It’s time for common sense, crowds should be allowed at local cricket and all grassroots sport

In a utopian cricketing world, both the club and interprovincial game in Northern Ireland would attract spectators in their thousands.

Saturday, 8th May 2021, 7:31 am
Updated Saturday, 8th May 2021, 8:27 am

Imagine the atmosphere and sense of occasion if Waringstown against North Down, Carrickfergus against Muckamore or the Northern Knights against the North West Warriors was played against a backdrop of packed stands.

We all know the reality is somewhat different, to put it mildly. Crowds at club cricket matches have been declining for years since the halcyon days of the 1980s when my childhood recollections are of supporters packed three or four deep around the boundary at Downpatrick for Challenge Cup finals.

As for interprovincials, there is an argument (sadly) that no one has ever watched them anyway, despite the quality of cricket not being in dispute over recent years.

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Graham Hume of North West Warriors playes a shot past Leinster Lightning wicketkeeper Lorcan Tucker during the Inter-Provincial Cup 2021 match between Leinster Lightning and North West Warriors at Pembroke Cricket Club in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

These days, with just the odd exception, attendances for senior club matches are often in two figures, with several hundred if you’re lucky for cup finals and the odd Twenty20 Friday night cup match. For anyone who has watched interprovincial matches on live streams in the past, you could often have passed the time by playing a game of spot the spectator.

That’s what makes it so absurd that spectators are officially not allowed to attend the start of the club season in both the North West and NCU today.

Stringent rules that ban fans from international football matches, or big county GAA fixtures, where thousands pack into grounds, and travel on trains and buses, are simply not relevant to local cricket. Irish League football is also a completely separate argument, even if I believe crowds should be returning there now too.

There are few sports where spectators are able to space out as easily as cricket. With access to pavilions off limits, it couldn’t be easier for people to socially distance around the ground while enjoying a much-needed afternoon of cricket. Remember we are talking about many older people who have been through a winter of isolation, Many of them will now have received both Covid vaccination jabs and are desperate to spend a few hours watching the sport they love in the open air.

But no, there is no word on spectators being allowed through the gates of grounds, even though in the last week we have seen around 900 plus pack (indoors) into the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield to watch the final of the World Snooker Championships. Then there was the small matter of the 5,000 who attended a rock concert fronted by the band Blossoms in Liverpool, while in the same city 3,000 people packed into a dancefloor for a rave.

Then we come to the glaring inconsistencies within Stormont’s rules and regulations regarding the return of sport.

While “no spectators” are allowed to watch any sport in Northern Ireland (no date is earmarked for their return), clubs are, oddly, still permitted to have a maximum of 100 people in their grounds.

As one official at a local cricket club messaged me upon reading the regulations, it looks like clubs will have a lot of Covid-19 officers, assistant coaches, Duckworth-Lewis operators and medical support staff at the ground for the beginning of the season.

Many clubs also have hospitality facilities and the regulations permit those to be open to people during matches, provided, presumably, those enjoying a drink or a bite to eat are not “spectators” - Keep your back turned to the action in the hospitality area and all will be fine.

No-one is suggesting that we are ready to open the gates to thousands of spectators from today. But there comes a time when the relative size of the crowds has to be taken into account. We are back again to the absurdity of last summer when the season started with those inside the grounds bunched together while large swathes of the boundary remained empty. I was even reduced to watching the first game at The Lawn from a neighbouring building site.

• I’m not to make any grand predictions about the destination of silverware in the NCU, except to say that CIYMS will once again be the team to beat in the major competitions.

The reigning champions should be as strong as ever, while North Down, their closest rivals in 2020, will be weakened by the departure of Ruhan Pretorius to a Woodvale side who will also be including Waringstown’s all-time leading run-scorer James Hall.

Speaking of Waringstown, and the villagers will be starting the season without both Hall and the left-arm spinner Gary Kidd for the first time in two decades. Kidd has insisted he will not play this summer, while not officially retiring.

You would think Waringstown will need big contributions from their two arrivals, the South African professional Andre Malan and all-rounder Graham Hume.

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Alistair Bushe