Slowly but surely, the Phoenix Park is returning to a variation on normal.
Michael D Higgins was spotted taking in an impromptu concert by members of the National Symphony Orchestra from the Áras garden at the start of the month, Dublin Zoo reopened its doors the next day and, while traffic is again clogging up its arteries, the sound of bat on ball is going some way to countering that particular noise pollution.
There have been deep fears expressed for the future of sport through this pandemic. No-one can doubt that it has been a fearful blow with long-term reverberations to come but our games, frivolities that they may be, have weathered all sorts of storms through modern times. The return to training this week of many of the country’s cricket clubs is testament to that.
“Through famine, through the Gaelic revival, through the First World War, War of Independence, Civil War, Second World War — or Emergency, or whatever you want to call it — through recessions and 2008 when we all fell off a cliff, this club has always been operating,” said Alan Maginnis, president of Phoenix Cricket Club. “And now this.”
The oldest club in the country, Phoenix has reopened for a type of business with players pitching up for their first training sessions yesterday since March. So did roughly two dozen others around the country, most of them in Leinster. More again are expected to follow in the coming days and weeks as Covid-19 protocol boxes are ticked — and sanitised.
Close to a hundred have completed the required online training courses.
These cricketers are, in effect, serving as willing guinea pigs for players in the other major team sports. The GAA have yet to reopen their grounds while amateur footballers and rugby players still await the green light from various government agencies, north and south, and their own ruling bodies before they can even think about donning a bib again or laying down a cone.
A club with somewhere between 250 and 300 members, Phoenix were able to lean on the expertise of those among them who had already attempted to counter the virus through safety protocols put in place via their day jobs. That knowledge base was quickly mobilised so that cricket could once again be heard on the shoulder of the park’s main thoroughfare, Chesterfield Avenue. They have 16 teams on their hands, all told, and as many Covid-19 officers trained. Yet, for all their advantages, Maginnis has no hesitation in describing the process involved in getting even this far as a complicated one. “It’s like a military operation,” he admitted.
Not every club has made it to the same page. Some are still struggling with the list of contents.
The checklist covers everything from cleaning guides to booking forms, the contact tracing process and how to go about training and coaching in the practise nets and on the field of play. “It’s very frustrating,” said Dave Ramsey in County Kerry CC. “Where will I start? I get the need for a lot of it but you wouldn’t [need to] be cleaning the stumps.”
For many of the 118 cricket clubs on the island, the list has been overwhelming and complicated by circumstances. Some play in public parks and on artificial creases. Many struggle to keep the club’s heartbeat going even in times when a global pandemic isn’t sweeping through the land and decimating everything from calendars to membership subs and sponsorship income.
Kerry have maybe 50 active members. Maybe. Bagenalstown CC in Carlow have a similar population. Kilkenny CC was formed only two years ago. They were anticipating a first ever league season having spent their first 12 months in existence playing friendlies and they lean on a core of 20 souls.
Bigger operations have struggled to cope too.
“Speaking to people from other clubs, especially some in Dublin, there is a lot of uncertainty as to whether they will actually go ahead with this phase,” says Robert Duggan, club captain with Cork County CC who are due to restart training tomorrow.
Cork County have trained up eight Covid-19 officers and seven assistants under guidelines set down by Cricket Ireland and Sport Ireland that are far tighter than those advocated by the HSE. So, while groups of 15 are allowed under the national plan, club cricketers will practise for now in one-to-one sessions and with all the sanitation and other safety rules that come with it.
Cricket pitches are wide open expanses but now balls and pads and even bails have to be cleaned before and after use. Pods of players have to be separated into endless sub-divisions and all this to hold training sessions that will proceed at a snail’s pace. It’s no wonder that some clubs will choose to sit this phase out. Or have to.
And that’s before people as individuals come into play.
Michael Dick, secretary in Bagenalstown CC, has played in games where the youngest participant was 11 years of age and the oldest was well into his 70s. “It’s such a wonderful blend of people,” he said, but where does that leave young and old in an age of cocooning and at a time when some still see kids as vectors?
“A lot of people, like myself, are getting comfortable operating in the environment but others have been in lockdown and are nervous coming out of it,” says Phoenix’s Maginnis. “We are very conscious about that and the need to ensure that everyone knows they are going to be safe.
“The fact is they will probably be even safer here than they would running or cycling in the rest of the Phoenix Park. We have a large space here to facilitate social distancing and all the other precautions like sanitisers and posters and access routes. That is all in place.”
The cricket season was just two weeks away when the country was launched into limbo. Bagenalstown were supposed to be packing their bags for a pre-season trip to Surrey, Phoenix were preparing to launch a new schools competition in the West Dublin area, and many clubs had plans to upgrade facilities. Worst of all, maybe, was that this was prime time for membership subs which have, understandably, nose-dived.
“It did have a significant impact,” says Kevin O’Sullivan at Cork County. “It came at the worst possible time for us because while we incur expenses over the winter we then try to flow our cash flow through April and May in particular. All of our subs come in between February and May.
“Most of our income from the cricket side of things comes in then so, from that point of view, we are not going to be able to replace that and expenses still exist from the winter. The knock-on impact will last for a number of years.”
We still don’t know what format the various leagues will take this summer and a plethora of other knots still need unravelling but days like yesterday, when the sun shone and those lucky few returned to the paddock after three months of inactivity and loss, make the effort worthwhile.
“A great day for a long-awaited return to cricket,” said Maginnis.