Some county clubs could be off furlough and back in training within days as preparations for the domestic season move up a gear.
With an August 1 start date looking more likely than ever, several clubs are keen to give their players – and their bowlers in particular – six weeks’ preparation time. Lancashire and Surrey, the only two clubs that did not put their players on furlough, are already training, with the likes of Worcestershire hoping to join them from June 22.
Other clubs, such as Somerset, are looking at bringing their players off furlough for July 1.
The next step is for the ECB to provide more guidance towards a return and confirm funding. Counties have already been paid all the money due from the ECB until the end of July. It is anticipated that in Wednesday’s chairmen’s meeting, confirmation will be provided of full funding until the end of the year. That meeting is also likely to see the counties given the go-ahead to return to training within appropriate health and safety guidelines.
With some players – particularly those who have pregnant partners – expressing concerns over the health implications of a return, it is likely an ‘opt in’ system will be operated. This will see all players who are prepared to play completing a questionnaire confirming their choice. It will be an ‘opt in’ rather than an ‘opt out’ system to minimise the sense that players are being coerced to return against their will. There will be no repercussions for those who do not return but, with contracts at stake and places to fight for, players will inevitably feel some pressure.
It also seems likely that players will be asked to return to training without the restoration of their full pay. In most cases, players have accepted a temporary 20 percent pay cut in recognition of the financial challenges currently facing the sport. While this policy will be reviewed in the coming weeks, there appears to be something of a consensus building that suggests the policy will continue for a little while yet. It could be changed if, as hoped, counties are able to welcome specators to their grounds when the Blast season begins at the end of August.
The exact shape of the domestic season remains unclear. While the PGG (Professional Game Group) remain keen on starting the season with four-day cricket – it seems certain several of the bigger clubs will play first-class cricket against one another come what may – logistical issues around the booking of hotels could yet see 50-over cricket as the first format to return.
It also seems increasingly likely that all 18 first-class counties will be involved. It would appear that those clubs which were reluctant to play have had a sharp reality check in recent days, with the ferocity of the response from the majority of their rivals leaving them under no illusions that, if they opted out now, they may find it hard to opt back in.
On Monday even Northants, perhaps the most reluctant of all to this point, released a statement in which their chief executive, Ray Payne, insisted he had “always” wanted “to play as much cricket as we can this year”. It seems pressure from players and supporters may have helped convince them.
Clubs remain hopeful that spectators will be allowed to watch games. With pubs and restaurants likely to open in some capacity from July 4, counties hope that by the time the T20 Blast season starts around 11 weeks from now, at least some ticket holders will be permitted to attend.