After three long months of waiting, recreational cricketers across the country were cheered when Boris Johnson announced that play would finally be able to commence on 11 July.
Kit bags were packed with bats and pads – and hand sanitiser – in eager anticipation. Squares were rolled, outfields cut, friendships rekindled. Finally we’d all be able to play again. Except, it turned out, some of us would have to wait agonising days, or perhaps even weeks, longer.
My club, Pacific CC, play in the London boroughs of Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets and when Johnson’s announcement came on 3 July, extra energy was injected into our net session at Hackney Marshes that evening. The seamers bowled that little bit faster, the spinners gave it an extra rip, and the batsmen drove the ball a touch harder.
Although many leagues across the country had already been cancelled in favour of friendly matches, the North East London Cricket League, in which we play, released a revised fixture list that would allow the league to be completed by the end of September despite all those lost weekends. Instead of playing against every other side, we’d be split into two groups, with the top teams then progressing to a finals stage. It wasn’t perfect, but it was probably as close as we could get to it given the difficult circumstances.
But as 11 July approached it soon became evident that we might have a problem. As I cycled to the pitches at which we play our league matches – London Fields, Springfield Park and Millfields – they did not seem ready. At London Fields the square was securely fenced off, with long grass snaking its way up the outside of it. At Millfields thistles had grown in the outfield. And at Springfield Park the square was barely distinguishable from the outfield.
At least, I thought, there were still a few days in which such work could be carried out. We might not have a perfect strip and a pristine outfield, but we ought to be able to get going at last. The league’s chairman, Guy Shennan of Camel CC, had been valiantly trying to track down the appropriate people at Hackney council to get some answers as to whether the pitches would be ready in time. But it was difficult to get any as his calls went unanswered.
An extra layer of complication was that Hackney had outsourced its bookings to Better, formerly known as GLL which runs sports facilities across the UK, and most of its staff had been furloughed, so there was no one to answer calls or take bookings. As the days ticked down it became apparent that we would be further frustrated.
On 8 July, the council’s parks operations manager emailed the league with bad news: “We are keen to get cricket taking place in the borough again. However, this has to take place safely and also factor in a number of wider issues that need to be considered. It is going to take a few weeks to prepare wickets etc for safe play. Therefore there will not be any play this weekend or next weekend.”
“The council is also reviewing which cricket pitches will be available for play and when, given the importance of the borough’s parks and green spaces to people’s wellbeing, especially in urban areas like Hackney where so many residents don’t have access to outside space and the parks have seen a huge increase in usage … I would ask for your patience over the coming weeks.”
But patience was already running low among the area’s cricketers, starved as we have been of play during three months of fantastic sunshine.
We had thought that, due to the fact we play at venues without pavilions, we might actually be able to get going quicker than bigger clubs. (The prime minister had identified the dangers of teas and pavilions as possible impediments to cricket’s return.) But we are at the mercy of councils having to conduct risk assessments and balance our needs against those of the wider community.
The social pressures are particularly acute at London Fields, a popular green space where cricket is known to have been played as early as 1802. During one weekend after lockdown was eased, police had to close the park entirely when it became overcrowded with revellers. There was uncertainty as to whether cricket would be allowed there at all this season.
Troy Utz, captain of London Fields CC, told me: “The vast majority of cricket teams I’ve spoken with are sympathetic to the difficulty the council faces with balancing their reaction to recent events that have disrespected the green space of London Fields. What’s hard to accept or understand is why stopping cricket is somehow a necessary step in combating the issue.
“The cricketing community are ambassadors for the park. We have great relationships with park staff and the council groundsman. The removal of cricket seems out of step with many current themes that broadly promote personal and community wellbeing: physical and mental health through sports and use of green space and community cohesion and respect through shared positive experiences; cricket in Hackney is a multi-racial, multi-faith affair.”
Similar issues have arisen in Hackney’s neighbouring boroughs of Islington and Tower Hamlets. On Sunday, Pacific CC had been due to play an intraclub match at our Wray Crescent ground – the only public-access cricket pitch in Islington – only to find our hopes dashed.
Like Hackney, Islington also cited public access issues, with parks busier than ever. An Islington council spokesperson said: “Islington’s cricket pitch on Wray Crescent is a vital resource for our residents, and the council is committed to reopening it safely as soon as possible. The council aims to have the pitch reopened in time for Saturday 18 July.”
In the absence of bookings being taken, ad-hoc matches have sprung up on artificial wickets in Hackney and Tower Hamlets as frustrated cricketers take matters into their own hands. Rangers in Victoria Park have broken up such games, citing the safety of other park users.
The Victoria Park league hoped that the council might be able to complete its risk assessments this week, but a council response to my query suggests a longer wait.
A spokesperson said: “We are aware that government guidelines have been relaxed. However, changes are subject to local authorities ensuring that amenities reopen only when it is safe to do so. We anticipate that we will be reopening our community cricket league facilities very soon, most likely within the next few weeks.”
Meanwhile, Hackney council has indicated a similarly slow timeframe: “We are currently preparing pitches and completing checks to ensure they are safe to play on, which, weather permitting, will take a minimum of two weeks. Cricket games will resume at Hackney Marshes, London Fields, Millfields and Springfield Park on specific days of the week from 25 July.”
It seems that London Fields will not be available at weekends, but only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So the North East London Cricket League is again hastily reformatting itself, trying to secure an alternative grass pitch and planning to play three groups of four teams before progressing to a finals stage so as to let a winning side emerge before summer slips away and autumn sets in.
And so the waiting game, and the uncertainty, continues. I wonder what Father Time would make of it all.