Manchester: The Old Trafford cricket ground is spearheading plans in England to try to bring fans back into a sports venue during the coronavirus pandemic.
Lancashire Cricket Club chief executive Daniel Gidney believes social distancing can be applied in their 26,000-seat ground to allow in at least 2,000 fans.
Not only are mass gatherings still banned by the government, but sports teams aren't allowed to play or train together. A cricket season that was due to start in April won't begin until July at the earliest.
"I'm hopeful that we can get some domestic cricket away in the back end of August and September, at least behind closed doors, but possibly even with some small crowds," said. "Sometimes you can get into this negative box. And when I'm being positive, I'm not being reckless or saying things that can't happen from a safety perspective."
Gidney's plan for the northwest England cricket ground could form a template that facilitates the return of much-needed revenue from fans attending sports venues. Taiwan is hoping up to 1,000 spectators will be allowed to attend baseball games from July.
"We could have domestic cricket with 2,000-3,000 people in with seats separated out in the stadium, Perspex barriers on counters," Gidney said in an interview by video link. "There are ways that we can make a sanitised, smaller crowd, domestic cricket environment possible at the back end of the year based on the current trajectories that we're looking at from the science and the infection rate keeping down.
"As long as the infection rate continues to drop, then I believe that we should be able to get some form of domestic cricket back and hopefully with some small crowds."
Financial successes last year for Lancashire help to ease the financial burden caused by the shutdown of sport, and the conference and event business in the hotel adjacent to the cricket ground.
Lancashire reported a record turnover of 34 million pounds ($42 million) and net profit of 2 million pounds in 2019, with half generated from staging Cricket World Cup matches, and a test in England's Ashes series against Australia. Cash reserves are at 1.7 million pounds, while liabilities have dropped below 500,000 pounds.
Lancashire is hoping the presence of a 150-bed Hilton Garden Inn on site will also facilitate the return of international cricket this summer by creating a bubble the players don't leave once they have been tested for the coronavirus.
"If you're negative, you go into the bubble," Gidney said. "Then, in theory, it's a bit like going to lockdown with your family and over a period of time, as long as you don't step outside of the bubble, then that's possibly as safe as you can be."
The club is still waiting to learn whether it will receive England tests this year against the West Indies and Pakistan. The England and Wales Cricket Board want them to be hosted in "bio-secure" environments, without elaborating so far.
Pakistan captain Babar Azam is still keen to play matches in England in July and August.
"The environment needs to be safe and secure as no event or match is bigger than life," Azam said on a media call. "My family will be more worried than me but if the PCB (Pakistan Cricket Board) tells me that it's safe to go, I will definitely travel."
Britain has Europe's highest known virus death toll - around 35,000 - as well as the most confirmed cases.
"If people are scared and worried about COVID-19, they will naturally be nervous travelling into a territory that has one of the highest reported cases and casualties," Azam said. "But, on the other side of the coin, I completely understand and accept normal services also need to resume.
"The difficult decision for the administrators is what is the right time to resume sport activities. Also, we still need to know what guidelines the UK government will provide in terms of foreigners' travel and quarantine."