County cricket and COVID-19: the next steps, according to Rod Bransgrove

Rod Bransgrove

Rod Bransgrove is more heavily invested in finding a vaccine capable of fighting Covid-19 than most.

Firstly, he finds himself in a vulnerable age bracket and has spent the past six weeks holed up in his Winchester home making very occasional trips to the bottle bank at the local supermarket to ease the boredom. And secondly, his pharmaceutical company is one of the firms rushing to attempt to find an antidote to a disease that has brought the world to a standstill for much of 2020.

The CC initially caught up with Hampshire chairman to discuss the crisis facing the 18 counties who face paying a heavy price for the chaos wrought by the coronavirus, with the prospect of no cricket this summer looming large on an ever-more troubled horizon.

Bransgrove, though, has plenty else to occupy his mind, primarily finding a solution to a virus that no-one saw coming.

“One thing we’ve got wrong at the outset of the disease – and it’s a very virulent bug, a nasty bug that can hit people very badly – is that we were told most people would just get some flu-like symptoms,” he says.

“I’m not sure that’s quite true. Maybe a lot of people will but there are an awful lot of people going into hospital. There are still a large group of people who are still there and once you’re in there seems to be a 30% chance that you’re not coming out again.“That’s a huge percentage, that’s serious stuff. I don’t like those odds.

“I have a vaccine company and I’m seeing dates talked about but I don’t see anything happening any time soon. I think a vaccine is still a year away.”

Despite headlines to the contrary, it’s hard to argue with Bransgrove’s logic. This is, after all, a man who made his fortune in the pharmaceutical industry and someone who has, for the past 14 years, been heavily involved in attempting to find a universal vaccine against the flu virus in all its forms.

That puts into perspective the challenge facing those companies embarking on a race against time to save lives and prevent the world from slipping into the sort of economic depression not witnessed since the 1930s.

For those who have only known Bransgrove as one of county cricket’s most high-profile investors, the current crisis it also offers a window into his previous life.

“I was working for a multi-national company in the 1980s before I founded my own company,” he says. “In 1995, I think it was, I merged it with a local company here (in Hampshire), a company called Shire Laboratories, and then formed one big company called Shire Pharmaceuticals, which was listed on the stock market the next year.

“That was my pre-cricket days. That’s when I was sensible with my money and people could say I was actually quite a good businessman!

“There are plenty of companies coming out and saying that they have made significant breakthroughs when it comes to a vaccine but what happens in reality is that companies make these statements, it gives their share price a bit of a boost for a period time so they can invest more money in it.

“But I can’t see anyone really accelerating the process of development. We’re doing the same thing, we’re in the same race but it’s a long, long way. You have to do things sequentially. If there are nasty side-effects during the testing process you have to take a step-back. I can’t really believe some of the things I’m hearing in relation to acceleration.

“We have been developing a universal flu job for 14 years – that’s how long it takes to take these things through a clinical process.

“You can probably develop a vaccine in five years in normal circumstances but if you’re doing something that we’re attempting (with the flu virus) then things get more complicated.”

“I have a vaccine company and I’m seeing dates talked about but I don’t see anything happening any time soon. I think a vaccine is still a year away.”

Things could hardly be more complex for the 18 counties at the current time. With hundreds of cricketers in furlough, kicking their heels at home when they would ordinarily be beginning their County Championship season, the future has rarely, if ever, looked so uncertain.

That goes double for Hampshire, with the county’s hotel and golf course also shutdown at a time of year when business would be ordinarily ramping up alongside improvements in the weather.

“There are a lot of county members out there wondering what on earth they’re going to do this summer,” he says. “I’ve got people writing to me because they need an outlet, they need to talk about cricket to someone because there’s nothing on the television, nothing on the radio. No live action anywhere.

“It’s very hard for the players as well. These are guys who are with their mates for a large proportion of their lives. We’ve got the manager (Adi Birrell) over here and he’s in constant contact with them. They all have daily programmes for their fitness but that’s all they can do for a period of time.

“They know we all want them to be able to hit the ground running if we have a short-route to playing again, so we’re just doing the best we can under the circumstances.

“We’ve got 350 other staff furloughed in the stadium and the hotel, so everybody is keen that we can get started again.

“But we also have to be mindful that start-up costs are going to be very high as well. We’ll re-open the hotel with no capacity, considering then when we closed it we had been enjoying 90% plus capacity during the week.

“That’s going to be a big cash flow burden and all these things have to be calculated. We just really need to get going as soon as possible.”

There is a growing acceptance that this unprecedented storm will impact the county game for a period of time that will extend well beyond the end of his season, whenever that may be.

Just beginning the 2021 season with 18 counties on the start-line would be seen a qualified triumph in some circles. Playing staff may also be trimmed considerably to reflect this new financial reality.

“I think it was likely that the number of players was going to reduce over the next few years, I think that was likely anyway,” he says. “As much as anything, this was a result of the new PCA (Professional Cricketers Association) contract. There’s one thing increasing the benefit for cricket players but, as a knock-on effect, this tends to knock people off the bottom end.

“People coming into the sport will be more rigorously examined before they’re given a chance. I think counties will have slightly smaller staff within three years as a consequence. This particular year, I think there will be a wash-through effect that will run into next season.

Counties will still be licking their wounds after the financial imposition of this year. Hopefully full recovery won’t take too long, although central distribution (of money by the ECB) will also be hit because we can’t fulfil our international obligations.”

A vaccine against Covid-19 is a rapid work in process. Finding a remedy for county cricket’s financial problems could take a good while longer.