League cricket is back after lockdown misery

The final instalment of our lockdown sport series looks at the effects on village cricket and particularly on how one club coped with no matches at all last summer. Chris Waters reports.

Glad to be back: Woodlands captain Cieran Garner. Pictures: Tony Johnson

THE worst times were when the weather was nice.

Cieran Garner, captain of the Bradford League club Woodlands, would draw back the curtains on a Saturday morning and think to himself – “if only”.

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Along with club players up and down the country, the heart and soul of the summer game, Garner was left kicking his heels during what should have been the opening weeks and months of the 2020 season.

Ready to resume: Groundsman James Nixon prepares the pitch at Woodlands.

Although the action did get under way later in the year, in the form of a truncated eight-match tournament, Woodlands were one of a handful of clubs who chose not to play, mindful of the fact that many of their loyal volunteers are elderly and therefore more susceptible to the coronavirus.

“It was very strange last year, particularly when the weather was good,” says Garner.

“It was certainly difficult looking out at the nice weather in the morning and thinking, ‘Oh, this would be a lovely day for cricket’, when there wasn’t any cricket actually allowed.

“There were times in 2019 – and I imagine there’ll be times this year – when we’re going to wake up and open the curtains and it’s going to be miserable and we think to ourselves, ‘Here we go, cricket season’s here again!’

Remember this?: Woodlands celebrate winning the Bradford League after beating Undercliffe in 2019.

“But there were plenty of occasions last year when it seemed a perfect day for cricket, which only made it worse for cricketers everywhere.”

The mental inactivity, as much as the physical inertia, took its toll on recreational players across the country – and the men from Woodlands were no exception.

Garner was lucky; the man who led the club to a league and cup double in 2019, his first season at the helm, had something rather important to keep him occupied – he and his wife Rachel celebrated the birth of their daughter Dottie, a sister to Teddy, just before the first lockdown in March, 2020.

A little golf, when permitted, also passed the time, but there is nothing quite like the camaraderie of a cricket dressing room – particularly a dressing room as successful as Woodlands.

Groundsman James Nixon prepares the wicket at Woodlands Cricket Club in Oakenshaw (Picture: Tony Johnson)

Instead, Garner, who works for the Yorkshire Building Society, spent his leisure time changing nappies rather than changing his field, having impressed all with his leadership qualities after working his way up through the Woodlands ranks.

“Dottie was born a week before the official lockdown in March,” he says, “so it was a busy period for me anyway.

“The early part of what would have been the cricket season was filled with that, so it was a fairly hectic time and it would have been even more so had the cricket been on.

“I play golf as well, so later on I spent some time playing golf with some friends which I haven’t been able to do through however many years I’ve been playing cricket, which was a good way to stay socially connected.

“But from seeing your cricket pals week-in, week-out, training midweek and playing at the weekend, it was really quite different, and although we kept in touch via Zoom calls and arranged quizzes over them and what have you, it wasn’t the same as being physically together as a group.”

With Woodlands not playing last summer, some players temporarily turned out for different clubs. But they go into the new season with the same group that performed so strongly in 2019, with the Bradford League set to be as powerful and competitive as ever it was before the pandemic intervened.

“We had a couple of lads who took the decision to go out and play for local teams and go out on loan last year effectively,” says Garner.

“It was just to keep ticking over and to keep busy really –particularly the ones who I guess don’t have as much outside commitments as some of us older ones in terms of wives and families and what have you.

“For their own well-being and mental health, just to keep in the game was very important.”

It was a tough year, also, for cricket’s volunteers.

Those at Woodlands do a magnificent job and are the unsung heroes behind the scenes, and the last thing that the club wanted was to take a risk with anybody’s health.

“We didn’t play last year because of the Covid situation,” adds Garner. “We have a number of volunteers who are at an elderly age, and quite simply we wouldn’t have been able to function without the volunteers that help on a regular basis.

“Most would have been in that shielding category when Boris first did his guidelines and roadmap so to speak.

“It was just the safety and practicality of being able to get a match-day on, and the preparations around it, operating the facilities and basically being there on a regular basis.”

That at least gave Woodlands the chance to finish off some ground work.

The heatwave of 2018 led to large areas of their outfield being scorched, and there were further problems that winter with moss.

“We completed some work on our ground and it was an ideal opportunity to do that,” says Garner. “A few years ago we had the square refurbished, all dug up and levelled out, and a brand new square, and now we’ve re-laid the whole outfield.”

With the help of prudent financial management and government support, Woodlands have fought their way through the crisis along with their fellow clubs in the Bradford League and beyond.

“What we’ve been able to receive financially from the government support available to us has, I won’t say, completely compensated for the loss of income, but it’s gone a long way towards that,” explains club secretary Brian Pearson. “We’re very grateful for what the government has done for us, and the financial help that it’s given to clubs.”

With Woodlands missing out on cricket net and indoor football income, it has certainly been a challenge for Pearson and his colleagues.

But a tight-knit club with strong leadership throughout has weathered the storm and is looking forward to getting back to what it does best – playing good cricket, a welcome state of affairs not only for the players, but also for those whose weekends are enriched by their connection to the game.

“Whilst I’m a player and people are there to play cricket, clubs like ours are also big communities for local people,” says Garner.

“It’s the social aspect as well.

“My wife, for example, comes along with other wives and girlfriends and they spend their Saturdays there – not necessarily for the cricket, but to catch up with the girls, etcetera.

“Cricket matches, and cricket venues, are real social hubs and it’s important not just for the cricket side to be competitive and playing again, but just for people to get together in an outside social environment.”

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