The ECB have stated player well-being will not be compromised this winter and admit all winter tours are up in the air as they assess the challenges of touring in a Covid-19 world.
England’s men are expected to go to Sri Lanka at the start of January for two Tests followed by a tour of India. However the former has seen a series with Bangladesh scrapped after the two governing bodies could not agree on quarantine rules, which requires those arriving into Sri Lanka to observe a strict 14 day isolation. India, meanwhile, has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world.
After a summer which saw the men take on West Indies, Ireland, Pakistan and Australia, and England’s women close out the international season with Twenty20s against West Indies women, the England and Wales Cricket Board are keen to pay forward the generosity of touring.
However, in a briefing on Monday, chief executive Tom Harrison stated talks with respective boards will have cricketers at the forefront of any agreements. They are currently involved in talks with Sri Lanka Cricket and the BCCI, along with Cricket South Africa, who expect to host the men for the ODI tour next month, and New Zealand Cricket who will host the women for matches at the start of 2021.
One stumbling block beyond safety assurances around travel, venues and accomodation will be the required quarantine period, which varies from county to country. At the time of writing, Sri Lanka’s 14-day ruling has no exemption for elite athletes, though that could change given SLC can argue an England tour, even without the usual travelling support, will benefit the economy.
“What what is very clear is that the challenges are very, very different depending on who you're talking to with respect to relationships between government and the board being in a very different state in every case,” said Harrison. “And not everyone enjoys the very collaborative relationship that we've had with government over this year in order to secure for example waivers for visas for elite sports people coming into this country
“We will not sign off plans that we are not comfortable with in terms of that number one priority which is the health and well being of our players and staff going on those tours.”
Another aspect of concern is the mental toll on those stuck in a bubble for extended periods of time. One of the takeaways from the bio-secure bubbles in Southampton, Manchester and Derby was how taxing it became for those involved, not just the players but backroom and staff required to put matches on.
Even England’s cricketers who had an easier situation than those from abroad found it taxing, with limited overs captain Eoin Morgan noting at the end of the summer that the emotional welfare of those in the bubble is “something we will have to stay on top of” as that set-up become part of the new normal.
It is something Nick Peirce, chief medical officer of the ECB, is wary of, not least because the demands and scale of quarantine will be heightened for England given there are over half-a-million confirmed cases in the United Kingdom and over 42,000 deaths.
“What will be difficult is if we end up with endless bubbles for everyone to have to constantly stay in,” said Pierce. “I don’t think from a well-being point of view that’s good, but more importantly I don’t think what’s helpful will be imposed long quarantines or unknown ways in which a government will handle a positive test or people who have come from a perceived higher risk country. And unfortunately Britain is escalating in terms of the way it is perceived as a risk.”
In the long-term, the governing body are already mapping out what the 2021 season will look like, with a view to reducing the costs incurred to get international and professional cricket played in line with government guidelines. By salvaging the majority of the broadcast schedule, the ECB were able to ensure losses of “only” £100m this summer. But the outlay was great, including £1million spent on 10,000 test - an amount deemed “not feasible for ourselves or any other sport in the long term” by Steve Elworthy, director of events at the ECB.
Elworthy, who was not only involved in putting together the summer’s bio-secure environments but also spent time living in the bubble, believes restrictions can ease next year, provided Covid-19 in the community is not as prevalent as it is now. And with a lucrative five-Test India tour due next summer, along with the final of the ICC Test Championship, there is a sense a more relaxed approach, with time out of the bubble factored in, will the more amenable to all parties.
“There's no chance of a five-Test india series and everyone being locked in the whole time,” he said. “We saw there was a ceiling of probably three to four weeks. After that you need time out.
“It is quite onerous to be in there for periods of time. We've had people in there for 90 days, 100 days in hotel rooms, delivering this and I just don't think that's sustainable.”
“We need to understand how, even if we need to do those environments. If we could get away with moving away from those bubble environments we really would, that's how most of us see the future going forward.”