The Playfair Annual 2021
A year ago, just before the book went to press, I had to rewrite portions of the Foreword as it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to have a dramatic impact on events during the season ahead. Sadly, with the official UK death toll passing 125,000 today, its effects were seen far beyond the cricket fields of our nation and continue to be felt by all of us. This time, we approach the summer with greater hope, as the success of the vaccination roll-out suggests we might return to something closer to normality as the season progresses.
But we’re not fully there as yet. The County Championship, with LV= returning as sponsors, is a hybrid of group games, play-offs and a final to decide who will get to lift the Bob Willis Trophy. For the first time, the Royal London One-Day Cup is to be run alongside the ECB’s new tournament, The Hundred, leaving the counties deprived of more than a hundred of their top players. I wrote at length about The Hundred in my Foreword two years ago, and don’t propose to go over old ground again now, but these aren’t propitious times to launch a new format.
However, this is no time to be fighting old battles. After losing so much action – at professional and amateur levels – last summer, the biggest challenge cricket has is to get people to re-engage. There will be nervousness felt by some fans when it comes to going to matches, so grounds have a duty to prepare well for letting the crowds back in and to explain clearly what they have done to make things safe for everyone. Players should also do what they can to interact positively with the supporters; their livelihoods depend on an enthused fanbase, and winning people back has never been more vital. When the opportunity arises, I urge all readers to make an extra effort this summer to watch a game in person, whether at Test level or supporting your local club side. We all lost the rhythm of playing and watching in 2020, and we need to get back into those good habits in 2021.
This year is a huge one for the England team. After their chastening experience in India, the men’s team will face up to New Zealand and India in Test series this summer. The two touring sides are currently ranked the best in the world and will also meet in the final of the ICC World Championship – the idea has not yet fully captured the imagination, but it seems a useful step towards ensuring that Test cricket is always meaningful. In a TikTok world, a game that can last for five days has its work cut out to prove its relevance. After the season is over, England then travel to India for the T20 World Cup followed by the Ashes, so it will be a challenging, exciting winter.
We hope that our cover star, Zak Crawley, will further flourish in the Test arena, building on the enormous promise shown by his innings of 267 against Pakistan last summer. Like so many, despite the echoing emptiness of the grounds, he showed true professionalism and skill when it might have been easy to let performance levels dip. Fortunately, he is surrounded by three Test-cap centurions in James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Joe Root who consistently show the attributes required to build a long and successful career. At various times in recent months, each of them has stepped up to deliver remarkable performances, and all three are on the cusp of new landmarks: Anderson needs six wickets to move ahead of Anil Kumble into third place in the leading Test wicket-takers, Broad needs just three to move into third place among fast bowlers, and Root requires one more victory to become the England captain with most wins. I look forward to seeing all those landmarks passed this summer. But most importantly of all, I can’t wait for the crowds to return and for the cricket nets and grounds to be the hives of activity they should be throughout the summer.
Eastbourne, 11 March 2021