'It’s another step towards normality': county cricket returns to action in England after coronavirus lockdown

Friendly between Surrey and Middlesex is part of trial to see how live sports events can be staged in shadow of Covid-19

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Even a scattering of morning rain and the ominous sign of covers on the central pitch at London’s Kia Oval couldn’t dampen spirits, as spectators finally returned to a sports ground for the first time after months of lockdown in the UK.

“You get used to a bit of rain,” chuckles Surrey County Cricket Club chief executive Richard Gould, whose team is hosting the match.

The two-day friendly between Surrey and Middlesex is part of a trial to see how live sports events can be staged after mass gatherings in the UK were banned in March as Covid-19 tightened its grip on the country.

Although the day may have been gloomy – with the floodlights already on at 12.30pm in late-July – cheers rang around a cricket ground for the first time since last year as Surrey took their first wicket, a diving catch at slip, after play was delayed by half an hour.

Some 1800 Surrey supporters and 200 Middlesex members – after around 10,000 applications – are the lucky few to witness the gradual return of sport over the two days.

Only parts of the ground are open to spectators, who are asked to follow social distancing measures in the stands.

On arrival, masked security staff greet people, temperatures are taken and multiple handwash stations leave no illusion of how precarious the situation remains.

Toilets are checked regularly, the doors are wiped down and the presence of government officials suggest this is more than just a friendly between local rivals.

The players and staff themselves face even stricter measures and are situated on the other side of the ground to the spectators.

Looking back at 2019, Gould says things could hardly be any more different to now as the club is entrusted with kicking off the spectator sport season.

"This time last year we were hosting World Cup matches and Ashes Test matches. We had a great summer and we were hoping this was going to be another good summer building on the work of last season," he told The National.

“Here we are in this part of the year and we’re hosting our first game in front of a 1,000 people. It’s a slow start but we’re excited.”

For many it’s also a sign of a semblance of normality returning to a city that has been among the hardest hit by the pandemic.

“It’s great,” says John Phelan. “Quite often I go to county games. [I’m] very pleased. It’s another step towards normality, isn’t it.”

The government-enforced lockdown and restrictions have meant things have “been boring,” according to Phelan.

“You can’t go on holiday, there are some things you can’t do and I’m glad things are getting back,” he said.

The task of holding the game is perhaps even more remarkable because it is in the usually rammed London, one of the cities worst affected by the pandemic in Europe.

From the Legends Lounge, close to the famed Oval Gasholder, London’s finance centre dominates the skyline as tall apartment blocks loom close by.

More than 90 per cent of fans travel to The Kia Oval by public transport and the ground in southwest London is surrounded by residential areas.

Gould, the chief executive, says there are challenges posed by the location but important lessons have been learned, which will help moving forward.

“We were really pleased to be selected. There’s also a responsibility because we need to make sure we get it right and we can help accelerate the process rather than delay it.”