Covid Cricket – vaccine lyrical in the Summer of Love

Summertime will be a love-in there. (Scott McKenzie)

It was good to get a few games of cricket during the pandemic. (Note to self, possible opening line of a novel?) Forgoing a post-match shower and drink in return for officiating eight matches was an easy compromise. With a spring in my step I arrived oven ready for each of the assignments.

I was impressed with how the clubs ensured the safety of players, umpires and scorers before, during and after matches. The cricketing community pulled together to defeat the Covid invader and ensure pavilion bells rallied players and umpires to take up their positions on village greens.

Throughout the truncated season, an atmosphere of reconciliation over conflict prevailed. So good was the etiquette on and off the pitch,  I wondered if a passing spectator might actually be the editor of Debrett’s scouting for punters. And while I prefer the real deal of tension and attrition chronicled in most of these posts I am cognisant of American comedian Jackie Mason’s line: When you get a bill for twenty five thousand dollars from your heart surgeon, you are in no position to argue. And anyway it was good to have a few games of Gentlemen versus Gentlemen.

The additional new edicts for Covid Cricket included how batters should run between the wickets. It was obvious from the first over of the first game that the plan was not going to work. Persuading a batter whose Pavlovian trigger over the past ten, twenty and thirty years had been to run on the off side of the wicket and  suddenly requiring him to run on the leg side is like asking Mrs Umps to give up a Netflix rom-com so I can watch America’s Toughest Prisons (I would think twice before no-balling those guys). Resourceful batters who couldn’t kick the off-side trigger habit conformed by going very wide of the bowler. With the appropriate distancing achieved, by using this common-sense batting and umpiring approach there was no need for reports, fines, suspensions and other deterrents.

Sanitation breaks (which I announced as sanity break) were taken every six overs and it was good to see the batters and bowlers gel (I’ll get my blouson). Umps did not handle the ball; wicket-keepers did not rebuild the castle after a run out or stumping; at the fall of a wicket fielders settled for an elbow nudge rather than a high five; the post-match handshake resembled a masonic initiation ceremony and home clubs did not provide food or drink. I rather enjoyed not having a club tea – on Friday evenings I prepared a healthy alternative spread to the usual carbs feast (although I could not resist including a generous slice of Mrs Umps’ lemon drizzle).

For me the most positive aspect of Covid Cricket was not having to act as an on-field gentleman’s butler. We were instructed not to carry players’ items, passing this burden onto fielders who would balance their bowling colleague’s cap on top of their own and manage the other paraphernalia. A less than scientific estimate suggests it might have saved around ten minutes per innings in not having to go through a Laurel and Hardy routine of accommodating and returning sweaters, sun hats, caps and glasses.

The behaviour of players was exemplary during this cricketing summer of love. On one occasion, after coming off for rain and not going back, both captains displayed a consonance of mutual affection I had never previously encountered. There are a few players on the circuit who should put Picking fights in an empty room as a quality on their CVs but this season’s pandemic brought out the very best human traits in our charges. I found myself physically and spiritually liberated in this parallel cricketing universe where umpiring became an out-of-body experience. By the third Saturday I had swapped the blouson for a caftan and replaced my ball counter with six incense sticks. But I refused to say groovy when placing the bails onto the stumps.

With pavilions out of bounds (save for the lavatories) players got changed outside.  This gave us respite from the Glastonbury-like sound systems pumping out grunge  (the poison of musical choice that occupies contemporary cricket dressing rooms). If in years to come they take up umpiring, I would doubt the veracity of caught behind decisions after their ears have been pummeled by that racket.

What this summer has taught me is that you can take the sweaters and caps off the Umps, expect batters to run down a parallel street, sanitise hands with gel and not touch the ball. But whatever apocalyptic virus is sent to test humanity, League cricketers are hardwired to enjoy a pint or two after a game. So while no player entered the pavilion bar, post-match pails were ordered and quaffed outside. It was indeed a very British queue.

And despite the more genial vibe prevalent during Covid, a raging bull did occasionally crash through the pen to remind us what League cricket is, and indeed should be, all about. My favourite moment of the summer came on the penultimate Saturday. A heavily built quickie bowled a yorker which hit the batter on the front pad. The bowler’s humongous LBW appeal sounded and resembled an elephant’s orgasm, the stampeding frenzy continuing for a good few seconds after I turned it down. But the bowler eventually picked himself up from his begging position and as he walked past me he confirmed what myself, the wicket-keeper and the editor of Debrett’s already knew: Going down leg umps?

Now that’s more like it buddy. Great to have you back.