UAE's youth cricketers adjust to new normal upon return to training

It’s Just Cricket academy welcomed back players to the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence this week

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Six players per net, eight per coaching group, and batsmen using their own equipment? So far, so normal.

Dettol-spraying the stumps, wearing a face mask while bowling, and no high-fiving when taking a wicket? Less so.

Some of the new measures designed to allow cricketers to return to training after lockdown might take a little getting used to.

But, judged by the response to a return to nets at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence this week, the young players of the It’s Just Cricket academy are just grateful for the chance to be able to try.

“I really didn’t think we’d be going to get back into the nets and have some fun,” Christopher Woolley, a Dubai College schoolboy, said of the time spent in lockdown.

“It was really good to get back. It felt really strange bowling my first ball. Even though I’d been bowling at home, it wasn’t with a hard ball or at the same distance.

“It felt so weird, and I knew it would be a while before I could get back to where I was before. Even when I was batting, I felt like I hadn’t played in a long, long time.”

Aged 12, Woolley is one of the youngest players permitted to return to sports training, following the Dubai Sports Council regulations issued last week.

Participants under 12 and over 60 have to wait, as per the safety precautions designed to halt the spread of coronavirus.

Other guidelines from the Sports Council specific to cricket include “no spitting on the cricket ground” and “no use of sweat or saliva on the cricket ball,” as well as maintaining a two-metre gap to anyone else.

“Wearing the masks while bowling is quite a tough ask for kids, or anybody really, but they dealt with it really, really well,” said Sam Charnley, IJC's international director of cricket.

“We thought we would have more issued around reminding the players about social distancing, but they seemed to adhere to it really well and adapt to it.

“It is quite hot, but the kids don’t seem to have any issues with the masks.

“There is a slight communication difference, but overall there has been a real sense of enjoyment at being out there again, being with their friends, saying hello, and connecting with the teammates - at a distance.”

Usually, IJC have 12 venues for their cricket training. With the closure of schools, that is down to one – the nets at Jebel Ali.

There are other attendant challenges, too, such as the rising temperatures and the fact it is exam time.

There has been a real sense of enjoyment at being out there again, being with their friends, and connecting with the teammates - at a distance

As such, having a take up of 50 to 60 per cent of their usual numbers for their return to cricket is quite a feat.

“One of our members of staff used a really good analogy, saying it was like it had been raining and we had been left in the changing room not knowing when we’d be able to get out there,” Charnley said.

“We knew we’d be able to get out there – we just didn’t know when.

"It has been one long, rain-delayed match, and all the lads and the coaches couldn’t wait to get back out there.

“We have had some saying they are a little nervous, can they leave it for a week. We have had others say, no, they’re not coming back until they are sure it is absolutely safe.

“And others literally were not able to get the registration form back in quick enough, and were 20 minutes early for the lesson.”

The academy did their best to fill the cricket vacuum during lockdown.

They set fitness drills and modified skills tests remotely, while also conducted webinars with the likes of West Indies captain Jason Holder, and former England spinner Ashley Giles.

Great though the young academicians found that, it was no substitute for getting back out training together.

“I was so excited to some back to training sessions and do what we used to do,” Woolley said.

“[Not being able to high five, for example] was not particularly brilliant. We couldn’t come close to each other.

“We had to stay two metres apart at all times, and there was no contact.

"Even when we were getting the ball out of the net, we had to stay two metres away from the batsmen.

“It was really good, however, just being able to bowl and we had a good bat as well. I can’t wait to do it again.”