No atmosphere, no fans but Ageas Bowl passes biggest test
Previously overlooked venue left no stone unturned after stepping in to host the first international of Covid-19 era
The clearest indication that life was very different at the Ageas Bowl yesterday was that Rod Bransgrove was not allowed to go into the Rod Bransgrove Pavilion.
Bransgrove was one of around 280 people allowed into the ground, but his pass did not permit entry to the pavilion that bears his name because it was deemed part of the “inner zone” for players and officials only.
But Bransgrove, the Hampshire chairman whose vision and money built this ground, was delighted to abide by the rules and watch the game from the Shane Warne Stand with a sense of pride that weeks of work by his staff and the England and Wales Cricket Board had come to fruition. Bransgrove hopes this is the start of a new relationship for the Ageas Bowl with international cricket, and that stepping in along with Emirates Old Trafford to save the summer – and around £80million in broadcast fees – will be rewarded in the future.
This has been a mutually beneficial arrangement of course. The Ageas Bowl, with its on-site hotel, made biosecurity easier to guarantee than at a big city ground, and by block booking the otherwise empty Hilton, the ECB has pumped business into a county that Bransgrove said was losing “a couple of million pounds a month” in lockdown.
This is the first of three Tests at a ground that had hosted only three in the past nine years and was passed over in favour of the traditional venues when the last fixture allocation took place two years ago.
Now it occupies an unusual place in cricket history as the venue for the first Test match in England to be played under Covid-19 restrictions, and part of a blueprint for other boards to follow. The biggest worry for Bransgrove was that someone would fall ill with Covid-19 symptoms, and questions would be asked about whether something, somewhere, had been overlooked.
It was nearly provided by Ben Stokes and Jason Holder. The West Indies captain automatically stuck out a hand for a handshake after the toss, Stokes realised and offered a fist bump instead. “Sanitise those hands quick,” said Ian Ward on Sky.
After the toss and interviews, the microphones held by the players were cleaned with disinfectant wipes and they put their masks back on. There were six hand-sanitiser stations dotted around the boundary, just behind the advertising boards, and masks were obligatory for those not on the field. The ground staff and third umpire wore masks as they stood in the rain.
The day felt very much like a practice match on an England tour. No spectators, no food vendors or bars and the voices of the players on the field carrying across the empty stands.
The Boundary Bar at the northern end was shuttered, the adverts on the outside for Greene King
IPA a reminder of what a day at Test cricket in the sunshine is normally about.
The concourse that is normally bustling was, instead, storage for the groundsman’s equipment and for the operator of the Sky Sports drone, who parked up his van and had a perfect view of the ground.
The England team huddle was all conducted under social-distancing guidelines. The quietly spoken Alastair Cook or Joe Root would have struggled to have been heard by 25 people standing two metres apart, but Stokes’s message got through, given the applause of the players following his short speech.
Right down to the little red dots stuck above plug sockets, light switches and door handles to show the cleaners they are “heavy touch points” that needed an extra wipe of disinfectant, it felt as though no stone had been left unturned. The ECB has confirmed that all Tests this summer will be played under strict rules and some of those will no doubt stay with us for a long time. It could be a while before Bransgrove can walk back
into his pavilion.
From James Anderson in Sky’s ‘diary room’ to a masked Mark Wood it was a pre-match unlike any seen before. Ben Stokes held his post-toss interview via a robot camera, having joined the England players wearing training shirts with key workers’ names on. A minute’s silence for Covid victims and Sir Everton Weekes was observed. Earlier Joe Root introduced a new baby to the world.