Cricket must act to combat heat and sooner than had been expected

After all the jokes about climate breakdown warming up the chilly north of England – suddenly it wasn’t so funny any more. A young Durham bowler being forced off the field at the Riverside by the fierce heat on his ODI debut wasn’t on anyone’s bingo card, but that was Matthew Potts’s lot on Tuesday – as the UK spoiled and burned under its hottest day in history.

Potts managed four overs before he left the field as the mercury hit 37C at Chester-le-Street in the first ODI between England and South Africa – hoping to return, but not, apart from a brief innings of four balls in the game’s dying moments. In order to keep the show on the road, the players were offered regular drinks breaks, accompanied by wet towels, ice packs and parasols. Off the field, it was a similar story.

The Riverside is an open ground – with relatively low-level stands unfurled like hibiscus flowers and overlooked by Lumley castle. There is very little protection from the elements and on Tuesday, as the heat grew more relentless, spectators left the stands in droves searching for respite.

Durham did what they could, opening up air-conditioned rooms to those suffering, but many fans gave up and went home. The club were forced to set up extra water stations as the queues for the existing ones stretched round the ground and such was the concern about player and spectator safety that the ECB and Durham had to consider calling off the match. In the wider north-east, sporadic wildfires spread and the nearby Durham University weather station recorded a temperature of 36.9C, four degrees hotter than the previous record set in 2019.

Away from Chester-le-Street, in the County Championship, four clubs took up the ECB’s offer of reduced playing hours: Gloucestershire and Hampshire and Northamptonshire and Lancashire, who played three sessions of 90 minutes, finishing early. Around the country, spectators stayed away and MCC members were allowed to remove their jackets – but not their ties.

“It sort of reminds me a bit of playing in Dubai or Abu Dhabi or something like that,” said the Northants captain, Will Young, at the 150th Cheltenham festival. “Like a really dry heat with that hot wind coming across the ground.”

Three years ago, the Hit for Six report warned about the effects of the climate crisis on cricket. It so shocked the late Shane Warne when it was presented to him, as a member of the MCC’s cricket committee, that he spoke out about the dangers.

Hit for Six warned particularly of the dangers of increasing heat. Experiments at the University of Portsmouth found that a professional batter generated the same amount of heat as someone running at 8kmh – over a day, that’s similar to running a marathon in gloves, helmet and pads.

The protective equipment, which helps protect batters from snorting bouncers, makes him or her particularly vulnerable to the heat – because at about 33-35C, when the air temperature is higher than the skin temperature, only sweat can stop the body heating up, and that ability is restricted by heavy clothing – plus high humidity.

Concentration and decision making also deteriorates in extreme heat, affecting players and umpires – whose split-second raising – or not – of the finger, affects the course of the game.

One of the headline suggestions in 2019 was that players might wear need to wear shorts to allow them to sweat more easily, but the urgent call to arms was of a duty of care – to players, especially children, and to spectators who often, as in Durham, watch at grounds not set up for a heating world.

The report also touches on possible clashes over water, between human need and recreational use. These clashes are already here: in 2016, a Mumbai high court ruled against the BCCI and ordered IPL games moved away from Maharashtra, where there was a severe drought and crop failures.

Last week, it was reported that the Australia captain, Pat Cummins, who this year set up Cricket for Climate, had organised a summit in Sydney to look at how the game could urgently reduce its carbon footprint.

About the same time, at Gloucestershire, as part of a series of talks on climate change and cricket, Dr Russell Seymour, the chief executive of BASIS, was being asked about the morality of continuing to play international cricket in a climate emergency. Proffered suggestions included that, in the future, tour games might be shown at home stadiums via virtual reality to prevent spectators travelling.

Four years after Cricket Australia announced a cricket heat policy, the ECB are working on their own version – as part of a game-wide sustainability strategy, which will launch in 2023.

At the end of this month they also hope to launch a new guide on energy saving for recreational clubs, together with the county grants fund available for climate breakdown initiatives, in an effort to help clubs cut usage and possibly crippling winter bills.

Meanwhile, as the temperatures in the UK dropped rapidly, a report from India and Pakistan found that temperatures during the spring heatwave were consistently 3C to 8C above average, with multiple regions suffering temperatures of 49C in late April.

The heat is coming to cricket. It is just that no one expected it so soon.