England vs West Indies: First steps towards the new normal
England vs West Indies 1st Test: Cricket’s back. But all will be not the same amid Covid-19. Over the next few days, we will get to witness many more changes.Updated: Jul 08, 2020 06:52 IST
Cricket’s back, and it comes to us in the form of an English summer, that age old mix of fickle weather and fine fast bowling. Except this is nothing like we have seen in a very long time. For over a decade, the game bore its riches in the April-May-June trimester with the Indian Premier League, before moving on to a major ICC event, paving the way for cricket fatigue to set in.
This year, however, has witnessed neither. There has been no international cricket of any kind since 13 March of course, and the gap between Wednesday’s Test at Southampton and the last Test played this year is 127 days. There has never been a longer leave of absence since 1975, which recorded a 131-day hiatus between two consecutive Tests.
It’s just one of the many things Covid-19 has forced upon the game. Over the next few days, we will get to witness many more changes.
Let’s start with the most important one: spectators. There will be none, just stewards in their fluorescent bibs and dead-pan expressions manning vacant stands. The impetus on playing more Day-Night Tests might take a nosedive because, let’s face it, how does it matter if no crowds are allowed? In the ‘new normal’, cricketers will have to dig deep to stay motivated.
“I think maybe ... the senior guys it might affect a few of them because they are used to sold out matches in England,” said West Indies Phil Simmons during the buildup to the first Test. “But in the Caribbean there’s not much crowds for Test so we are kind of accustomed to that.”
Without spectators, players will not get standing ovations, centurions will have to point their bats only at dressing rooms, and James Anderson will not get a rousing build-up as he loads up for his final flourish in the last hour of the day. Also, there will be no sightings of a former Beatle at the hospitality box, or of Mick Jagger, or the amply bellied senior dozing with a pint of ale in his grip. Retrieving the ball from the stands will take more time, but on the flip side, batsmen won’t have to deal with sightscreen interruptions anymore. T
There will also be no Barmy Army in the stands on Wednesday. Joe Root has led calls for the group’s chants to be played over the PA system but England pacer and team vocalist Mark Wood has come up with an alternate idea. As two English sides walked out to play a practice match in Southampton last Friday, Wood himself sang ‘Jerusalem’-- the song Barmy Army sings at the start of the day’s play--from the stands to kick off proceedings. The video has garnered over 350,000 views and has prompted praise from fans who have labeled Wood the ‘life and soul’ of the team. Another rendition from Wood might be on the cards on Wednesday but the art of cheering, as we know it, will cease to exist till the pandemic is under control.
No live spectators also means the quality of cricket will be its sole driving point. “Crowds are very important to add to the atmosphere but like football that has restarted in the UK, the entertainment has been the standard of football played,” former West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding said recently.
What about the cricketers though? Expect scenes reminiscent of an earlier era of cricket when it was seen as improper for players to run in all the way from deep square leg to pile on the bowler after a dismissal. Till the early 1980s, cricket celebrations were mostly muted, to go with the idea that it was the “gentleman’s game”. Players did not hug, or slap bottoms, or leap into high fives. This will be a return to that era. Wickets are likely to be celebrated by fielders clapping, stoically standing in place.
“There is a lot of detail and people will make mistakes–we all will. But for the sake of everyone and cricket we need to operate within these protocols. It will be weird,” said ECB cricket director Ashley Giles last month. In last week’s practice game between Team Stokes and Team Buttler, wicketkeeper Ben Foakes had raised his hands for a high five out of habit after Anderson took a wicket. The pacer however asked him to do an elbow dab. The other players too quickly followed suit. Touching bats after reaching a partnership landmark will be more in vogue now. Headbands and wristbands could make a comeback since towels and equipment won’t be shared.
With no crowds to take over the audio, commentators may also have to do their bit to fill the gaps. Umpires stand to gain though; they should now be able to hear faint nicks more clearly. Aggression could see some toning down as well. Batsmen will be discouraged from brushing past the bowler while taking a quick single. Bowlers too would be advised to not get too close to the umpire while appealing. With broadcasters expected to crank up the volume, stump mikes could pick the feeblest expletive tossed at the batsman from the slip cordon. Wicketkeepers will be walking on egg shells knowing everything they mutter behind the stumps would now be heard with perfect clarity.
We will also have the answer to that most vexing of questions; whether the banning of saliva will change the way the cricket ball moves. It may or may not. The ball could still move because of the wrist position during release. Or maybe we will get geeky explanations on lunch break TV shows on how the alcohol in hand sanitisers could be a deal breaker. Because there will be plenty of that going around--starting from the players’ and umpires’ pockets, on the boundary ropes along with towels and water bottles, at the dressing room entries and the car parks. Anderson was repeatedly seen using a hand sanitiser during last week’s practice game.
Also, what will matter far more than who wins or loses this series is whether it can go through without players and others involved getting infected. If it does, it will allow for a template to be set for other nations to follow. That’s why the cricket world should also take a moment to applaud West Indies and Pakistan (scheduled to tour England next) for not shying away from their commitments.
“This is a huge step forward in cricket and in sports in general,” West Indies captain Jason Holder had said before his team left the Caribbean. They are not favoured touring destinations by far, neither are their players half as well paid as India, England and Australia. Yet at the moment of reckoning, they took the risk to travel. In times like these, such gestures matter.