THE Ageas Bowl perched at the top of the hill in the woods in Southampton is one of the most spectacular Test venues that I have been to and where I covered its first Test in 2011 against Sri Lanka. The picturesque ground hosted the first of the three Tests against the West Indies which the tourists won handsomely to stun hosts England, and will also be the venue for the Pakistan Test in August.

The ground presented a surreal look without crowd in the England-West Indies Test and with empty seats all round staring at the players who seemed to just go through the motions with no one to applaud their performance.

Of course, no spectators are allowed, keeping in mind the threat that this Covid-19 pandemic poses and which has caused deaths worldwide and continues to do so in some degree or the other round the globe. This is a situation in which precautions have to be taken to make sure of a bio-secure environment and for the venues to stage any event including sports.

That is exactly what the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) have been practically working on to ensure a safer outcome in the end. The visiting players, after their quarantine period is over, are accommodated for the series at the grounds which have lodgings in the hotels over the stands. Therefore, the Ageas Bowl and Old Trafford fit the requirements which allow the players of both teams to come out and play and then retire to their rooms after stumps.

This all sounds terrible to digest but in a situation the world is faced with, this is what the organisers have to adhere to and that is what they have been forced into doing and take unprecedented steps of not only keeping the spectators away but restrict the number of mediamen to get into the arena to report the event.

Since 1973-74, when I first started to enter the press box at cricket grounds in England, till 2019 I was never ever declined a media accreditation by the MCC and TCCB which is now ECB. However, a recent letter from them informing me the details of media accreditation and their apology for not allowing me or any visiting team’s journalist from the West Indies or Pakistan has bowled me out.

Not only that, here is another blow which obviously must have deprived many in England in this profession to earn a living through covering matches.

The ECB confirms the rumours which I had been hearing that only 12 journalists of England were given the accreditation which include UK national newspapers, Press Association (PA Agency), AFP, ESPN-Cricinfo and London Evening Standard.

Only four photographers are also in the frame due to agreement with News Media coalition.

In the past, there used to be no less than 70 to 80 media men in the press box including a number of freeloaders who managed to get in somehow. That will not be the case this summer at least.

“We are unable to offer accreditation to non-right broadcasters, additional freelancers and overseas media outlets including those nations who are touring England. And no one the ECB says has the right of appeal. We apologise for the inconvenience” wrote the ECB in the mail sent to me.

“The UK government and Public Health England in conjunction with ECB have grabbed 12 places only for all media outlets covering England cricket’s International season at our bio-secure venues. In collaboration of Cricket Writer’s Club (CWC) these places have been granted” it further said.

This indeed tells us the seriousness of it all that even myself, who is one of the 12 rare Honorary Life Members of the CWC in the last 74 years, have not been allowed to cover the Pakistan series. This is not a big deal for me and I don’t mind that if does in the end comes to a safer conclusion without any mishap.

I am not a stranger to such type of sports event. In fact in the last decade or so, I had been covering Tests in the UAE, sitting in the media box in near empty arenas at Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Only at Sharjah did we have some spectators in the ground, especially in limited over games.

The tedium of watching and covering such matches without many people in the crowd do gets you down, and I am sure it does leave similar effect on the minds of players playing in empty grounds now.

We can only hope that whatever the circumstances during the series against the West Indies or against Pakistan, the game or its participants are not harmed in any way in the end.

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2020

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