Tom Harrison is the sort of guy you want in a crisis. Mainly due to his masterful refusal to acknowledge the fact that there’s a crisis at all. As the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board delivered his latest update on how the game intends to weather the coronavirus pandemic, you wondered whether he had been watching the same sombre bulletins as the rest of us.
The forestalment of the season until 1 July, with the prospect of further setbacks to come, provided “an opportunity, as much as anything”. The challenge of rejigging a schedule already ransacked by cancellations and postponements was “an interesting experiment”. The spirit of cooperation within the game, Harrison insisted, was “very, very positive and optimistic”. By the end of it, you felt weirdly buoyant about the whole scenario. Hurrah for Covid-19! Three cheers for cricket! A clap for our brave, heroic stakeholders!
There was something strange about the room Harrison was sitting in. Hanging on the wall behind him, in what you had to assume was his living room or home office, were about half a dozen framed photographs of idyllic, sun-kissed landscapes: the sort of generic pictures that often come free with the frame when you buy them. Blissfully deserted beaches. Swaying palm trees. Postcard sunsets. It felt like a subliminal attempt to convey a message of extreme calm.
Of course, there is plenty to be said for maintaining a certain optimism at a time like this, particularly when there are some gut-wrenching decisions to be delegated in the weeks ahead. On the substance of those decisions, however, there was rather less to go on. Still no word on where things stand with the broadcasters. Still no word on the Hundred, whose fate will be decided at a further meeting next Wednesday. Still no word on what, if any, domestic cricket would take place in a truncated season.
There are no answers, because at present there can be no answers. English cricket, like many of its overseas counterparts and in common with many other sports, has its hands tied by a schedule and a wider culture that for years has been geared in just one direction: towards more of everything. More formats and more fixtures, stretching ever earlier into spring and ever later into autumn, squeezing the gaps in the calendar until players are delirious with fatigue and the red-ball and white-ball games have been driven irreconcilably apart.
Until now there has been no incentive to rationalise any of this, because nobody ever made their fortune in cricket by arguing for less of it. In a way, the pandemic has merely underlined what we have long tacitly known: that the schedule is full well beyond breaking point. That when you are blithely insisting it is possible to schedule four domestic competitions and four men’s international series in the space of three months, when you are unable to extend the season by more than a few weeks because that would bring it in direct conflict with a Twenty20 World Cup in Australia, a point of absurdity has long been passed.
The only real questions, then, are what we lose, and in what order. The County Championship and the One-Day Cup, almost certainly. The Hundred will surely have to go back in the can for a year. In practice, it’s hard to see how the epidemiological tide could turn in time for a white-ball series against Australia to be sanctioned. England’s international summer could well consist of four four-day Tests, two against West Indies, two against Pakistan – the minimum length for a World Test Championship series – held without crowds at a bio-secure Rose Bowl or Old Trafford in September.
As for women’s cricket, the ECB will surely be aware of the optics of busting a gut to salvage the men’s international calendar, while simultaneously allowing the women’s summer – six ODIs and six T20s against India and South Africa – to disappear without comment. But when asked whether he could offer a guarantee that if all the men’s international fixtures could be scheduled, all the women’s games would be played too, he pointedly could not.
You could ask similar questions about other areas of the game: about counties going under, players and staff struggling to make ends meet, clubs shutting their doors never to open them again. But that’s not really the “growth mindset” the ECB wants to engender right now. This is, after all, a huge opportunity to imagineer the future of English cricket. And it’s only right we embrace it with the enthusiasm it demands.