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"I hear the doorbell ring, go to the door where I see the family standing 30 feet away” - Jason Gillespie speaks from isolation
Dizzy in isolation (photo: Jason Gillespie)

Like nearly everyone else around the world, Jason Gillespie’s plans have changed a bit over the last couple of weeks. On Thursday, the Sussex head coach should have been watching his team take the field for the first of their pre-season friendlies, with a productive tour to Cape Town under their belts and another cricket season to look forward to.

Instead, ‘Dizzy’ is back in Australia and into his fifth day of isolation following an unexpected and hurried retreat home. “In my personal situation it was decided that I would head back to Australia because clearly there wasn’t going to be much to do in Hove for the time being,” he explains. “I am under a self-isolation order by the government. I’m staying in my mum’s house and my mum has moved in with my family. So, I am on my own sitting in her place, which is just around the corner from mine.”

It's a surreal existence and one far removed from a busy county dressing room with its endless coming and going of players and coaches. “I get packages of supplies dropped off by my family. I hear the doorbell ring and go to the door where I see the family standing 30 feet away.”

For a notoriously sociable man and a loving husband and father, it’s a difficult way to live, but Dizzy is in no doubt about the importance of taking his isolation seriously. “We have to take these precautions, obviously, and listen to the advice of the experts. That’s exactly what we’re doing and certainly what I am adhering to because this is an unbelievably important issue.”

With no batsmen to chuck balls at or bowlers to mitt to, he’s passing the time in a variety of ways. “I’m slowly getting better at Scrabble on my iPad. I watched Tarzan today, the one that came out in 2016. I guess most people will have seen it, but I highly recommend it. I thought it was a great film. Otherwise, old Seinfeld and Friends re-runs. Mum’s got a little veggie patch that she’s making me water. Often, I’ll just have music on my iPad and just chill out, sit on the back porch and watch the world go by.”

Unsurprisingly for a fitness fanatic, Dizzy is also finding ways of staying active, however imperfect. “I’m trying to keep myself fit. I can’t go for a run, which is really disappointing me, but I’ve taken up jump rope.

“I’ve had a day off today though, because two days of hard skipping and my calves are absolutely killing me. I’m sleeping all different hours of the day because of jet lag, and when I get up, it’s as if I’m walking into the water at Hove beach across all the pebbles. That’s how it looks, because my calves are so sore it’s ‘Ow! Ow! Ow!’ with each step!

“Once I warm up a bit, I’m doing walks along the long corridor from the front door to the back veranda of mum’s two-bedroom house. It’s about 25 metres and I’m going up and down that to get my steps up for my Fitbit and to keep myself ticking over to stop myself from going insane.”

Working out how to look after ourselves properly is a challenge for everybody in this age of social distancing and Dizzy is doing his best. “I’m trying to rest and recover because I’ve done a fair bit of travel over the last few weeks. I’m a little bit worn down and tired. I’m eating well and I’m on about my tenth cup of green tea today – trying to get as many antioxidants into my body as I can and to look after myself as best I can.”

Those travels began just over a fortnight ago with a flight from Adelaide to Cape Town for Sussex’s pre-season tour. That was when the reality of the coronavirus situation began to dawn: “The first alarm bell for me came when getting the temperature test at Cape Town airport and seeing everyone in masks. Before that, I naively assumed this potential health issue would not be much more than a bad cold and we’d all just crack on and get on with it.

Despite the uncertainty and the thousands of miles separating them from their families, the squad stuck to their task as the tour got underway. “I have to give the players a lot of credit, they cracked on and just got on with the job of working hard on their skills and their fitness,” their head coach continues.

Cape Town

The calm before the storm: Sussex train in Cape Town before the tour was interrupted (photo: Jon Marrale)

“As the week went on, we were listening to all sorts of media reports about what was going on in the world and getting more information from back in the UK about the season and whether it would start on time.

“It became pretty clear on the Sunday [15th March, seven days into the tour] that the situation was escalating at a pretty quick rate and the advice was changing every hour. It got to a point where decisions had to be made. We gave it to the players to have a chat among themselves and they were unanimous that they weren’t comfortable in continuing and we as support staff fully backed that.”

Amid surging demand for flights, it was impossible to get everyone on the same flight back to the UK. The group decided that the non-British nationals in the party would leave first. At this stage, there had been no decision to delay the start of the season and with more and more countries closing their borders to foreigners, it was a genuine concern that Sussex would be without Gillespie, batting coach Jason Swift and bowler Mitch Claydon for an unspecified length of time.

Next to depart were those members of the party with young children at home and finally, after a couple more days in lockdown at their hotel, the rest of the party – minus Stiaan van Zyl and David Wiese who remained in their native South Africa - made it back to Hove. Of course, by that point Dizzy was on yet another flight and on his way back to Australia.

With the players and support staff now going nowhere and not seeing each other for the foreseeable future, their head coach gives an update on how everyone is adjusting to their new reality. “We’ve got our WhatsApp chat group and the boys are checking in on each other, which is really good,” he says. “Mat Spence [Sussex’s lead strength & conditioning coach] has set up a fitness group online which the lads are using to keep themselves in decent nick.

“But at the moment, it’s really important that the players focus on their families and themselves. While cricket is in the back of their minds – of course it is, they’re professional cricketers – first and foremost they’re family men. They’re brothers, they’re sons, they’re uncles, they’re parents. Those are their main jobs at the moment: to be there for their families.

“If we at Sussex can help in anyway, then we will, but there are more important things going on at the moment than cricket. We’ll start up cricket again at the appropriate time but now is not that time. Cricket isn’t the focus and the lads have got to show their own leadership in their own circles. For me that’s very, very important.”

And if and when the time for cricket does come later this summer, how does Dizzy see an abridged season playing out?

“That’s a long way away, but to speculate, if we were to get any cricket, I’m sensing – and like everyone else I’m only going by what I read in the press from journalists with their ear to the ground - that the shortest form competitions are going to be the priority.

“It’s hard to argue with that to be perfectly honest. As much as we love the Championship, the ECB are conscious of fitting as much cricket as they possibly can in whatever window there is. In such a shortened season, I just don’t know how you can have a four-day competition that is fair to each team.

“The only way it might work is if you completely moved away from the two-division model and had four divisions: play each other once and then have semi-finals and final perhaps.

That would be the only way you could fit it into six weeks or two months. But, as I said, if it came to it and we were looking at that sort of timeframe, I think the ECB would most likely prioritise shorter form cricket.”

He may be a long away from them currently, but Sussex supporters are still in Dizzy’s thoughts. “Stay safe and look after your circle of family and friends,” he implores. “Cricket will be back down the track but it’s not the priority right now. Let’s make sure our priority is our loved ones. Let’s get that right, ride this out and we’ll all see each other on the other side. Then we can start getting excited about cricket again.

“Follow the advice of the experts, which is very clear now. While it took a bit longer than it should have, decisive action has now been taken and I would ask everyone to take the advice of our leaders and our experts.

“Stay inside whenever you can and minimise the spread of this virus. It’s making people very sick and we need to do everything we can to stop that.”