Jason Gillespie didn’t expect to be spending the opening weeks of the English cricket season back home in South Australia. However, he’s far from the only person involved in cricket feeling displaced as we roll into May and Hove, like every other ground in county cricket, sits as deserted as Brighton beach just a couple of miles down the coast.
The CC catches up with Gillespie in a week that has seen New Zealand declare itself Covid-19 free and Australia on an up-tick that has seen South Australia record no fresh cases over the past six days. It’s a stark contrast to the situation facing the country that Gillespie has called home for the majority of summers since signing for Yorkshire in 2006.
Sussex by the sea has rarely seemed so distant, although he’s fully aware of one of the driest April’s in recent memory here in England.
“It was always going to be wasn’t it, you couldn’t make this stuff up,” he says, as the rain, ironically, falls outside his Normanville home.
Gillespie has been a fixture of the county season for well over a decade – a constant and consistently refreshing presence, as a player with Yorkshire, Glamorgan and then as a coach at the former, Kent and Sussex.
Just when he’ll reappear this season, however, remains in doubt. Particularly given global flight restrictions and the current uncertainty over when, or if, the county season will begin.
“When will people be able to travel between countries again? That’s certainly applicable to myself,” he says. “A lot of counties have cancelled the contracts of overseas players and we’re in the same boat. There’s so much uncertainty and so many unknowns. Our intention is to have Travis Head for next year, for the 2021 season, and we’re hoping that he’s going to be a long-term feature at Sussex.
“He’ll be part of Sussex moving forward from next year. I think all clubs are thinking we’ll get whatever cricket we can this year, if any, and then focus on overseas recruits from next season. We’re pretty much all in the same boat.
“The more immediate thing is the waiting and what the season will look like if it gets underway at all. I want to know what we’re going to do for those players who are in the final year of their contracts.
“For any player in the county system, if their contract is expiring at the end of 2020 then they haven’t had the opportunity to showcase their skills to get a contract extension.
“It’s pretty hard work to release someone at the end of a season when they haven’t had any opportunity. At the end of the day, we won’t know what’s going on next year for a while yet – are budgets going to be different for counties? I don’t know the answer to that, that’s going to be something that’s down to the directors of cricket and the boards to make those decisions.
“Is the player payment pool going to be smaller? There are so many unknowns at the moment that it’s hard to speculate. I think the intention will be that all players, where at all possible, will be retained. That’s my understanding. I would hope that would be the intention. But gee-whizz, that’s going to be a challenge. There are unknowns everywhere. There’s going to be a big hole in cricket’s finances.”
That situation is one of many key considerations that counties will have to manage in the coming months. Another will be a rather more prosaic one – namely ensuring that coaches like Gillespie can travel safely from countries like Australia, after he returned there at breakneck speed as borders began closing around the world back in March.
“I left Australia on March 8 and went straight to Cape Town via Dubai,” he says. “We got some training in and had the first day of a practice game until it became pretty clear that things were moving fast. It was decided in the best interests of everyone that we end the tour and try and get home as quickly as possible.
“I had got on an earlier flight (back to the UK) with our batting coach Jason Swift as we’re not British passport holders. There was actually a bit of uncertainty over whether we would be able to get back in the country. I got back on the Wednesday morning and went and had a coffee and a chat with Rob Andrew (the Sussex CEO) who was keeping us uptodate every couple of hours.
“I went back to the flat; I had just got the keys for the summer but by Thursday everything had changed again. We had a discussion and it was decided that the best thing for me was to just get back home rather than staying in the UK on my own.
“I managed to get a flight direct into Adelaide. I had two weeks of isolation here before linking up with my family.”
Staying at his mum’s house, just 500m from his own, Gillespie was able to sit in his backyard and talk to his children, while his wife left bags of groceries at the backdoor for him to pick up. As far as cricket season kick-offs went, it was far stranger than any he’s likely to experience.
“It was an interesting time, even if I couldn’t give the kids a hug,” he says. “I certainly haven’t had it tough, don’t get me wrong. Just a bit of cabin fever when I’m used to being out and about and pounding the pavement. There was so much news around at the time that just keeping up with that was almost a full-time job.”
Gillespie’s period of isolation ended shortly before Sussex’s first scheduled match of the season against Durham at Hove – a ground that also found itself in perfect isolation into May, leaving county devotees with an enormous hole that no 5pm government briefing could fill.
“It’s heartbreaking, it really is,” says Gillespie. “We have a lot of members who are retired or semi-retired and a big part of their life is coming down to Hove and socialise at the cricket. To not have that means a huge part of that life is missing.”
Gillespie will hope it can be restored at the earliest opportunity.