English cricket is braced for inevitable Covid disruption and is in damage limitation mode with outbreaks expected during the India Test series and the Hundred.
Tom Harrison, the England & Wales Cricket Board’s chief executive, has said reimposing a strict bio-bubble on the players is unrealistic and the game will have to “find a way through” after it was confirmed on Thursday that two members of the India squad, including wicket-keeper Rishabh Pant, had tested positive for Covid. It follows county matches being called off for Covid and England having to pick an entirely new squad for the ODIs against Pakistan.
Cricket chiefs are gripped by the fear of Covid hitting the Hundred and have difficult decisions to make over the next few days about the participation of Test stars such as Ben Stokes, Joe Root and Jos Buttler.
The ECB is desperate for them to add star quality to the opening matches following a spate of withdrawals by overseas players but travelling around the country for Hundred games will inevitably expose them to more risk before the first India Test on August 4.
“Our intention at the moment is to play five full Tests versus India, and to continue to deliver the Hundred,” said Harrison. “We have 16 teams operating for 36 matches each, there’s a lot of cricket to get through and it’s too much to hope for that we won’t have any Covid infections through that period of time and between now and the middle of August we’ve got a key risk period.
“We’re doing everything we can within the context of player health and well-being, enabling us to live life with this virus. There are risks and we are doing what we can to mitigate those risks. I can’t say they don’t exist because they do.”
The Covid pandemic delayed the Hundred’s launch by 12 months and the latest wave is threatening to engulf the competition again. Harrison sounded exasperated at a briefing ostensibly about the Hundred on Thursday but inevitably overshadowed by Covid. “Trying to guess what it (the next crisis) might be, I’ve given up…there’s always something different we’ve never thought of,” he said.
The Hundred starts next week with the eight teams gathering at the weekend before the first matches.
The India team are in Durham at the start of their tour but are without Pant and net bowler Dayanand Garani, after they returned positive tests.
The Hundred starts next week
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
The India players have had a 20-day break since the end of the World Test Championship final with some, including Pant, attending Euro 2020 matches and Wimbledon in that time. They are all now fully vaccinated and will undergo more rounds of PCR testing and take daily lateral flow tests. At the moment there is no sense the India team are overly concerned about rising infection rates in the UK.
Last summer the England players were locked away for weeks at the Ageas Bowl and Emirates Old Trafford, unable to leave the hotels as a strict bio-bubble kept out the virus but took its toll on the team.
Many have since lived in bubbles on tour and at the IPL. Concerns over mental health are so high that the ECB dropped using the word ‘bio-bubble’ because of negative connotations. They players were given more freedom this summer but three tested positive and only emerged from isolation on Tuesday. Another player involved in the original squad for the ODIs has subsequently tested positive as well.
Without the strict bio-restrictions in place there is a greater risk of Covid infections and while England were able to rustle up a very effective third XI in white-ball cricket to play Pakistan, there is nowhere near the same depth in the longer form.
“We don’t want to be closeting players in such a way that it feels like the only role they play in their lives is to bat and bowl for whatever team they play for,” said Harrison. “That’s a bad place for us to be. We have to understand what it is to be a responsible employer, to get the best back from players.
“That’s by treating them as adults, that’s by talking and communicating openly about how we best mitigate the impacts of this ongoing pandemic. The reality is for international players that this is just the next stage. After this there’ll be another stage and another one. Then the Bangladesh tour, then the Pakistan one, then the World Cup, then the Ashes.
“There’s a sense that this conveyor belt just keeps going. We have to be able to offer the players that ability to be mentally fresh and that means operating with the protocols in a way that delivers both of those things. That means accepting some risk but in return getting the full support of players, the buy-in, the understanding that you are putting their interests first and finding ways to cope.”
The counties appear determined to go ahead with the Royal London Cup at the moment but some have warned privately they may have to call on club cricketers if they are hit by a Covid outbreak and have players self-isolating. Derbyshire currently have 13 players self-isolating after a positive case. There is a PCA meeting with county representatives on Friday to discuss the situation.
The ECB had hoped for special exemption from self-isolation before the rules change nationally on August 16 for vaccinated people but it appears unlikely. “The reality is that the guidelines are set down by PHE so we don’t have the ability to create new guidance just for cricket that isn’t sanctioned by PHE or central government," said Harrison.