Northants gearing up for the return of cricket to the County Ground

At long last, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.

Thursday, 28th May 2020, 9:53 am
Updated Thursday, 28th May 2020, 9:54 am
The sun has been shining, but there has been no cricket at the County Ground

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, not a single ball has been bowled in the 2020 cricket season.

There has been the doomsday fear that the whole campaign, certainly in terms of domestic cricket, could be wiped out.

But as the UK slowly and surely starts to ease its way out of lockdown and hopefully starts to get on top of perhaps controlling the virus, there are signs that cricket will be played later this summer.

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Northants' Chief Medical Officer Bill Ribbans

Indeed, it is being reported by ESPNcricinfo that there will be a T20 competition staged in August and September, as well as a mini County Championship in a group format

At this moment in time, the Northants players are still on furlough and do not have a date for returning to training, but there were encouraging noises coming out of the club’s first online forum, which was broadcast last Thursday.

One of the members of the panel put together to answer supporters’ questions was Professor Bill Ribbans, who is the club’s Chief Medical Officer.

And he outlined exactly what plans the club have in place for making the County Ground a ‘bio-secure’ environment for players and staff.

The gates remain locked at the home of Northants - but there is hope they will be opened later in the summer

“The Government made it very clear from early on that all sport should be treated together, and that has really been to the advantage of cricket,” said Ribbans, when asked if there is a chance of the players returning to training in the near future.

“Most of the major team sports in this country have been negotiating with the Government and Public Health England, and fortunately the team that has been negotiating has been led by the Chief Medical Officer for the ECB (Nick Peirce).

“That has been very helpful for cricket, because the sport has been seen to be reasonable, well-informed and co-operative, and that has put cricket in a very good light.

“It has also been very useful for the first-class counties, such as Northants, because it has given us very early feedback.

The fixture boards at the County Ground remain blank

“I think where we are now, we as a county have got the advantages of being able to see what Premier League football is doing (with Project Restart), what the England cricket squad is doing, and we are watching and learning from all the things that may or may not be happening.

“In trying to get the boys back into training, I have to say the ECB has been incredibly supportive of all the first-class counties.

“We have had lots of meetings, and there are two meetings a week between the doctors and physios, some very extensive briefings that have been very helpful.

“Last week, the Government published its first set of guidelines on the return to training for all elite sport, and that was followed the day after by the ECB publishing a range of fairly weighty documents.

“What we are trying to do as a club is to take those various documents as a blueprint and then lay them on the County Ground, our facilities, our players and our staff.

“We are trying to develop these policies and risk assessments and it sounds a little bit complicated, but a lot of it is fairly common sense.

“Players are going to have to come in already changed, they are going to have to go home changed, they are going to have to bring their own water bottles in.

“We are getting advice on what the players can do with or without the ball, and we are having to look at toilet facilities and everything like that, and we are going through all of this with a fine tooth comb.

“All of sport has been encouraged to look at getting back to training and competition in five stages, and we are just at step one, very much at the base camp.

“There are inevitably financial considerations, and I am sure everybody has been reading about those.

“The ECB (who are planning to stage Test and ODIs behind closed doors) has spent £84,000 on two machines for the Hampshire Bowl and Old Trafford for testing, and it has been reported they are going to spend £100,000 on hand sanitisers for the proposed international series.

“We also know from what has happened with Premier League footballers, that as the boys return there are going to be positive results, it is inevitable throughout first-class cricket. We are going to have to develop policies for how we are going to deal with that.

“So we are bringing together sporting considerations, welfare considerations and economic considerations to bring training and sport back.

“But at the end of all that, I am convinced that for the County Ground and other places, we are going to construct a bio-secure environment that is going to be much safer than a supermarket, or most places of work.

“We know we can’t make it 100 per cent (safe) and we have got to take into account players’ and staff members’ views, but having worked through all the documentation and I am really convinced of that.”

Ribbans was then asked how long the players would need to get back into full cricket fitness, and he admitted that would vary.

“As for the players coming back, the final decision has to be with Adam (Rossington), John (Sadler), Rips (David Ripley) and Josh (Cobb) and about what they need,” he said.

“We know it is going to be a difference from position to position, and from the fast bowlers to the batters.

“The players have been able to maintain their general fitness, and now there is a need to bolt on sports specific fitness, and to reintroduce cricket skills.

“But we have to avoid injury by carefully ramping up the training.

“Professional football was still being played until the middle of March, but many of our cricketers have had no significant cricket since late September, and we really have to bring the boys back carefully.”

Ribbans also addressed the subject of Covid-19 testing for players once they are back training together - and on whether the players would have to social distance if the season does get started.

“The plan for cricket is that while the players are coming in for individualised training, they won’t have anything to do socially with any other players and there will be distance, then the advice we are getting from the science is that we don’t need to swab test,” said Ribbans.

“The moment we go into step two, which would be the players coming together in small groups for training, and we are still waiting for guidance on that, then that will be the moment we will have to swab test.

“But remember, those swab tests are coming on at somewhere around £100 a time, and all staff and all players have to be tested, and probably twice a week.”

And what about social distancing?

“A lot has been talked about the field positions, and even the umpires’ positions, and all sport, not only cricket, has been going through a careful analysis of how much time during games that players, from various sports, come together,” he said.

“We know that the closer you are and the more time you spend together then the greater your risk.

“But what we are trying to do is to reduce that risk as much as we can, by all the measures we are taking into account before the players even get into a competitive situation."