Payne 'very confident' supporters will be able to watch the Steelbacks in 2021
Northants chief executive Ray Payne is 'very confident' supporters will be allowed to return to the County Ground to watch live cricket this summer.
County fans have not been able to watch their team at Wantage Road since September, 2019, with the entirety of what was a shortened 2020 campaign played behind closed doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Northants are scheduled to begin their LV= Insurance County Championship campaign with a home game against Kent on April 8.
And although Payne feels that fixture and the ones that immediately follow it may come too soon to open the gates, he is hopeful cricket clubs will get the green light to allow fans back in by the time the Vitality T20 Blast starts in June.
Covid-19 is very much still with us, and the country is currently in a national lockdown.
But with the vaccination programme continuing at a very encouraging pace, the general consensus is that things may start to return to some sort of normal by the spring, and definitely by the summer.
And that would be great news for Northants and for Payne, who can't wait to welcome the sport-starved Northants supporters back to the County Ground.
"The return of crowds this year is so important to the club," said the chief executive.
"We need those supporters back, because cricket being played out to empty houses is no good for anybody.
"I remain hopeful, but if I am honest I don't know if we will be able to have crowds in for April 8 when we are due to face Kent, but I don't think it will be long after the first few games that we will be able to bring some crowds in.
"Our T20 starts in June, so it is all planning ahead for that.
"What the level of capacity will be is for us to manage really, but we will aim, as long as it is safe, to get as many people into the ground as we can.
"What's really encouraging has been the interest from supporters and season-ticket holders to come back and see some live sport."
And he added: "I would like to think in terms of a timeline that we are past the worst.
"The vaccination roll-out is ongoing and I am very confident that this summer we will have crowds back."
Friday morning saw the announcement of the Vitality Blast T20 and Royal London One Day Cup fixtures for 2021, with the Steelbacks opening their North Division T20 campaign with three home games in the space of four days from June 11.
They open up against Worcestershire Rapids on Friday, June 11, before hosting champions Notts Outlaws on the Sunday (June 13) and then Birminham Bears on the Tuesday night (June 15).
They have four further home games in the Blast, and then four home fixtures in July and August in the Royal London Cup, which returns to the schedule this summer having been cancelled in 2020.
The Steelbacks have been drawn in Group B.
In both the T20 and 50-over competitions, the top four in both nine-team sections qualifies for the quarter-finals.