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 Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport First Test - By Nick Hoult

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.

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