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England cricket and Covid-19 – Player welfare a priority for 2021, as WTC final at Lord’s remains on ECB agenda

The World Test Championship final could still form part of the 2021 English summer, after Tom Harrison, the chief executive, confirmed that the ECB had been asked by the ICC to “proceed as scheduled” with the planned showpiece event.

However, Harrison warned that the logistics for next year’s final, currently slated for June, remain hugely complex – including the preference for Lord’s as the host venue, and the complications of getting clearance for two potentially neutral teams to enter the UK if, as expected, the virus remains a factor in the new year.

“[Lord’s] is the home of cricket on an international level, and it certainly has a role to play in the positioning of Test cricket,” Harrison said. “But we are talking about a Covid environment, and when you put Covid into a negotiation like this, it changes everything.

“If you are taking part in that fixture and you have potentially two neutral teams playing a world final in the UK, I´m pretty sure you´d want to know you are safe and protected when it comes to the health environment you are heading into.”

A remarkable English season concluded at Edgbaston on Sunday with the Vitality Blast Finals Day, the final act of a summer that featured all 18 scheduled men’s internationals against West Indies, Pakistan, Ireland and Australia – an achievement which limited the ECB’s losses to £100 million from an original worst-case scenario of £380 million, and saved the sport, in Harrison’s words, from “financial oblivion”.

However, speaking to the media in a review of the season’s arrangements, Harrison and the ECB chief medical officer, Nick Peirce, warned that a repeat of this year’s bio-secure “bubbles” would be unrealistic for financial and mental-health reasons – with potential implications for India’s five-Test tour, scheduled to take place across a two-month period in July, August and early September.

Steve Elworthy, who masterminded this summer’s arrangements, and was last week hailed by Ian Watmore, the ECB chairman, as the man who “saved international cricket”, has already been tasked with forward planning for the 2021 season. But regardless of the arrangements for visiting teams, Harrison stated that the return of crowds to England’s venues, following a combined loss of more than 800 playing days across the professional game, was “fundamental” to keeping cricket sustainable going forward.

“You can’t just keep losing hundreds of millions of pounds without there being an impact,” Harrison said. “You look at the kind of impact that the EFL [English Football League] is suffering from not having match-day revenues, it’s not dissimilar from our county structure.

“We don’t have a bottomless pit of resources to tap into, to salvage businesses that are struggling through no fault of their own, but we’ll do whatever we can.”

The willingness, this summer, of England’s players and opponents to put up with their bio-secure surroundings was a key factor in the ECB’s successful fulfilment of its broadcasting commitments. But while Harrison was confident that India would not renege on such a lengthy tour in the midst of a pandemic, Pierce offered a more blunt assessment.

“There’s no chance of a five-Test India series with everyone being locked in the whole time,” Peirce said. “We saw there was a ceiling of probably three to four weeks. After that you need time out. 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.”

“We had people in hotel rooms for 90 to 100 days to deliver this, and I just don’t think that’s sustainable,” Elworthy added. “We now have time to plan a lot better, and get ourselves a summer that is more achievable from a people point of view.”

An addition overhead, Peirce noted, had been an expenditure of more than £1 million on Covid tests in and around England’s various bubbles.

“That’s not something we intended to keep going,” he said, “We intended to relax and eventually evaporate it, but we weren’t able to. The pandemic was that unpredictable.

“Next year it doesn’t look like we are going to be out of ‘virus in the community’ any time soon. But we want to get to a point where, ideally, we have no testing and if we do have testing, it’s more realistic in its cost.”

More immediately, England’s winter schedule remains up in the air, with Harrison stating that the board was prepared to “plan early and decide late” when it comes to their forthcoming tours of South Africa in December, and Sri Lanka and India in the new year.

Earlier this week, Bangladesh’s tour of Sri Lanka was postponed for a second time due to a disagreement over a mandatory 14-day quarantine period, and Harrison warned that the relationship between governments and boards in other cricketing nations were not necessarily as well developed as the ECB’s has become in the course of extensive talks with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) this year.

“Not everyone enjoys the collaborative relationship we have enjoyed with our government this year, in order to secure waivers for elite sportspeople coming into this country,” he said. “What I want to say is that we will not sign off plans that we are not comfortable with in terms of the health and wellbeing of our players and staff.”

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