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Clouds hang over England’s tour to Australia as pandemic continues to disrupt cricket calendar

Hard on the heels of the decision by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to cancel the short tour by both its men’s and women’s teams to Pakistan in mid-October, it is now facing a barrage of tricky issues concerning the imminent men’s Ashes tour to Australia.

First is the pressure from the Australian authorities to ensure that the tour goes ahead. At stake is some $144 million in revenue.

The Australian cricket team has not played a Test match overseas since it toured England in 2019, having pulled out of a series against South Africa in April 2020. Over the same time, a team, missing a few players through injury or unavailability, has made short tours of England, New Zealand, the West Indies and Bangladesh, playing mainly T20 cricket, in preparation for next month’s T20 World Cup. In this context, a lack of income for its board and serious playing time for its elite cricketers are all too apparent.

Secondly, there is great uncertainty over the tour conditions that the Australian Government will allow. Some players are reluctant to commit themselves to the two-month long tour unless their families can accompany them. Others are seeking clarification about the strictness of the biosecure bubbles that will be imposed.

The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked his Australian counterpart if special allowances could be made, only for the latter to say that “there are no special deals there.”

Given the historical scale of cricketing rivalry between England and Australia, this is no surprise, as no favors will be shown to the touring party. In addition, the uncompromising approach adopted by the Australian authorities in dealing with the pandemic, that has seen borders largely closed to foreign visitors since March 2020, means that special treatment for families of visiting cricketers is unlikely to be politically popular.

Nonetheless, there are grounds for optimism. Australia has plans to reopen once 80 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. At current rates of progress this may be achieved “by Christmas at the latest,” according to one minister.

Thirdly, the schedule is yet to be finalized. This reflects the different approaches adopted by state governments and the different rates of infection. Sydney is expected to emerge from lockdown on Oct. 11, Melbourne on Oct. 26, followed by a gradual easing of restrictions. In Brisbane, where the Test series is scheduled to start on Dec. 8, the National Rugby League Final was due to be played in front of some 50,000 spectators on Sunday but a local outbreak of four COVID-19 cases had raised concerns and caused the Tasmanian cricket team to elect to fly home minutes before its match against Queensland was due to start.

A big doubt centers on the fifth Test scheduled for Perth on Jan. 14. The Western Australian government has a 14-day quarantine policy in place for all arrivals, leaving no scope between the end of the preceding match in Sydney on Jan. 9. In view of this febrile environment, England’s potential tourists remain uneasy. It should not be forgotten that the English players have been involved in more cricket and in-bubble biosecure conditions than most of their counterparts in other countries.

Fourthly, Cricket Australia has now provided the ECB with details of the proposed tour arrangements with the ECB. These will be shared with the players prior to Oct. 4, when they will be asked to clarify their availability. This is an action that was not even conducted in relation to the cancelled tour to Pakistan, according to the Team England Player Partnership that represents centrally contracted players. Already, one experienced player has declared his retirement from Test cricket, ahead of the deadline day.

Other younger or single players have signalled positive attitudes towards involvement. Both boards want the tour to proceed. Depending on the conditions offered by the Australians for quarantine and biosecurity and any yet unforeseen factors, the probability is that the tour will go ahead, but that England may be without some of its most experienced players. Involvement in a series against Australia is the pinnacle of cricket for most players and, for some, this may be their final chance and, for others, their first or only opportunity.

No doubt they will be hoping that the conditions will be different from those experienced by the Indian women’s party, which recently went through two weeks of lockdown in a Brisbane hotel, along with the Australian squad, all of whom were restricted to their rooms and were unable to meet or train.

The enthusiasm shown by the ECB for the tour is in stark contrast to that shown by them for the tour to Pakistan. This has generated much criticism from respected commentators and former players. In particular, the act is seen as a slap in the face of the Pakistanis who, unselfishly, toured England in mid-July, prior to the lifting of many of the pandemic-induced social restrictions, to play three T20 and ODI matches.

It has also generated feelings of a schism between the “Big Three” — India, Australia and England — and the other nine International Cricket Council Full Members, in that the three will prioritize a series between them within the context of a frantic international schedule that has been ravaged by the pandemic and political disturbances.

If these feelings are to be quashed then those holding the power in the game will need to show that they can marry appropriate responsibility to that power. This means acting for the benefit of all participating countries and players and not just for those who are able to enjoy the financial and commercial returns provided in the highest income-generating tournaments. On recent evidence, the omens for reducing this inequality are not good.

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