By midday, I was getting twitchy. The sun was out, the sky was blue and the season was starting. “There can be no summer in this land without cricket,” wrote Neville Cardus, and now, on 11 July, three months or so after the first swallows, summer was here at last. They were playing cricket again, at the clubs and in the villages, friendlies mainly, since the government’s sudden change of mind on whether they should be able to play or not had left so little time for anyone to arrange competitive fixtures. There are around 300,000 cricketers in England. It seemed strange, on a Saturday such as this, to limit myself to only the 11 of them playing in an empty ground outside Southampton.
Besides, the chances are that somewhere there would be a few who would make for better viewing than Dom Sibley and Rory Burns were providing in the morning. Given the way they were playing, the Test felt as if it was the kind of game you could afford to follow on the radio. So I headed out, caught the train to West Hampstead and walked down Lymington Road until I got to the old wooden sign “Hampstead Cricket Club – cricket spectators welcome”. There were five of them inside by the time I arrived just after the start of play, and a sixth looking over her garden fence. It was busier than the Ageas Bowl, anyway.
Hampstead’s seconds were playing against Harpenden’s. Not that it much mattered. “Who’s playing?” asked one of the spectators after we’d been sitting there for an hour already. Hampstead were cracking on, 85 for one off 20 overs. Their opener just beat Sibley to his fifty.
There were little differences, things that would have seemed striking only a couple of months ago. The face mask the scorer was wearing, the bottles of hand gel everywhere, the arrows on the floor showing the one-way system through the corridors to the bar, where there was a stack of sheets to fill in with your details for their new track-and-trace system. Now though, it all felt almost as almost as familiar as the cry of “bowler’s name?”, the jug of orange squash on the trestle table and the battered old balls forgotten in the long grass of the far outfield. Hampstead’s cricket chairman, Nick Brown, was out there, hauling a length of thick rope out from the rough and laying it around the boundary.
“I could have come up with most of the directives the ECB sent out this week myself, to be honest,” Brown says. “Aside from the running lanes and the way we have to clean the ball, it isn’t really too much of a big deal.” The running lanes were painted strips either side of the pitch. The idea is they will help the batsmen stay two metres away from each other and the bowler, though, often as not, people seem to forget to use them. Brown’s even opened up the changing room, but he’s only allowing three people in at a time, and it’s just so they have somewhere to put their boxes on. He doesn’t want his cricketers exposing themselves to the genteel sorts from the tennis club next door.
The tennis courts have been open for six weeks already, the cricketers have been waiting, watching, while the government hummed and hawed and went back-and-forth about whether they could start playing too. “It has been really frustrating,” says Brown, “and the ECB have taken a lot of criticism for it from the cricket-playing public.” For him, and thousands of others like him, club cricket is cricket. He has little interest in how England are getting on. “I’m an MCC member, but I’d struggle to sit through a day of Test cricket now, I just feel so disconnected from it.” The club is his life. Which is why he’s keen for the social side of the game to open up again too.
At the moment, the bar is closed before the game is over. “I’d like to get that going again, because ultimately we’re a club, not just a cricket team.” It’s not just the lost revenue. Wednesday would usually be open practice night in the nets, when they integrate new members. “I’ve been really conscious we haven’t been able to do anything for people who have just come down to London this year. A lot of people find a home here. Cricket clubs provide a lot more than just cricket, there’s a societal aspect to it, particularly given the lockdown, and the mental health issues. It’s an opportunity to get outside, do something you enjoy, and to socialise.”
Over on the benches at long-off, there’s a small congregation of regulars doing just that. One of them is Jim Carter, the actor, who used to be the chairman here. “We haven’t been together here in old fogey’s corner for 10 months,” he says, swishing his sandals through the long grass. He’s just checked the score at the Test, too, “two runs an over, it’s not exactly riveting, is it? To have this, here, with genuine sound effects, is much better than the ersatz stuff on the telly.” He’s right. The thumps and bumps, clips, claps and chatter, the game has never sounded so sweet. “Come on, boys!” the ’keeper cries in the middle as some young quick starts his run in from the pavilion, “we’re making up for lost time here!”