Anyone for a game: England’s other footballers will play their World Cup quarter-final on Saturday
“Get The Game On” is the name of the campaign devised by the ECB to aid the survival of amateur cricket clubs up and down the country. But they may have an insurmountable task getting sides to turn out for Saturday afternoon’s league fixtures as leagues grapple with the worst headache imaginable – a clash with England’s World Cup quarter-final against Sweden.
England’s first-ever victory in a World Cup penalty shoot-out, to win their last-16 tie against Colombia, has brought a rare surge of patriotic fervour. This might not be the most star-studded England side (not yet anyway), but their singular optimism has caught the nation’s mood. When there has supposedly even been a rush to buy waistcoasts – a fashion preferred by their manager, Gareth Southgate – then something is clearly afoot.
League officials, often famed for their inflexibility, are grappling with how to respond. An insistence that the games go ahead at the normal time would be bound to bring a rush of conceded matches as clubs fail to raise an XI, never mind a good one. Whatever the solution, defunct membership lists stretching back decades will be rooted out from the backs of cupboards, and football-deniers plied with beer – and an offer to bat in the top six.
Recreational cricket has long since had to contend with dropouts for the flimsiest of reasons. Never mind the routine explanations such as holidays or family illness. Every captain has their favourite story of players who pull out because the lawn needs cutting, a furniture delivery is expected, or my own favourite, “I seem to have woken up on a stag weekend in Amsterdam”.
It takes strength of character to phone up a possible player on a Friday night, only to hear him in the background advising his wife: “Tell the fool I’m out.”
There are some amateur cricketers, of course, who have no interest in football, or who affect to despise it. One cricket journalist looking forward to his weekly fix has tweeted morbidly: “League cricket making contingency for breakfast starts so players can still watch afternoon football on Saturday. There goes that bit of sanctuary…”
At the last time of checking, it had gained 0 replies, 0 retweets and 0 likes, as if the whole of Twitter was afraid to intrude on his grief.
As clubs fold, leagues amalgamate, and the ECB works to stem the decline, whether it be through its excellent All Stars scheme for juniors, or attempts to grow participation in the inner cities, taking on the England football team might be an ask too far.
TV viewing figures for England’s dramatic win over Colombia were an estimated 23 million and pubs, bars and open-air viewing areas were packed. That is the biggest outbreak of national pride since a few million more watched the opening and closing ceremonies in the 2012 London Olympics.
A country where millions have routinely felt excluded by, or uncomfortable with, excessive displays of patriotism, has again found, perhaps only briefly, a sense of national identity. Respected newspaper columnists, entering a world they are unfamilar with, write ill-advised columns calling for bigger goals. Arguments rage over whether England represent Brexit or Remain (Remain clearly, not sure why anyone should ask). The size of Harry Maguire’s head has become the stuff of polite conversation.
Even getting teams on to the field is only half the battle. If the match does go ahead at the normal time and, approaching 6pm, England find themselves in yet another penalty shootout, woe betide the umpires who refuse to suspend the match. This captain once had little choice but to set four third men, close to the nearest radio, while England lost on penalties. And, to make it even more unseemly, I was one of them.
Many leagues, in a welcome show of pragmatism, are seeking to be flexible, offering a range of options if both clubs can agree. These include a change of date, or a tea interval lasting more than two hours (favoured by the Airedale and Wharfedale League, north of Leeds). An early start has also been mooted, although a mid-afternoon kick-off for England in the south-western city of Samara, where Stalin’s bunker is now an underground museum, would mean the first ball would be bowled at some godforsaken time like 9am. There is a heatwave in England, so the pitches are dry and could cope, but Friday night drinking or Saturday morning working are common and it’s hard enough to get people to turn up in time for 1.30pm.
Some authorities are folding their arms. The Greater Manchester League has ruled that fixtures will go on as planned “to ensure the smooth running of the league” and urged: “GET THE GAME ON”.
It might take more than Caps Lock to pull this one off.