21 MAY 2020
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Blinking in the bright sunlight like creatures emerging
from hibernation, our sportsmen and women are slowly
returning to their training grounds. These are tentative
first steps, but it must be an incredible relief to stretch
limbs and breathe fresh air once again.
There has been plenty of virtual competition, from
cycle races to computer games, including a FIFA 20
video game tournament that raised money for the
Covid-19 Urgent Appeal, but there’s nothing like
actually getting out and picking up the sport you love.
It will be a strange experience for England’s cricketers,
who officially resume training this week. These are
international sportsmen playing on the circuit almost
constantly, but some won’t have bowled or hit a ball since
the end of January, while fast bowler James Anderson
has done nothing since getting injured in January.
This layoff, and having to start again, is rare for this
generation, but it was an annual event for mine. With
no 12-month contracts in those days, we were handed
an envelope every September that, if you were lucky,
contained your P60 and the reporting date for next
April. If you were unlucky, you received a brief note
thanking you for your loyal service and goodbye. Either
way, that was it. Down to the Jobcentre we went.
For a couple of winters, I drove a lorry delivering
asbestos, which I rather regret now. The wagon was
known as The Old Diesel, which you had to drive
standing up to get enough weight on the accelerator.
When its brakes finally failed, I moved on to making
windows. Badly. But it was necessary work to pay the
bills until spring and pre-season training finally started.
We were professional cricketers once again.
Training was very different. Apart from an occasional
run on dark, winter’s evenings, most of us were starting
from scratch. We would jog along the canal towpath to
Leicester Polytechnic – two miles at the most – with
David Gower, our captain, maintaining a leisurely and
stately pace beside me at the rear. Some gentle circuit
training would be followed by a game of volleyball or
badminton, before the return run to The Cricketers pub,
conveniently located beside the county ground. Lunch
would be cheese rolls and a pint of bitter before finally
putting on our whites and heading for the practice nets.
Bowling after such a long layoff was agony. The
stiffness lasted days and it took time to hone any
accuracy. This is part of the challenge facing England’s
current crop of players this week as they stretch their
muscles and sharpen their minds to a condition that
was natural three months ago. But equally and uniquely
difficult is the fact that they are doing this alone. There
won’t be a batsman in the nets, only a coloured disc for
the bowler to aim at. A coach will offer encouragement
from a safe distance, and should the bowler suffer
an injury, a physio in full PPE (personal protective
equipment) will tend to him. They will quickly realise
that sport is going to be very different for a while.
After two weeks on separate grounds around the
country, the bowlers will be replaced by the batsmen for
whom it will be a machine firing down the balls rather
than a human being. The physical separation in that
case will be 20 metres rather than two, and while people
might question if this level of distancing is necessary,
this period is as much about reassuring the players
that their safety is paramount going forward as it is
about actually bowling or batting.
The trouble is that this does not come close to being
adequately prepared for a Test match, but the hope
remains that England might be in action in early July.
That is dependent on many factors, of course, not least
convincing the opposition that it is safe to travel here,
but I can’t help but wonder about the quality of the
cricket. After all, the visitors will have to be quarantined
for a fortnight before they can start practising, and a
warm-up game or two for both teams will be hard to
organise in a fully sanitised environment.
However, the show would be back on the road and it
will be cricket. Just not as we know it.
SPORT PICKS OF THE WEEK
Radio A Question of Sport, 23 May
Matt Dawson and Phil Tufnell are the
team captains as TV’s longest running
sports quiz continues its run on BBC
Radio 5 Live, with Mark Chapman in the
presenter’s hot seat. Also available as
a podcast at BBC Sounds.
Radio Test Match Special, 24 May
Relive all the dramatic twists and turns
of England’s cricket World Cup encounter
with Sri Lanka at Headingley last year,
with ball-by-ball commentary from the
Test Match Special team on BBC Radio
5 Live Sports Extra.
Book After Extra Time and
Penalties, by Mike Ingham
The former BBC football correspondent
commentated on 28 FA Cup Finals
and attended eight World Cups. His
autobiography is a candid look at sports
broadcasting over his 25 years in the job.
The show is
back in town –
just not as we
Photography: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images