Nine months on from the suspension of competitive university sport nationwide, I caught up with Team Sunderland cricket coach, Ivor Harkin, to see what kind of an impact had been placed upon his players through a lack of match days, coaching and training, as well as finding out how he plans to return his team to action.
With national lockdowns and social distancing making it harder for the nation to stay physically healthy and emotionally satisfied, we asked Harkin what the effects have been on his players.
“I think that the initial feeling was frustration early this year. We had for the first time in several years a team that were training together, had good spirit, enjoyed the game, were willing to play the game for the sheer enjoyment but also there was a quiet confidence the indoor season was merely a springboard to the outdoor season.
“The frustration was magnified in that matches against local clubs had been planned and discussed with a view to providing a pre-season avenue to both blood and test new players but also to select a BUCS squad.
“The challenge of taking on Northumbria and Newcastle University also provided a frisson as for the first time there is a depth to the squad and there are potentially sufficient players in the offing to provide two Team Sunderland teams.
“So, emotionally I think the training was enjoyed by all and the kinship and camaraderie lightened the mood and gave everyone a chance to focus on playing the game, enjoy it purely as an expression of escapism from the spectre that has hung over everyone through lockdown.”
With no competitive sport being played at university level since the initial lockdown in March, and only a few weeks of outdoor training in October before the second lockdown put a halt to that, I queried Harkin over when he believes university sport will return, with no guidance from BUCS thus far.
“I suspect due to the nature of cricket where social distancing is almost part and parcel of the sport, save for a wicket keeper standing up to the stumps or a slips cordon, it should be possible to play outdoors when weather permits.
“The regulations supplied by the ECB were clearly displayed in England’s televised matches over the summer and were replicated at local level with players cleaning hands regularly. I suspect that university cricket outdoors will happen in 2021 but may still be controlled by the same distancing rules that currently exist.
“In truth I cannot see how indoor matches can take place due to the continued risk without herd immunity or immunisation of the full student cohort.”
When, university sport does return after its seemingly eternal absence, I questioned Harkin on how he plans to return to action.
He said: “The ideal scenario would be to have 6-8 weeks of indoor training with a number of net sessions before interacting in preseason friendlies with local clubs.
“Several of the players in the University of Sunderland team play for 1st or 2nd teams locally and they are keen to either play a mix & match team in shortened games on their home grounds and this would be a phenomenal way to get the season off to a great start.
“Then to take on some of the local Universities or even play a ‘possible’ v ‘probable’ match to confirm players for the BUCS team. The ambition here has to be not only to look at this year but to build a sustainable cricket team that extends also with the addition of a ladies’ team.”
He assured me that despite the obvious changes to sporting life, it has had no effect on the teams ambitions, which are as follows:
• To build on the idea that when students come to University of Sunderland they are both happy and willing to play for the university
• Climbing the BUCS rankings would be the focus over a number of years
All things considered; Harkin is optimistic about 2021 and hopes that the area can continue its tradition of producing excellent cricket players.