When Surrey play Middlesex in the County Championship this week, it will be the first time this summer that members have come to the Kia Oval to watch their side play. Since last week, tickets have been on sale to buy a lunch package for the first three days of the game, which will allow them to eat and drink on the roof terrace at the top of the JM Finn Stand, sitting in the sun while they settle into the rhythms of early-season county cricket.
The catch? The game is being played at Lord’s, and Surrey’s members will be watching via Middlesex’s live stream on the big screens across London. It is a bizarre situation: fans are allowed into The Oval to watch an away fixture, and were sat on the terrace to watch the squad train ahead of the game against Leicestershire last week, but are locked out on matchdays for the next month.
“It does look strange,” Richard Gould, Surrey’s chief executive, told ESPNcricinfo. “It is very frustrating in this part of the lockdown. Supporters are coming in on non-matchdays to use the balcony, have lunch, and watch the players train, but they’re not allowed to come back the next day – even in small numbers.
“We have two elements of control upon us: our entertainment licence, and our safety certificate. It was explained to us that on a matchday, it’s our safety certificate that takes precedence, not our licence, which means that we’re not allowed to bring any supporters in on matchdays.”
The result is that while pubs, restaurants and “non-essential” shops have started to open their doors again in England, county cricket will remain behind closed doors for the next month.
“We’ve got our eye on the prize, which is 25% [capacity] back from mid-May – which is helpful but not sustainable – and then from June 21, we’re expecting 100% crowds,” Gould said. “We’re not rocking the boat in these early stages. We know we can get the games on safely and then have every confidence that sport will get unlocked with the rest of the economy – hopefully, in line with the timetable already set out.”
The next important date on the government’s roadmap out of lockdown is May 17 – or May 20 for counties, when the seventh round of Championship fixtures begin. Surrey have already sold tickets for their reverse fixture against Middlesex that day, when the attendance will be capped at 4,300.
Social-distancing protocols will be in place, meaning spectators will not have to have their temperature tested on arrival or provide a negative test result or proof of vaccination. The game will be broadcast live on Sky Sports, and should be the first marquee event of the English season.
Following that, counties’ focus is on June 21, two weeks into the T20 Blast season. If targets continue to be met, that date will see all legal limits on social contact lifted, which Gould hopes will allow Surrey to welcome sellout crowds to their home games on June 21, 23 and 25. Further down the line, The Oval is due to host two England internationals – an ODI against Sri Lanka on July 1 and a Test against India from September 2 – and the club are hopeful that both will be full houses.
“People are expecting that they’re going to be able to come to games – not just here, but up and down the country,” Gould said. “From the data we see, things seem to be absolutely on course. What we want to make sure is that if the rest of the economy is opening up, then we open up too.
“There have been some rumours that they’ll want to keep sports stadia at numbers below 100% and operate on a different timeline. Those are discussions that we’ve caught second-hand, but we hope that’s not the case: it would be extremely inconsistent with the way the rest of the country is being able to get on with the rest of its business: jumping on a train, going into the office, or going to a pub or club.”
The success of Surrey’s three pilot events last summer – track-and-trace data confirmed that there was not a single instance of transmission at The Oval – means that Gould is “confident we can put the procedures in place to allow that to happen”, even if vaccination passports or face-masks are required.
“There’s some talk about the passport process and I think that could be an additional mitigation that would help us get to that 100% mark,” he said. “There are lots of other methods as well, including people wearing a mask.
“By June 21, 60% of the population or maybe even more will have had a jab, and if you look at the millions of lateral flow tests being done every day, you can see that individuals are taking responsibility for themselves. In the end, we’re going to have to trust them, and I have no doubt that we’ll be able to do that.”
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98