires with Sussex this year. A lot of other guys will be in the same boat and if there’s not a lot of cricket it’ll be a really difficult time for those trying to earn contracts for next year. We had an email from the PCA chief executive Tony Irish on Thursday telling us we would be informed of what’s going on with the various meetings going on between the PCA and the ECB. You’ve just got to hope and trust things work out for the best.

AW: I’ve postponed my benefit year. We’d put a lot of work into it and most of my events were ready to go and we were in a really good place. But ultimately regardless of anything, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing it.

SB: One of the biggest talking points is actually what do guys do in the last year of their contract. I was lucky: I was in that situation going into January until I signed a new deal. For various reasons the summer is your chance to prove yourself to gain another contract. That opportunity might be taken away and it’s a huge worry for a lot of people.

Looking further ahead, what impact – cricket or otherwise – do you see this having on your careers and of those around you?

SB: From a personal point of view, I took a break over the winter after the T20 series in New Zealand. I didn’t make the World Cup squad last year, I got injured but I finished the season well with the red ball and proved to myself that I’ve got the game for Test cricket. I wanted to start strongly in the Championship this summer. There’s obviously the T20 World Cup later this year that I was hoping to crack into. I’d prepared myself to right some wrongs this summer. Whatever cricket there will be, I need to be absolutely ready to give myself the best chance. I appreciate that might sound selfish or arrogant in these times, but that’s how we have to be in the back of our minds.

TM: Once September and October rolls around that’s when the merry-go-round of cricket leagues start again. But if you’re not able to fly or not able to travel to other countries then you need to look at other things to do. For myself, I’ve always looked to subsidise income by doing media work, commentary. But if there’s no cricket to commentate on then I won’t be doing that either!

AW: I’ll be OK but I do worry about my teammates and the rest of the game. Something that has been discussed is players taking a pay-cut for this summer. With our contracts legally it would have to be a unanimous vote from the players for that to take place across the board. Realistically that is not going to happen. Some players won’t be in a position to do that at all. Importantly, we have to realise it’s on all of us as professional cricketers to work out with one common goal what would make the game better and sustainable in the long run.

Lastly, how have you been staying positive?

SB: I tweeted out offering to help anyone that needed anything in Canterbury. I helped one person and then had someone else whose mum works at Age UK, the charity. But they’ve had to close down their workplace but not heard anything just yet. Hopefully, they are OK. There are probably 250 places in my little area. There’s a coffee shop in the middle of it all and I’ve just told the owner if he hears of anyone needing help just to drop me a line. I think that’s all I really can do. Max Waller has done similar in Taunton. Hopefully, the awareness is out there and more people will do it.

AW: As cricketers we are quite lucky we know directly it won’t affect us straight away. We’ve got the chance to be with our families. I live in the middle of nowhere in the countryside so my life can kind of carry on as normal. But some of the others who are in cities are in lockdown in London and so on. Regardless, as cricketers, we are very lucky.

TM: That dressing room environment is a huge thing for a lot of players and we’ve got to support each other through this. It’ll be difficult. In the meantime myself, Jofra Archer, Ollie Robinson and Will Sheffield have been together via X-Box and PlayStation quite a bit, playing games and chatting away on headsets. The WhatsApp groups are a bit more active now! We’ll find a way to stick together.

SB: We’re trying something similar: we’ve got this film trivia quiz every day from this week. We all chip in £5 and there are various clues sent through over a few days. Obviously you can’t control whether people use Google – you hope not – but it’s a bit of fun. Matt Walker (Kent head coach) is the best film guru you’ve ever come across so we’re essentially putting our money straight into his pocket…

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